The Cricket on the Hearth Op 62 [11'38]
Benedictus Op 37 No 3 [8'48]
This recording of wonderfully theatrical orchestral music by Scottish composer Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1847–1945) revived an unfairly neglected composer’s profile when first issued in 1995. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins are on top form in these colourful showpieces, from the tuneful good cheer of The Cricket on the Hearth overture and the soaringly lovely Benedictus, to the characterful incidental music for two Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and Coriolanus, as well as the Burns-inspired Second Scottish Rhapsody. This reissue on Helios is certain to introduce a new audience to Mackenzie’s irresistibly tuneful sound world.
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When a composer such as Sir Alexander Mackenzie drops out of the repertoire, revival tends to send people in search of influences in order to identify the newly discovered phenomenon. At a distance of a century and more, these identifications are frequently mistaken. Mackenzie’s work has been pardoned for being Elgarian. In fact, not unnaturally, it was the younger Elgar who was Mackenzian: ‘My meeting with the great man was the event of my musical life’, wrote Elgar in 1931 in an article as fulsome in its praise of Mackenzie’s music as of his influence as conductor, teacher and administrator, referring to him as ‘the revered head of our art in this country’. The praise was thoroughly deserved.
Mackenzie (1847–1935) was the son of a distinguished Edinburgh violinist and composer who died when Mackenzie was only ten years old and already studying music in Sondershausen, Germany. There, at the age of eleven, he was appointed as a second violinist to the ducal orchestra which at that time (1858) was one of the earliest proponents of the works of Liszt and Wagner. When Mackenzie moved to London in 1862 a scholarship enabled him to study at the Royal Academy of Music, though he continued playing in Boucicault’s Westminster Theatre, and later as piano accompanist at the Strand Musicke Hall where he learnt to transpose at sight and vamp for tunes that, according to the vocalist, went ‘tum-ti-tum’.
In 1865 he returned to Edinburgh, taking on many teaching and performing engagements as well as being Precentor in St George’s, famous for the quality of its singing since the days of R A Smith and John Thomson. But the pressure was too much and in 1879 he left with wife and daughter for Florence and a career as a composer. There, among many works, he produced his masterpiece, the oratorio The Rose of Sharon. However, in 1888 he was persuaded to accept the post of Principal of the Royal Academy of Music and there he remained until his retiral in 1924. The distinction with which he served that institution, while continuing to conduct and compose, is simply expressed in the words of Elgar: ‘Here he identified himself with everything that was great and good.’
As an administrator, Mackenzie perhaps eclipsed himself as a composer. But it is in the latter capacity that he should now be remembered. His gift of melody is outstanding; his handling of thematic transformation is as deft as his orchestration. He can mould large as well as small forms, the two concertos being worthy of a permanent place in the repertoire, and his music, though clearly born in the Brahms-Wagner era, is his own whether in Scottish idiom or no. Mackenzie was undoubtedly much loved and admired. Hans von Bülow was a regular promoter of his music. Liszt thought highly of him as conductor and composer. Stanford, in dedicating his Interludes to him, enclosed with it a letter of warmth and appreciation such as few people have the fortune to receive. Even when Mackenzie was very old and dying, and to some extent forgotten, he was not forgotten by Elgar who repaid many a musical debt by sending, now and again, a basket of flowers and fruit from his own garden. The following year he was trying to get Mackenzie’s superb violin concerto revived: ‘Sarasate played it—in 1883 or 1884—and I should love to hear it again.’ (The concerto is recorded on.) Mackenzie was also respected for his musico-dramatic skills, and Lewis Caroll wrote to him in 1883 offering him Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass for operetta treatment, saying, ‘I have heard enough of your work to feel sure for myself that you are a genuine and original musician to whom I may with confidence commit the task’. On the basis of Mackenzie’s delightful handling of The Cricket on the Hearth, it is a thousand pities that in the end Lewis Caroll found himself unable to adapt his own work for the stage.
In bringing a small proportion of Mackenzie’s music into the limelight once more, this recording provides an opportunity not only to enjoy his immediately appealing style, but also to study the subtleties, variety and originality of a composer absolutely central to the revival of music-making in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although a generation later than Dickens, there is a strongly Dickensian element in Mackenzie. As a student, Mackenzie once ‘stalked him closely from Oxford Street to Wardour Street, and noted that—probably in search of material for the concoction of those queer names he loved—his attention was concentrated on the signboards. A waistcoat of assertively reddish hue also impressed me.’
Like Dickens in his writing, Mackenzie in his composing uses a richly sensual vocabulary and has a sense of nobility that never loses touch with wit and good humour. They also shared a quality of sentiment of which, a century later, we tend to be fearful, confining it to Christmas. Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth is undoubtedly a sentimental tale but, being a Christmas story, we need not be ashamed of enjoying it or Mackenzie’s obviously delighted response to it:
I regret to say that I have to spend my holidays writing three lectures … a job which I loathe as waste of time … all the more unpalatable, as I am anxious to get at a little three-act opera ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ which is much more to my taste and in my line.
Though full of bonhomie and with as happy an ending as could be wished for, the story is motivated by the insidious and dark passion of sexual jealousy. It is the cricket on the hearth as a symbol of domestic content that effects the magical cure. Its cheerful, insistent chirping reminds the elderly carrier, John, of his love for his much younger wife and leads him to forgive her supposed infidelity before the truth of her innocence is known to him. Mackenzie’s operetta was written ‘con e per l’amore’. The vocal score was published in Leipzig in 1901 and the overture was premiered in London in 1902, but the simultaneous appearance of a setting by Goldmark postponed Mackenzie’s chance of a production, the first being at the Royal Academy of Music in 1914. Goldmark’s setting was described tersely by the impresario Augustus Harris, who protested, ‘There isn’t any cricket, and the hearth is a German stove!’. Mackenzie makes good these deficiencies with an overture as bright as it is warm, and calling for a ‘cricket instrument’, kindly adding ‘ad lib’ to a request not easily fulfilled but duly honoured on this recording. John the Carrier’s whip also features, and the overture starts with a marvellous evocation of a kettle coming to the boil, the first line of the story being, ‘The kettle began it!’. At a party to celebrate the production, Mackenzie’s students presented him with a silver kettle pouring forth steam in the form of liquid oxygen.
Following the kettle’s introductory bubbling cross-rhythms, colourfully orchestrated in a bright G major, comes an ‘Andante espressivo’ in the warmer key of E flat, suggestive of human rather than inanimate domestic warmth. An ‘Allegro energico’ follows the carrier’s cart with rumbustious good humour and the occasional crack of the whip, but on arrival home it yields its place to a tranquil, warm-hearted tune, beautifully shaped and harmonized. A lively dotted rhythm appears, featuring splendid piccolo writing, and is brilliantly combined with its predecessors; after the return of the ‘Tranquillo’ it leads to a final celebratory ‘Maestoso’ as joyous and full-blooded as the best of Dickensian endings.
1888 was the year Mackenzie became Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, broke down the barriers between it and the Royal College of Music, set up the Associated Board exams which survive to this day, and composed the Six Pieces for Violin (which include the famous Benedictus), the beautiful Pibroch for violin and orchestra which Sarasate loved to play (recorded on Helios CDH55343), and the Twelfth Night Overture. Mackenzie himself could not explain how he managed so much, and the music for Twelfth Night shows no sign of weariness. Mackenzie has placed quotations from the play in the score.
Act II, Scene 5: By my life, this is my lady’s hand!
Act II, Scene 5: Why, thou hast put him in such a dream, that when the image of it leaves him he must run mad.
Act II, Scene 3: Shall we rouse the night-owl in a catch …?
Act I, Scene 1: O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame,
Act IV, Scene 2: Fool, there was never man so notoriously abus’d: I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art!
Mackenzie arranged Benedictus for small orchestra, extracting it from his Opus 37 for violin and piano, which was premiered by Lady Hallé. He had originally called it Benedicite, having composed it in Italy where freedom from his demanding schedule of duties gave so much of his finest work the chance to emerge. It was destined to become his best known piece, Mackenzie wryly commenting in 1927 that its success was ‘not yet quite dimmed by forty years of fairly constant wear and tear’ which included twice-weekly performances by the police band in Hong Kong. How they coped with its soaring and expansive beauties can only be guessed at. The gorgeous melody reflects Mackenzie’s deep feeling for the violin, to which is added a sensitive use of harmonic and orchestral colouring. But above all it expresses with sensual beauty a love which is, paradoxically, the purer for it, and is indeed a blessing.
Mackenzie dedicated his Opus 24, Burns – Second Scotch Rhapsody, to Madame Jessie Hillebrand (née Taylor) in 1881. He met her through Hans von Bülow, and the Mackenzies lodged in the same building in Florence. Founder of the Cherubini Society, she was herself a fine pianist and had in her earlier days given much assistance to the then struggling Wagner, whose later insinuations concerning her Mackenzie and others most strenuously denied. Florence was the place to which he fled from London whenever he could. Writing to Professor Blackie in 1886, and again in 1889, he expresses his frustration at the conflict between his staggeringly onerous work-load and his composition:
London, with its ‘Treiben’ [doings] (and above all its interruptiveously interested people of all kinds) is no place for a composer as I find out now. Your London is a horrid hammer for driving out poetry that, I long since, discovered.
In fact J S Blackie dedicated his book Scottish Song to the much younger Mackenzie, whose own knowledge of Scottish song must have been unrivalled. Both he and his father had not only played and arranged large quantities of Scottish melodies and texts, but they had themselves contributed original tunes to the repertoire—tunes played to this day. Mackenzie, like Blackie, was a thoroughgoing nationalist in these matters and reveals it strongly, writing to Blackie in acknowledgement of the dedication of the book:
I do hope from time to time to add a little contribution to Scotch Music, I mean in this popular way and apart from the more elaborate work to which, of course, I am devoted.
But Mackenzie was also aware of the dangers of uncritical nationalism and wrote in the same letter of 1889:
My reticence in giving too much national music of my own is chiefly due to an experience which has reached most thinking musicians, viz: that a composer may in it, only too easily become a mere mannerist. Some of the Norwegians and Swedes have taught us this.
Did Mackenzie have Grieg in mind? The two men had met and, after hearing Mackenzie’s Burns Rhapsody, Grieg’s eagerness to identify with his Scottish ancestry (of which he was extremely proud) prompted him to assert an affinity between Norwegian and Scottish traditional music which Mackenzie was not willing to share.
However, there can be few more obviously nationalistic works than the Burns – Second Scotch Rhapsody, not only because it honours the national poet of Scotland, but because of its opening theme. Burns knew the tune as Bruce’s March to the great victory in 1314 at Bannockburn which established the Scottish nation as truly independent of England. Burns set new words to it, burning with the zeal of a post-French-Revolutionary vision. He will have known that this same tune piped Joan of Arc, with her substantially Scottish army, up to the gates of Orleans, opened to her by its Scottish Bishop Kirkpatrick. The tune is still played at Orleans on Joan of Arc Day, so it is heavy with the symbolism of the independence of two of the great nations of Europe, the enemy being, in both cases, England. But it was the words that Burns gave it that have immortalized it as Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled, and in choosing to celebrate Burns with this piece Mackenzie knew full well what it meant to the poet and to the nation. He quotes the opening lines on the score:
Scots! wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
From all this one might expect a work of military triumphalism, but Mackenzie was made of subtler stuff. The latent power is there, but it is constantly tempered by an equally Scottish characteristic—that of pawky humour—in a counter-melody drawn from the main theme.
The central section is based on a beautiful tune collected by Burns himself and to which he added bitterly reflective verses:
She’s faire and fause that causes my smart,
Mackenzie presents the tune with lovely harmonies, but wisely never intrudes on the melody itself. Even the second statement is embellished only by a simple commentary on the violins, and the section ends in wistful simplicity.
The tune for the final Vivace was an old one known as Salt Fish and Dumplings. Burns wrote new words, quoted, as are the other poems, on the score:
I coft a stane o’ haslock woo’ [I bought a stone of wool from the sheep’s neck]
The poem goes on to praise Johnny despite his old age. Whether Mackenzie’s choice of quotations had any special meaning for Jessie Hillebrand is not known, but his treatment of The cardin’ o’t is as straightforward and sportive as the tune itself.
The incidental music to Coriolanus was composed for London’s Lyceum Theatre production in 1901 and the Suite was published in Leipzig in 1906. It is one of Mackenzie’s most impressive scores. The 1901 Coriolanus was Henry Irving’s last Shakespeare production, and he played the lead. ‘I had never seen the ‘Chief’ so keenly anxious about the staging of any play’, wrote Mackenzie, who had known him from forty years before when Irving and Mackenzie’s father had been colleagues in the Edinburgh Theatre.
It is a strange play for a Shakespearean swan-song; a problem play from which no one of significance emerges unscathed, the soldierly Coriolanus carrying his pride and injured nobility to the point of vengeful betrayal of his own city of Rome, though he had been its saviour. But for Rome’s easily swayed citizens he has a soldier’s contempt rather than a statesman’s respect, and for this he is banished from the city, only to join forces with his and Rome’s arch-enemy, Aufidius. When Coriolanus is prevailed upon by his mother, wife and son to relent, he knows it will cost him his life. Aufidius, eclipsed by Coriolanus, uses the abandonment of their joint siege of Rome as an excuse for the murder of Coriolanus, and then instantly regrets the act. The play ends with a ‘dead march’.
Mackenzie quotes Irving commenting to him, ‘As if we were not all sent into the world to fight’, and adds, ‘The strains of the Funeral March to which Coriolanus had been carried … were next heard when the great actor’s coffin was lowered to its resting-place in Westminster Abbey on October 20, 1905.’
Both Irving and Mackenzie had been through many a struggle, both personal and artistic. They knew well enough what it was like to put yourself on the line for vast audiences drawn from the citizens of an even more powerful Empire than that of Rome. However, though Coriolanus was no statesman, Mackenzie was a consummate one and, as a recently appointed knight of the realm, he was conscious of his role. The music itself is generous-hearted and statesmanlike. Irving had also been knighted, and the sets were designed by a third knight, Alma-Tadema. This music, then, has a peculiarly significant place in British cultural history. Mackenzie quotes, ‘The cynical utterance of a tired stage-hand at rehearsal to a pal “Three knights! that’s about all I’ll give it”’—but the production ran for thirty-seven nights, though the play has never been popular. The orchestra was a sore trial to the composer who was used to the days when Irving could command the best, the brass being the worst in a work in which the brass naturally predominate.
Three movements from the suite are here recorded. Following a dark opening, the Prelude expands into a beautiful second subject and the exposition ends joyously. An excitable development leads eventually to the return of the second subject with harp (Irving’s favourite instrument). The coda is triumphant.
The Marche funèbre is a masterpiece of nobility, celebrating all that was finest in Coriolanus, infused with the regret and admiration of Aufidius, moved by the power of a great communal grief. Irving could not have been buried to a finer expression of public mourning, which deserves to be as well known as the Dead March from Saul which had accompanied Irving’s coffin into the Abbey. Mackenzie’s disposition of the string parts is masterly, as is all his orchestration. The overall restraint only adds to the impressive shadow which it casts.
It may not be without significance that Mackenzie concludes the suite with an Entr’acte titled ‘Voices of the People’. In Coriolanus’s eyes they are a sweaty and unworthy crowd; in Shakespeare’s they are a disturbing presence which cannot be ignored. Mackenzie’s music gathers them together from different quarters of the city, shouts out their acclamations, and evokes their excited corporate energy. But above all it gives them their own dignity, thereby justifying their part in the workings of the state and enriching a dimension in the play necessarily restricted by production economies in the size of the crowd. He allowed this number to be performed on its own ‘as it has more variety, and is the most effective for the general public’.
John Purser © 1995
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