MacCunn, in this work, overtly claims the status due to him as a representative of the ancient bardic orders. The title tells us so. It is taken from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto Sixth, and is the reply of the last minstrel to the suggestions at the end of the Fifth Canto:
After due pause, they bade him tell,
Why he, who touch’d the harp so well,
Should thus, with ill-rewarded toil,
Wander a poor and thankless soil,
When the more generous Southern land
Would well requite his skilful hand.
High was the sound as thus again
The Bard resum’d his minstrel strain.
The aged Harper, howsoe’er
His only friend, his harp, was dear,
Lik’d not to hear it rank’d so high
Above his flowing poesy:
Less lik’d he still that scornful jeer
Mispris’d the land he lov’d so dear;
It is to these lines that Land of the Mountain and the Flood is the reply. It is MacCunn’s ‘minstrel strain’, and it claims (just as Scott did) the bardic status, and the concern of both men that music should be the sister art of poetry rather than an abstract claimant of independent ways. This is very much a bardic assertion—in Celtic languages the distinction between music and poetry is relatively recent and unclear, and though MacCunn did not attempt to write his own texts, he chose to compose almost entirely in vocal forms or music illustrative of some ballad or suggestive of a scene. Finally, the bard’s reply asserts an unwavering love of Scotland. In MacCunn’s case this was made all the more significant by the fact that he was now in London, in ‘the more generous Southern land’.
MacCunn’s claim was an international as well as a national one. The whole of literary Europe knew the work of Sir Walter Scott. Composers from Schubert to Berlioz, Beethoven to Bizet, Donizetti to Mendelssohn, had set his poems and novels in song, opera, and concert overture. Scott had in essence created the genre of the historical novel. And poems such as The Lay of the Last Minstrel also carried with them the aura of the mythical bard Ossian who, in the works of Macpherson, had deeply affected Napoleon, Goethe, Holderlin, and many others through translations into Italian, German, French, Dutch and Russian. Yet no composer had dared to set the immortal lines of the bard’s reply in Scott’s poem:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell …
O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood …
That MacCunn was such a poetic child is powerfully demonstrated by this piece. The form is as conventional as any bardic form, but the ideas are fresh and distinctive. The rugged rhythms at the start, and the pentatonic openings to the first and second subjects, both stated in the tenor and contralto rather than the usual soprano register, suggest the voice of the mountains in both the dark and the gentle moods of a Scottish musical vernacular. A vigorous passage leads to a beautiful pastoral version of the second subject; but as the development gets under way it is clear from the rumbling pedal note and gradual increase of pace that the wild horses of the land of the flood are ready to be unleashed. The recapitulation is regular and the coda exhibits an uninhibited and splendid pride.
from notes by John Purser © 1995