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Hamish MacCunn

born: 22 March 1868
died: 2 August 1916
country: Scotland

Hamish MacCunn (1868–1916) was the son of a Greenock ship-owner. His twin died when six months old. Both his parents were musical and their son composed his first piece at the age of five. An oratorio, commenced at the age of twelve, was left incomplete for the very good reason that he got more fun out of fishing and sailing on the Clyde estuary upon which his home had a splendid outlook. At fifteen he won a scholarship to the recently created Royal College of Music in London and became their youngest student, though he resigned the scholarship in 1886 in a fit of pique. Youth, vigour, assertion; these are the first characteristics to strike one in his music and his character. Coupled with his awareness of his own status as a Scot from a relatively wealthy background they partly explain his sense of injured pride in London when ignored socially by his teachers such as Parry, to whom he wrote explaining his action:

My reasons for resigning the degree were simply that musically I did not esteem it, and socially I thought of it and those who conferred it with infinite and undiluted disgust.

The letter is long and unpleasant and forced the unfortunate Parry into a confession of the domestic misery which prevented him from offering hospitality to his students; but it is not a true indicator of MacCunn’s character. All who knew him at all intimately were fond of him and appreciated his good nature. He was a dashing young man who married the daughter of the famous Scottish painter John Pettie, who has portrayed him both as Bonnie Prince Charlie and as the favoured escort for his daughter who strolls simpering between MacCunn with the sword-stick and some honest loser. The painting is called Two Strings to her Bow, so there is a musical pun appropriate to his future son-in-law.

MacCunn saw himself very much as the musician of the future, eschewing abstract music in favour of the new poetic streak and descriptive approach of Liszt, but with a delightful element of plain thinking. Shaw interviewed him and got some splendidly dusty answers to questions such as who was his favourite composer: ‘You might as well ask me which I like best, my arms or my legs.’ Or did he (as was Wagner’s practice) write his own words for setting to music? ‘I have not the vocabulary. I can find music but not words. Besides, if I write the book, you will be expecting me to paint the scenery too, on the same principle.’ Finally, Shaw, aware he was meeting his match, said he ‘had the hardihood to ask Mr MacCunn for his notions of press criticism. “I think”, said the composer, fixing his eye on me to indicate that he felt confident of my approval, “that criticism, above all things, should not be flippant, because if it is, nobody respects it”.’

Game, set and match to Mr MacCunn.

But it does not take long to realize that behind this assertive and apparently self-confident exterior was a sensitivity and tenderness, easily wounded, protected by pride and consummate skill, but delicate and ultimately defeated by the pressures of overwork as an opera conductor, endlessly touring while trying to pursue a career as a composer. Cancer of the throat took him in 1916 at the age of forty-eight. His son was away at the front, it being the middle of the First World War, and with the death of his father Scotland lost one of her most brilliant musicians—a man who, from all accounts, could be as generous of his time and effort as he could be sharp with Shaw and Parry. But the tenderness is unforgettably beautiful in love-songs such as I will think of thee, my love or the touching In the Glen—a piano solo for young students which is somehow as simple as it is subtle in its evocation of the beauty of the highland glens (both pieces are recorded on Linn CKD008), and much of it can be heard in the excerpts from Jeanie Deans and in the lyrical second subjects of his orchestral ballads, for all that they are full of rugged grandeur. Whisky and temperament, gold and mercury, they are there in the music as they were in the man.

from notes by John Purser © 1995


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