yrmusic.comartistsbiosHamish MacCunn

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916)

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As one of Scotland’s most popular composers, Hamish MacCunn briefly dominated the London music scene in the late nineteenth century. Determined to follow his own path, MacCunn rejected his degree from the Royal College of Music in 1886 explaining “that musically I did not esteem it, and socially I thought of it and those who conferred it with infinite and undiluted disgust.” While he exempted his main composition professor, Sir Hubert Parry, from this criticism, he alienated the rest of the faculty, including Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, one of the most influential figures in British music at the time. In spite of this, his three overtures (The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, The Ship o’ the Fiend, and The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow) and three cantatas (Bonny Kilmeny, Lord Ullin’s Daughter, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel) received their premieres in London over an eighteenth month period in 1887-1888. All but The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, which the London Symphony initially performed, were first heard under Sir August Manns’s baton at the Crystal Palace.

As a Scottish composer working in London, his career shows the challenges composers, particularly British composers from outside of England, faced in the British musical scene. MacCunn built his reputation upon compositions, such as the concert overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, that create atmospheric impressions of Scotland, or works that retell stories of Scottish folklore and literature, such as his orchestral ballad The Ship o’ the Fiend (1888) or his opera Jeanie Deans (1894). Many of his works highlight the musical tensions between Scotland and England and Scottish nationalism and the British Empire. As early as 1888, critics began calling for MacCunn to branch out from his programmatic Scottish works and explore other musical styles, particularly more respected genres, such as a symphony or an oratorio. Instead, he turned to conducting and teaching to support his family. The change in his career reflected his unwillingness to adapt to changing musical trends, compose non-Scottish works, as well as his stubborn and brash personality.

With the rapid growth of choral societies and festivals in this period, and the increasing demand for published choral works, British choral music flourished though much of it. While his orchestral compositions helped establish his career, the majority of MacCunn’s works are for voice. MacCunn’s partsongs were among his most popular compositions during his lifetime and were performed throughout the British Isles. He wrote the majority of his partsongs during his time at the Royal College of Music and in the early years of his professional career. Some of these may be academic exercises or works for fellow students, but they illustrate his well-developed talent as a prodigy and his sensitivity to the text. In 1914, two years before his death, MacCunn returned to the genre. His final four partsongs, for three-part women’s choir with piano, show a more polished musical style and mature take on love and nature while retaining the freshness of his youthful compositions and reflecting current musical styles.

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YRM PUBLISHED WORKS:
YR6M11 Four Songs of Lov...
YR6M12 Love Charms
YR6M11.4 Night
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YR6M11.3 O my love, leave ...
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YR6M11.2 On a Faded Violet
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YR6M11.1 Whither?
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