Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Cyril Scott: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part II

Most of this section of Brook’s pen-portrait needs little comment, however I have included a few notes about the many compositions mentioned towards the end of the essay. 

SOON after the outbreak of the Great War, Scott stayed for a little while with Bernard Shaw and his wife at an hotel at Torquay.[1] He still remembers that the great dramatist had just received an offer of five hundred pounds to go to America and deliver a single lecture at the Carnegie Hall, but had refused it because he couldn't see how the promoters could make such a lecture pay, and he wouldn't have liked them to be out of pocket on his account!

Scott volunteered for military service on several occasions but was rejected as physically unfit, and had to be content with playing the piano at concerts in aid of war charities. During the war years, he wrote several anonymous books on occult philosophy as well as a great deal of music.
His opera The Alchemist was written in 1918, [2] and as soon as Sir Thomas Beecham saw it he promised to have it produced at Covent Garden, but for years it was dogged by bad luck, Beecham went bankrupt before he could fulfil his promise, and then after all arrangements had been made for its production at Wiesbaden, the opera house was burnt to the ground just before the opening night. Eventually it was performed at Essen on May 28th 1925.
In the autumn of 1920 Scott went to America to play his own works and to lecture. His impressions of the United States are all recorded in My Years of Indiscretion, [3] and therefore I do not propose to write at length on the subject here. He was very surprised, for instance, to find that the people of New York never bothered to draw the blinds of their bedroom windows when undressing at night, and from his own room the prospect of no less than a hundred and sixty illuminated bedrooms was disconcerting, to say the least.
He still recalls the sort of timetable that was worked out for him: two days and two nights in a train, the recital or lecture to be given immediately on arrival, and then another two days and nights of travelling! It was on such a tour as this that he met a poetess who smoked strong black cigars and read ‘shockers’ by the dozen.
The American love of music, he found, was sincere and deep-rooted. They were prepared to pay handsomely for their music, and it was encouraging to find successful business men spending their money not upon yachts or racehorses, but in the endowment of symphony orchestras or opera. One of the few annoyances he had to endure was the type of person who asked him what he thought of Beethoven, or Bach, or some celebrity of the hour. Scott thinks that such questions are foolish. What would a parson say, for instance, if someone came up and asked him ‘What do you think of Moses?’
Of Scott's earlier works, I suppose ‘A Blackbird Song’ and ‘Daffodils’ [4] are still the most popular, but when people refer to him merely as the composer of the ‘song about the blackbird’ he wishes that the blackbird were at the bottom of the deepest ocean.

The best of the earlier works is undoubtedly ‘Sphinx’, [5] which I am told was a favourite with Ravel. Other notable compositions are his ‘Lotus Land’, [6] a richly oriental work which Kreisler later arranged for the violin, the colourful collection of pieces entitled ‘Poems’ [7] and ‘Rainbow Trout’, [8] and his brilliant Sonnet I, [9] a most original work in irregular rhythm. His Chinese Songs, [10] by the way, provoked C. V. Stanford to a tirade of indignation.

When a well-known singing professor heard Scott's setting of ‘An Old Song Ended’ [11] he asked him how he could write such peculiar and discordant harmonies to so simple and beautiful a lyric! Of his later works, his Two Songs without words [12], and ‘Mist’ and ‘Rain’ [13] are particularly effective. Scott's Ode to Great Men [14] was performed at the Norwich Festival in 1936, but this impressive work for orator, female chorus and orchestra fell short of expectations as far as reviving interest in the composer's major works was concerned. His Piano Concerto [15] has always been warmly received wherever it has been heard, yet he is amazed to find that concert promoters of the present day still regard it as a work upon which they might be involved in financial loss. For that reason, he doubts whether the British composer gets a fair chance of being heard. The neglect, he believes, is partly due to the commercialization of music.
Scott admits that the music of Beethoven makes little or no appeal to him, and he feels that the work of many of the lesser-known Russian composers compares favourably with that of Tchaikovsky. It is also his opinion that long after the death of Queen Victoria, British music was asphyxiated by Victorian propriety and correctitude. He readily admits that the BBC has done good work in taking music to the masses, but he feels that in so doing it has ‘cheapened’ music, because people regard it now as something ‘on tap’ like the water in their kitchens, and respect it accordingly.
Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)
[1] This was the Hydropathic Hotel (now the Headland Hotel) There is a photo of Cyril Scott taken at this venue in 1915, in the London School of Economics database of photographs.
[2] The Alchemist, the first of Cyril Scott’s operas, was composed in 1917-18. However, it had to wait until 1925 before it was given its premiere in Essen.
[3] My Years of Indiscretion, Mills & Boon, Ltd, London 1924, the first of Cyril Scott’s autobiographical books.
[4] ‘A Blackbird’s Song’ was written in 1906 on a poem by Rosamund Marriot Watson (1860-1911) and ‘Daffodils’ was a setting of a text by Ella Erskine (?)
[5] ‘Sphinx’, op.63 is a piano piece composed around 1908. The mood of the music is impressionistic.
[6] Lotus Land is probably Cyril Scott’s best known piano piece. This exotic, impressionistic work was composed and published in 1905. It was dedicated to the American composer and conductor Henry Hadley (1871-1937). The work was premiered by fellow Frankfurt Group composer, Percy Grainger at the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall on 15 November 1905. Other arrangements of this work include one for two piano, four hands and the above mentioned transcription by Fritz Kreisler for violin and piano (c.1922).
[7] ‘Poems’ is a collection of five piano pieces: ‘Poppies’, ‘Garden of Soul Sympathy’, ‘Bells’, ‘Twilight of the Year’ and ‘Paradise-Birds’. Each piece is prefaced by a short poem also written by the composer. They was published in 1912.
[8] ‘Rainbow Trout’ (1916) is another piano piece that exploits exotic chords and scales, creating a numinous image of a the fish swimming in clear waters. It was possibly inspired by Claude Debussy’s ‘Poisson d’or.’
[9] The ‘Sonnet I’ was written in 1914 for violin and piano. It was revised 42 years later in 1956.
[10] The composition history of Chinese Songs is a little complex. Originally composed in 1906, these two songs were ‘Waiting’ and ‘A Picnic.’ The Chinese lyrics were translated by the British diplomat and China specialist, Herbert A. Giles (1835-1935). They were eventually incorporated into Songs of Old Cathay (1919). Eaglefield Hull (Cyril Scott: Composer, Poet and Philosopher, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd, 1918) writes that ‘the oriental feeling in these two wonderful songlets is delightfully reproduced. Whilst the first reaches the harmonic system as nearly as possible with a twelve-note scale, the second wins my preference, being filled with a delightful rattle of musical ‘chopsticks’.’
[11] ‘An Old Song Ended’ was published by Elkin in 1911. It is a setting of words by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The song was dedicated to the soprano Maggie Teyte (1888-1976). Who the singing professor was, I am not sure of.
[12] Two Songs without Words would appear to be two pieces for voice and piano. The first is a ‘Pastorale’ dating from 1919 and the second is ‘Tranquillity’. Neither song has a text, but is ‘vocalised.’
[13] ‘Mist’ was composed around 1925, to a text by Marguerite E. Barnsdale and ‘Rain’ was setting of words by Margaret Maitland Radford dated 1916.
[14] Scott's Ode to Great Men seems to have disappeared from notice. This choral piece was composed for the Norwich Music Festival and received its premiere there on 24 September 1936. It was a setting of the apocryphal biblical book Ecclesiasticus (Chapter 44) and words from Shelley. The setting was made for tenor/narrator, orchestra and women’s chorus.
[15] Cyril Scott wrote several concerted works for piano and orchestra. The one that Donald Brooks refers to is Piano Concerto No.1 in C major which was composed in 1913-14 and was premiered at a British Music Festival at the Queen’s Hall in London on 15 May 1915. Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Scott as soloist. It has been recorded on Chandos CHAN 10376 and on Lyrita SRCD. 251. 
In 1958 Scott completed his Piano Concerto No.2. This has been issued on Lyrita SRCD. 251 and on Chandos CHAN 10211.  Another important work was ‘Early One Morning’, Poem for Piano and Orchestra dating from 1931. They are recorded on Chandos CHAN 10376 and on Lyrita SRCD. 251.  There is Concertinos for two pianos and orchestra, which was completed in 1931, as well as an uncompleted Concerto in D, op.10, c.1900. 

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