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8.223485 - SCOTT, C.: Aubade / Neapolitan Rhapsody
Cyril Scott (1879–1970)
Wooed as a young man by the poet Stefan George and guided in maturity and old age by the spirit of the Tibetan Master Koot Hoomi, through the medium Mrs. Nelsa Chaplin, Cyril Scott is best remembered today as the composer of relatively insubstantial piano pieces and songs, such as Lotus Land, given wider currency in a Fritz Kreisler transcription. In the earlier period of his life, at least, he enjoyed a very considerable reputation as a composer and pianist, the English counterpart of Debussy or Scriabin. His energies from the 1920s were increasingly diverted towards occultism and forms of what is now known as alternative medicine. What once appeared as daring modernism in his musical language may now seem as acceptable as the idiom of Delius, although often marked by a much greater degree of astringency and harmonic experiment.
Cyril Meir Scott was born in 1879 in Oxton, a suburb of Birkenhead, the son of a business-man who was also scholar of Greek and Hebrew and of a mother who was an amateur pianist. At the age of twelve, in spite of his father’s initial reluctance, he was sent to Frankfurt to study music at the Hoch Conservatory. There his general education was undertaken by a private tutor, while he had piano lessons from Lazzaro Uzielli. Returning to England in 1893, he continued the process of private general education, taking piano lessons in Liverpool from Steudner-Welsing, before resuming study in Frankfurt once more in 1895, now turning his attention to composition under the tuition of Iwan Knorr, a pupil of Moscheles, Richter and Reinecke. Scott’s fellow-students included Percy Grainger, Balfour Gardiner and Roger Quilter, who, with Norman O’Neill, became known as the Frankfurt Group. His friendship with the German poet Stefan George, whose advances he rejected, awakened his literary interests and brought contact with the painter Melchior Lechter, a connection that was partly instrumental in attracting him to occultism.
In 1898 Scott returned to England, giving a piano recital in Liverpool, where he took a few pupils, and was now drawn himself, through the influence of his friend Charles Bonnier, Professor of French Literature at Liverpool University, towards the writing of poetry. The same period brought the composition of his Symphony No. 1, first performed at Darmstadt in 1900 under Willem de Haan, whose interest had been engaged through the agency of Stefan George. The occasion allowed Scott to confirm his own lack of ability as a conductor, when he surrendered the baton to de Haan at the first rehearsal. In Liverpool and Manchester Hans Richter, conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, directed in the same year the first performances of Scott’s Heroic Suite, a work that was greeted by Richter as fine and original and by a local critic as “not worth the serious attention of the conductor, the orchestra or the audience”. Scott’s own opinion of the suite lay between these two extremes. A Second Symphony, first performed under Henry Wood at a London Promenade Concert in 1903, was later recast as Three Symphonic Dances, a Gavotte, Eastern Dance and English Dance.
Cyril Scott himself withdrew his First Symphony and Heroic Suite and claimed to find the true beginning of his career as an orchestral composer in the Two Passacaglias, written in 1912 and first performed under Thomas Beecharn in 1916. The Passacaglias the composer found “satisfying”. Much of his general popular reputation as a composer depended, however, on the long series of evocative piano pieces and songs, works for which there was a ready and welcoming market, fostered by his contract with the music publisher William Elkin. For publication by Schott he wrote more ambitious works, including the Aubade of 1911 and the Two Passacaglias. His Piano Concerto marked the height of his achievement in the earlier period of his life. It was introduced to the public in 1915 by Thomas Beecham, with the composer as soloist.
The years after the war brought further success, more particularly in Germany, where Scott’s serious compositions had found an audience. In 1928 his opera The Alchemist was given in Essen, in spite of the hostility of some of the singers, and this led to performances in Dortmund arranged by Hannah Spohr, descendant of Louis Spohr, of his ballet The Masque of the Red Death, a work based on Edgar Allan Poe. In later life Scott turned his attention for a time away from composition, until spirit guidance suggested a resumption of this form of creative activity in the period after 1945. The immediate result was another opera, Maureen O’Mara, for which, as before, he wrote his own libretto, a Second Piano Concerto, a concerto for oboe and other works, including a further addition to his successful body of chamber music. Scott died in Eastbourne on 31st December, 1970.
Scott’s Aubade of 1911 immediately suggests the idiom of Debussy in its evocation of dawn. His Neapolitan Rhapsody, completed in 1960, might have earned Debussy’s earlier expressed disapproval of “five-storey music”, although the chamber music of Scott’s that he had seen won his praise. The work makes no attempt to present a conventional musical picture of Naples. The Three Dances of over half a century earlier are more overtly romantic, fitting Percy Grainger’s description of Scott. Quilter, Balfour Gardiner and himself as essentially “prerafaelite”, taking “a conscious charm from what is archaic”. The second of the dances is strongly romantic in feeling, followed by a third dance of extended sequences in gigue rhythm.
An exotic element appears at once in the first movement, Fata Morgana, of Cyril Scott’s Suite Fantastique for small orchestra. Fata Morgana is Morgan le Fay, a sister of the legendary King Arthur and his attempted killer. She appears in Italian form in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a powerful spirit living at the bottom of a lake, where she holds knights captive, and has lent her name in Sicily to a mirage often seen off the coast of Calabria. An oriental element imbues the brief Fire Dance, which leads to the eerie Dance of the Spectres, after which Elves and Goblins, the latter exploring the lower registers of the orchestra, make their appearance.
The Two Passacaglias on Irish Themes make unusual use of their thematic material in the old Baroque dance variation form of their title. The first opens with a clear statement of the characteristic Irish melody, subsequently varied with the diverse resources of Scott’s harmonic vocabulary and orchestral palette. The second Passacaglia begins with a sombre announcement of the melody in the depths of the orchestra. The work continues in a treatment of the thematic material in varied harmonies and orchestral colours.
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