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MP3 The Queens College Vocal Ensemble - Selected Partsongs of Hamish MacCunn

This is the first recording dedicated solely to the choral music of Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916). MacCunn’s partsongs are inventive, delightful and charming works, many of which have never before been recorded.

12 MP3 Songs in this album (36:01) !
Related styles: Classical: Choral Music, A Cappella

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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. Within two years of finishing his studies at the Royal College of Music in 1886, Sir George Grove and Sir August Manns premiered two of his overtures (Land of the Mountain and the Flood and The Ship o’ the Fiend) and three of his cantatas (Bonny Kilmeny, Lord Ullin’s Daughter, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel) at the Crystal Palace Concerts. The London Symphony premiered his third overture, The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, around the same time. In 1890, after his rapid rise to fame, MacCunn’s compositional output decreased as his new works received fewer performances than his earlier ones. Instead, he turned to conducting and teaching to support his family. The change in his career reflected his unwillingness to compose non-Scottish works as well as his stubborn and brash personality.

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 the symphony or the oratorio. 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.” He exempted Sir Hubert Parry from this criticism but alienated the rest of the faculty, including Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, one of the most influential figures in British music at the time. MacCunn seemed determined to follow his own path while struggling to find his place within the musical world. After World War II, MacCunn’s music receded into obscurity, but in the past fifteen years it has begun to be performed, recorded, and studied with renewed vigor.

MacCunn built his reputation upon compositions that create atmospheric impressions of Scotland, such as the concert overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, or retell stories of Scottish folklore and literature, like his orchestral ballad the Ship o’ the Fiend (1888) or his opera Jeanie Deans (1894). Many of his later works highlight musical tensions between Scotland and England and Scottish nationalism and the British Empire. As a Scottish composer working in London his career shows the challenges composers faced—particularly British composers from outside of England—in the British musical scene. While his orchestral compositions helped establish his career, the majority of MacCunn’s compositions are for voice. His partsongs were among his most popular compositions during his lifetime and were performed throughout the British Isles.

This recording includes twelve of MacCunn’s twenty-three extant partsongs, most of which were written 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 all illustrate his well-developed talent as a prodigy, abrupt and inventive harmonic transitions, and his sensitivity to the text. The early works cover a broad range of emotions. The joy of youthful, innocent love in “Serenade” contrasts with the poignant sorrow of losing a loved one in “Soldier, Rest!” The now out-dated thrills of fox hunting are vividly portrayed, complete with hunting horn calls, in “Hark Forward!” Two partsongs have Elizabethan texts, Shakespeare’s “O Mistress Mine” and Richard Alison’s “There is a Garden.” While MacCunn focused on British poets, “It Was a Lass” is by American author Mary E. Wilkins.

MacCunn stopped writing partsongs while he was composing his two operas Jeanie Deans (1894) and Diarmid (1897). In 1914, two years before his death, he returned to the genre. His final four partsongs, for three-part women’s choir with piano, reflect contemporary musical styles and show a more polished compositional technique while retaining the freshness of his youthful compositions. The subtle but sophisticated text painting in “Night” shows MacCunn’s choral writing at its best. A more mature view of love can be seen in the selection of texts and the longing expressed in “O My Love, Leave Me Not!” and “On a Faded Violet.” “Whither,” Longfellow’s translation of the poem “Wohin?” from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, foreshadows elements of popular music of the 1920s and 1930s. In order to convey a sense of MacCunn’s development—from the earliest pieces to these lovely, late works—the partsongs on this recording are presented in chronological order. The sophistication of “Oh Where Art Thou Dreaming?,” which MacCunn wrote when he was 16, is particularly striking in this context.

In spite of the popularity of British choral music in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, few of the a cappella works from this era have been published in modern editions or recorded. Only “Oh Where Art Thou Dreaming?” has appeared recently (in Oxford University Press’s English Romantic Partsongs). “Ye Little Birds” exists only in manuscript form. Most, including the four works for women’s voices, are recorded here for the first time.

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