John Blackwood McEwen: a late Romantic composer inspired by Scottish folklore

Welcome back to another blog post! Today, I’ll be discussing a fascinating late Romantic Scottish composer, Sir John Blackwood McEwen.

McEwen in 1937, painted by Reginald Eves (Wikipedia)

McEwen was born in Hawick, a town in southeastern Scotland, to the Presbyterian minister James McEwen and his first wife Jane in 1868. Little information is available about his childhood, but he received his MA degree from the University of Glasgow by age 20, going on to work as a choirmaster and organist in Glasgow and at Lanark parish church.

In 1891, McEwen moved to London, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music for four years with Ebenezer Prout, Frederick Corder, and Tobias Matthay. During this time, he won the Charles Lucas medal for composition, had his first string quartet premiered, and wrote numerous works including three symphonies and a mass. After finishing his studies, he returned to Scotland, teaching composition at the Athenaeum School of Music and serving as choirmaster in a parish church at Greenock for three years.

By this time, the composer was becoming fairly well-known in English and Scottish musical circles. In 1898, the Scotsman John Alexander Mackenzie, then president of the Royal Academy, invited McEwen to teach harmony and composition there. He would go on to hold the position for over 25 years; his pupils included the notable film-score composer William Alwyn.

McEwen’s early tenure at the RAM was the most productive period of his compositional and musical career. In 1901, like his contemporary William Walton, he completed a violin concerto for Lionel Tertis. The following year, he married Hedwig Ethel Cole, the daughter of a naval architect, and in 1905 (with his former teachers Corder and Matthay) he co-founded the society of British composers. That same year, he completed the choral work Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity and began writing one of his best-known orchestral cycles, the Three Border Ballads.

The Border Ballads, completed in 1908, are comprised of three works – CoronachThe Demon Lover, and Grey Galloway – each based on a story from Scottish folklore. Described by McEwen’s biographer Jeremy Dibble as “rivaling mature Elgar” in construction and scope, each piece is well-orchestrated, emotional, and powerful.

Unfortunately, UnsungMasterworks, the only channel that previously contained The Demon Lover, was taken down several months ago due to copyright issues, but the other two works are available.

In 1911, McEwen wrote what is probably his most famous work, the Solway Symphony; the symphony, like many of his other works, is based on a geographic region, in this case Solway Firth in his home country. The first piece written for the gramophone, it continued to receive occasional performances in Britain throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Although it was not performed until 1922, eleven years after it was written, the symphony is an enjoyable work with fascinating textures – I particularly enjoy the soft, colorful sounds of the strings and winds in the opening of the second movement.

After suffering a breakdown in 1913, McEwen turned his focus to chamber music, writing several more string quartets, trios, and piano sonatas. Many critics consider McEwen’s late string quartets to be among his best work; his expressive eighth string quartet, named “Biscay” after the bay in northwestern France, is a prime example of his writing for small ensemble.

McEwen also wrote a small number of large-scale orchestral pieces during his later period, including Hills o’ Heather for cello and orchestra in 1918 and the 1936 work Where the Wild Thyme Blows.

One of the reasons McEwen is so rarely heard today is because he almost never promoted his own work – instead, he often supported other British composers, particularly during the interwar period as a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Nevertheless, his compositions were widely respected among colleagues, including the prolific symphonist Havergal Brian, who praised his orchestral work upon McEwen’s retirement in 1936. He was also known for his work in music education, producing two textbooks, Exercises on Phrasing in Pianoforte Playing and The Principles of Phrasing and Articulation in Music, and the article The Thought in Music: An Inquiry into the Principles of Musical Rhythm, Phrasing and Expression in addition to his role at the Royal Academy.

Thanks to his educational contributions and the success of some of his compositions at the time, McEwen was knighted in 1931. Although he retired five years later, he continued to compose until his death in 1948; having had no children, he bequeathed his estate to the University of Glasgow to promote the music of Scottish composers.

Although McEwen’s works, like those of other relative unknowns in British music, have experienced a revival since the 1990s, they are still rarely performed compared to those of his contemporaries. His well-constructed and beautifully orchestrated orchestral compositions, as well as his lively chamber works, deserve a much greater place in the musical repertoire.

As usual, all material used for this post was sourced from Wikipedia and AllMusic. If you enjoyed this or other posts on my blog, please leave a like and/or a follow! My next post will profile the Chinese composer Zhu Jian’er.

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