Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Marion Scott on British Music

Some reviewers of Pamela Blevins' otherwise acclaimed Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty have questioned the dual biography concept. One (male) critic seemed to wonder why Blevins was wasting so much space on a figure of 'modest interest' like Marion Scott. Another (female) wanted to know more about this remarkable woman and her numerous achievements. So for those in the latter camp, here is a piece on Marion Scott as critic and champion of British music.

Soon after Marion Scott embarked on her new career as the London music critic for the Christian Science Monitor, she began introducing readers throughout the world to British composers and performers in a way that no newspaper critic had done before. During her tenure from 1919 to 1933, the names Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Stanford (her teacher), Holst, Ireland, Delius, Smyth and the younger generation including Finzi, Howells, Gurney, Bliss, Bax, Gibbs and many others appeared with different degrees of frequency and intensity.

In addition to writing reviews, Marion also wrote numerous feature articles and in-depth profiles of musicians. The first among them was a three-part series on the musical and poetic wells-springs of Gloucestershire (July to August 1919), the home turf of her friends Ivor Gurney, Herbert Howells and Vaughan Williams. Her references to Gurney in this series were not the first time his name had appeared on the pages of the Monitor. In 1918, through her connections with the newspaper, she had arranged for the publication of excerpts from two of Gurney’s poems from his first collection, Severn and Somme - “Firelight” on 22 May and “Song at Morning” on 28 May.

Although Marion used her position to advance the careers of her friends (particularly Howells) and associates, she was a fair and discerning critic who possessed the remarkable ability to get right to the core of a composition that she was hearing for the first time often without benefit of a score to follow.

After attending the premiere of the Elgar Cello Concerto, she observed that the work was too big “to analyze or appraise quickly. The most that can be done after a single hearing is to record the salient impressions received.” Scott found Elgar’s conception of concerto form “totally different to that of the majority of composers. With him a concerto is not a public oration, nor a pyrotechnic display, but a psychological poem. He feels the solo instrument to be as much a person as Browning felt his characters to be real in the ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics’, and exactly as the characters speak for themselves – unfolding their ideas through his poems – so does the concerto deal with a subjective drama, the solo instrument expressing a sensitive, intimate train of thoughts in the language of music,” she wrote. “This necessitates a wholly different attitude in soloist, orchestra, and audience from that usually taken toward a concerto, and while Mr. [Felix] Salmond understood and acted upon it perfectly, one had a sense that the London Symphony Orchestra [conducted by Elgar] only partially apprehended their role in this work, fine as they are and well though they played”. (For the complete review published on 13 December 1919 look here).

Marion Scott was undoubtedly the first person to introduce her readers outside Britain to a young Gerald Finzi when she reviewed his Violin Concerto in May 1927. She and Finzi would eventually work together (not necessarily in harmony) to preserve Ivor Gurney’s musical and poetic legacies. Marion had attended the 4 May premiere of the second and third movements of concerto in a performance by violinist Sybil Eaton with Malcolm Sargent conducting the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra.

“Of late years composers have been chary in writing for solo violin,” she observed. “So, when a new violin concerto is announced…the mere choice of medium seems to promise independence of thought….Independence is certainly a quality of the violin concerto by Gerald Finzi. Finzi is among the younger men in British music. His work is uncompromisingly honest, yet restrained, disdainful of advertisement, unafraid of solitude,” she continued. Noting that the concerto was in three movements, she felt it unfortunate that the complete work was not presented as the opening “must surely be heard to give full meaning to the second movement…in the manner of an introit with its soaring phrases of melody for the solo violin against the liturgical counterparts of the orchestra…But even starting from zero the introit established itself as an individual and often really beautiful movement…Its youth, vitality and the natural independence of the moving parts produced harmonic clashes as crude, clear and attractive as blades of fresh spring grass.”

Marion featured Gurney occasionally in Monitor reviews but never wrote a long profile on him as she did for Howells, Thomas Dunhill, Vaughan Williams and others. She did not let friendship cloud her opinion. If she believed a work was flawed she said so. Upon hearing the first performance of Gurney’s War Elegy in 1921, she wrote: “…a war elegy by Ivor Gurney is comparatively short but produces an impression of great aims. The themes are heartfelt and sincere, their treatment is grave and sensitive, and the opening and closing sections of the work are eloquent. Toward the middle, the music loses its grip and wanders around rather than holds the direct onward flow. It will probably gain by being rewritten.”

She found much to praise in Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme in a review published on 25 December 1920. “There is a fine, clear, out-of-doors ring about the setting of ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’, she wrote, ‘and one could well imagine the tune upon the lips of any ‘young yeoman’ as he ‘strode beside his team’; while the second song, ‘Far in a western brookland,’ is a pure efflorescence in music of that poetry of the ‘windless night time’ alluded to by Housman, and expressed here by the composer with tender truth and beauty of melody.’ ‘The lads in their hundreds’ and ‘On the idle hill of summer’ are equally rich in imaginative qualities: also virile in style (as the words demand), while ‘When I was one and twenty’ is a good little thing in the folk style as one could wish to meet anywhere. The unexpected and fascinating run of the tune delighted the audience. ‘The Lent Lily,’ with its beautiful melismatic passages, brought the cycle to a close, and the composer to the platform.”

From an early age Marion Scott willingly entered into the spirit of contemporary music. She never shied away from writing about “radical” composers nor did she dismiss new trends. She believed that “time alone” would render the final judgment but she always stood ready to enlighten doubters. In 1929, she wrote a comprehensive study of the young Paul Hindemith, probably the first of such depth to appear in Britain. Later she would write insightfully about the music of Webern, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Tippett and many other “new” voices.

In a future post, Pamela Blevins will share some of Scott’s comments on the music of composers who were quite different from Elgar, Finzi and Gurney, including one Scott described as a “genuine composer who gives off music as a piece of radium throws off energy”.


Ralph Locke said...

Fascinating to learn more about Marion Scott, whose writings were part of what, early on, drew me to the field of writing about music. Copies of one or another edn. of her Master Musicians book on Beethoven can easily be found on the used-book market (e.g., on, and are full of fresh wordings and perceptions.
It was great to have the hot link to her full review of the premiere of the Elgar Cello Concerto! A fine example of how to use the web to create "added value"!

Ralph Locke said...

Update! Marion Scott's entire Beethoven book is available online at