Cyril Scott, Eugene Goosens and Percy Grainger
Now we turn to a very different sort of musician, one whose small piano pieces and songs were much in fashion in Britain in the early days of the century, and until perhaps the last decade or two: a man who is not only a composer - and in many ways a pioneer composer at that - but poet, philosopher and author of sensational medical tracts "Victory over Cancer", "Cider Vinegar as a Cure for Obesity," and "Crude Molasses as a cure for everything"! He is one of only six names mentioned as representative British composers whose works are often performed in the USSR., according to a pamphlet "Music and Musicians in the U.S.S.R." recently published in Russia. Percy Grainger believed the piano sonata by this composer - written in the summer of 1908 - which has no key signature and uses irregular bar lines merely to indicate the main divisions in long and free melodic lines (5/8, 3/8, 7/8, 2/8, 10/8, etc.) may very well have influenced Igor Stravinsky to think along similar lines: Debussy called him "one of the rarest artists of the present generation". I refer to Cyril Scott, who gave a concert of his own music at our society in the first half of 1933. He brought with him from London a very fine English pianist and a devotee of his music and way of life, Esther Fisher; with whom he played three of his own Bach transcriptions for two pianos (the F major two part Invention, Sarabande from the A minor English Suite and Gigue from the G major French Suite.) The additions and developments supplied by Scott were all sufficiently in touch with Bach, and the result in the case of the Invention and the Gigue was a fuller - toned and extended jollity. As a two-piano team they also played a set of variations on the Volga Boatmen's Song, written in l885 by Ivan Knorr, with whom Cyril Scott studied composition at Frankfurt-am-Main. It is interesting to note that no less a person than Brahms recommended Knorr's appointment as professor of composition at the Frankfurt-am-Main conservatoire. Knorr was brought up in Russia, and was probably the first serious musician to see the possibilities and latent "pop" qualities in the now famous Volga Boat Song. I cannot account for the fact that Cyril Scott's music seems to be well known in the Soviet Union: in the l890’s it was fashionable for talented young musicians to study on the continent rather than in England, and, along with Cyril Scott in Frankfurt were Percy Grainger, (who became a lifelong friend of Scott) Roger Quilter and Norman O'Neill. Scott also became a close friend of the great German poet, Stefan Georg, a fact which to some extent, may account for the frequent mention of Scott's name in German periodicals and newspapers. Finally Miss Fischer and Mr. Scott played a set of variations on an original theme by Scott. Grove dates this composition from 1947, which is a flaming lie as it was played at our Glasgow Concert in 1933. Scott composed and published more than 100 songs, several of them like "The Blackbird's Song" and "Lullaby" were sung everywhere, and our singer on this occasion, Amy Samuels sang them in a group along with others of course, sensitively accompanied by the composer.
As a boy, I admired and played many of Scott's piano works, and when I was 15 or 16, gave the first and probably the only Scottish performance of his big piano sonata which I have already mentioned in connection with Grainger's claim for its influence on Stravinsky. I also publicly performed his two "Pierrot" pieces (Pierrot triste, Pierrot gai), "The Jungle Book" (after Kipling) and some of the "Poems" where the unusual and delicate harmonic colouring of the chords, the abandoning of tonality, the bell tones, striking rhythms, oriental effects and other original features of his music held great fascination for me.
"Cyril Scott", wrote Percy Grainger, "composes rather as a bird sings, with a full positive soul behind him, drawing greater inspiration from the mere physical charm of natural sound, than from any impetus from philosophical preconceptions or from the dramatic emotion of objective life".
"His music unfolds itself somewhat after the manner of those Japanese Rhapsodies which are the outcome of imagination displaying itself in innumerable arabesques", wrote Debussy, "and the incessantly changing aspects of the inner melody which are an intoxication for the ear, are, in fact irresistible". Eugene Goossens, another admirer of Scott, claims that he was almost the first composer in Britain to assimilate the characteristics of the French style and shape them to his own devices. In spite of such high praise from such men, the larger works of Scott are seldom, if ever performed now-a-days, nor even at the time they were written. His two orchestral Passacaglias both use dance measures as grounds and are too definite and square to make suitable - and subtle basses for sets of variations. The first Passacaglia seems to me to be an imitation of Grainger’s famous jiggy piece “Shepherd Hey."
Grove lists two operas, "The Saint of the Mountains" and "The Shrine" which have not yet reached the stage, and I believe there are others. Listen now to two favourite Cyril Scott piano pieces "Lotus Land" with its exotic and beautiful sounds, and - a novelty at the time - glissandos on the black keys - composed in 1905: followed by the sparkling "Danse Negre" written three years later.
"Lotus Land" played by Cyril Scott
"Danse Negre" played by Cyril Scott
When I knew Cyril Scott he was 54, of average height, rather fragile, sensitive, delicate and aesthetic looking, with finely cut features and deep set hypnotic eyes: he wore either a bow tie or a cravat, anyway not the usual affair, he had a watch chain around his waistcoat and a gold ring on the little finger of one of his hands. He stayed with my wife and I, becoming immediately friendly, in a quiet, intimate sort of fashion and once he found he was in sympathetic company relaxed still further and was soon chatting away gaily to my wife to whom he seemed to take a fancy. He asked her if she would take him round any interesting shops in Glasgow, as he loved to go window shopping. After dinner - for him a vegetarian and fruit meal, supplemented by nuts and honey - he told us something of his extra-musical activities: his belief that a cure for cancer had been found, that a diet of cider and vinegar would help to keep one slim, more importantly, he told us of his own oriental studies and his conviction that Yoga was the most exalted of all known sciences, and contained the greatest accumulation of wisdom ever attained by man. Scott's book "The Philosophy of Modernism" was well known to me, so that I was able to discuss this and other kindred matters with him. He said something about previous Cyril Scott reincarnations, accounting for Egyptian and other oriental qualities in his work. I had read about and admired, the philosophy and practice of Yoga: likewise some of the great religious books of the east, such as "The Bhagarad Gita", the Ramayana, and the Brahma hymns. Although I have lived in India, Burma and Malaya while Scott had never been in any part of the East, I have never been able to believe in this theory of reincarnation. If one thing is certain it is that there is no lack of the stuff of which life is made, so why any necessity to bring back life onto the physical-psycho plane, life which has already lived, fulfilled itself and died? Why God should have to re-hash old worn-out material when there is an infinite supply of new stuff lying around? Incidentally the practice of Yoga is by no means a rarity among Europeans these days - at least two members of our Music College staff derive great mental and spiritual benefits from the practice of Hatha Yoga.
Cyril Scott spoke also of his personal colour reaction to pitch - I forget now what all the associations were, middle C made him see blood red, C# Bible black, D grassy green and so on. He was perfectly sincere, although it may be just as well to remember that there is no limit to the extent the human race is prepared to delude itself! Scott said once that the music Beethoven gave him an unpleasant sense of childishness and that Beethoven was no harmonist. Debussy who said once "There have only been two great composers - Beethoven and myself" - could hardly be expected to approve of this! He liked Bizet better, but Wagner was the most satisfying of all composers; Brahms apart from some songs was dull; Stravinsky and Scriabin brilliant and evocative. Cyril Scott has been called both a crank and a poseur, and I dare-say there is some truth in both assertions. But he is an interesting fellow sincere in his convictions (as are all fanatics-including you and me) and what was more important to me at that time a very fine pianist and distinguished composer of many songs and piano pieces. The few big works of his I have seen lack spontaneity, are angular and contrived, wanting the charm and exotic flavour which make his smaller works so attractive and acceptable. I don't think that Scott has the necessary technique to write convincing large scale works; the public assessment of him as a composer of original short piano pieces and songs is a correct one.
Cyril Scott has written several volumes of poems. Here is a list of their very high falutin titles.
i) The Shadows of Silence and the Songs of Yesterday.
ii) The Grave of Eros, and the Book of Mournful Melodies, with Dreams from the East.
iii) The Valies of Unity.
iv) The Celestial Aftermath, A Springtide of the Heart and "Far-away Songs" all very flowery stuff making little impact I am afraid on the world of poetry.
Let me quote from the poem "A Dead Poet"; the theme is that men who enjoy the fruits of the artist's creativeness still criticize him for the imperfections of his character. Instead of weighing the good which a genuine artist gives to the world by his genius, and balancing this against the weakness of his character (which often hurt nobody but himself) people are often too prone to forget this, and in return for all the beauty and Joy he gives them, forgive him nothing. Cyril Scott might be writing about Robert Burns.
He is his songs and not his earth-seen life
Of love and living, peacefulness or passion's strife; For what he lived was only flesh but what he sang was soul, His life the shadowy half, his songs the whole. Not what this flesh enacts of fulsome deeds, Nor how oft netherwards it falls nor yet succeeds; But how divinely high to soul-sublimity it yearns That is the truth-crowned symbol that discerns.
As a poet, Scott thinks too much, and is often too moral by far: he over partial to chromatic decoration - the pollen clings too tightly the legs of the bee. Take for instance, these lines:
And dews of ancient weeping's waft Their bitterness absterged sweetness, And love descends in Heaven is completeness, To take my heart in joyful haft. I'd Seen the Suns of glory set, I’d seen both dawning and decaying; And, what in Springtime wandered maying, Sink into Autumn' oubliette.
I don't know how the literary world rates Scott's poetry but I imagine it cannot be very high: probably as high, however, as the oils of Schonberg and Churchill are assessed by art critics.
When I was working in Oxford music library last year, I saw a large bound volume of about 50 of Scott’s piano pieces. Collectively these pieces add up to something really important and fully justify the praise that has been showered on their composer by Debussy, Grainger, Goossens and others.
Here are some slides.
Cyril Scott (1879 - 1970)
The centre figure in that picture is Sir Eugene Goossens, perhaps the most brilliant member of that brilliant Belgian family. I first met Gene at the Oxford I.S.C.M. Festival in 1931.
He conducted a series of symphony concerts in Johannesburg in the 1950’s, and insisted upon including a South African composition in every programme, an example of his magnificent generosity towards other composer which might well be followed by other visiting and resident conductors in South Africa. He flew down to Cape Town specially to see me, and stayed at our house in York Road. I took him to Milnerton to meet his old friend and colleague, Albert Coates.
It seems appropriate at this stage to say a little more about that bright and breezy, happy and open, generous "original", the Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger; fellow pupil of Cyril Scott, and his life-long buddy. In many ways, the two friends could hardly be more different - Grainger a hearty, open-air specimen of an extrovert, Scott a brooding philosophical introvert; obviously the attraction of opposites. I wrote asking Grainger to perform for us in Glasgow. His concert commitments, however, would not allow this at that time. I met Percy Grainger again in Chicago, 1954, after a concert when he played the Grieg Concerto and the Franck Variations, as irrepressible brilliant, exuberant and breezy at 71 as he been at any time in his life. What a sweet, boisterous, friendly, entirely lovable fellow Grainger was; with his generous stock of tousy hair, his brilliant smile, his bright humorous enquiring eyes. He remembered a previous meeting or two with me in London and regretted that, although flying from pole to pole he had never got round to visiting South Africa. He introduced me to his wife, Ella. Ella, like Percy, was a hearty outdoor type. Their wedding in 1926 created a nation-wide sensation, for after Percy had conducted a new composition of his, a Bridal Song, a minister mounted the platform, and proceeded, before a gaping audience of 30,000 people in the Hollywood Bowl, to marry Percy and his bride, Ella Strong after which Percy took up his baton again and joyfully conducted another new work of his "To a Nordic Princess". Mrs. Grainger came from Sweden. He is best known by what he calls his "jigging" pieces - "Country Gardens", "Mock Morris", "Shepherd's Hey", "Molly on the Shore" "Londonderry Air" and "Handel in the Strand"; miniatures using English folk tunes, gaily dressed in bright harmonies and brilliant orchestral colouring. His lifelong friend, Cyril Scott, at 85, is still very much alive; but time has passed him by - he is no longer in fashion. He still keeps turning out one work after another without any hope or desire to have it performed. What the world thinks of him and his music now or in future is a matter to him of no concern for it is written in the 55th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagarad Gita - that "He who is not perturbed by adversity, who does not long for happiness, who is free from attachment, fear and anger, who is cast off completely from the desires of the mind is called a man of steady Wisdom".
To finish our morning's session listen to Percy Grainger playing his jolly "Country Gardens" recorded in 1957 when on a tour of Denmark.