Alexander Mackenzie

Biography

Born: August 22, 1847; Edinburgh, Scotland   Died: April 28, 1935; London, England  
One can be forgiven for not recognizing the name of composer Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie. He was championed by one of the greatest violin virtuosos (and composers) of the nineteenth century, had commissions from some of the most prestigious festivals in the British Isles, and was a sought after violinist in his own right. But in the twentieth century, the world of serious music became intellectualized, and somewhere amidst that change in Read more taste and outlook, Mackenzie's music passed out of the repertory and memory.

Alexander Campbell Mackenzie was the eldest son of Alexander Mackenzie (1819 - 1857), who was the principal violinist of the orchestra at the Theater Royal in Edinburgh. It was intended that the younger Mackenzie follow his father's career path, and he was given a serious music education, including study in Germany. He played second violin in the ducal orchestra in Schwarzburg-Sondershausen and availed himself of exposure to the most progressive music of his era, including Wagner.

On his return to England, Mackenzie became a student of Prosper Sainton, who had previously taught his father, at the Royal Academy of Music and earned the King's Scholarship. He taught for a time in Edinburgh after graduating from the Academy and played in various chamber groups before becoming a first-chair violinist in orchestras in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He did find time to compose and saw some of his chamber works performed by groups of which he was a member.

Mackenzie also found a favorable reception for three early orchestral pieces, the two Scotch Rhapsodies and a ballad for orchestra entitled La belle dame sans merci, which encouraged him. Good fortune struck Mackenzie the aspiring composer in the form of bad luck for Mackenzie the working musician. While still in his 30s, he was forced to rein in his activities after suffering from exhaustion. A doctor advised him to give up his teaching and performing work, so Mackenzie left Scotland and the British Isles altogether, retreating to Tuscany, where he began pursuing a full-time career as a composer. Mackenzie never returned to performing full-time, preferring instead to create his own works, which ranged from chamber pieces to full orchestral compositions and opera (The Troubadour).

As one would expect, some of the best of Mackenzie's works favored the violin. One of his most enduring works, is the Violin Concerto in C sharp minor, commissioned by the Birmingham Festival in 1885 (written with Joseph Joachim in mind, but ultimately premiered by Pablo de Sarasate). The falling out of favor of Mackenzie's music reflected nothing on the merits of the music itself. A rediscovery of Mackenzie's music began in the closing years of the twentieth century, more than 60 years after his death, as part of a general reassessment of British music and the Romantic repertory. In 1997, violin virtuoso Malcolm Stewart made the first modern recordings of Mackenzie's Violin Concerto in C sharp minor and Pibroch (Suite for Violin and Orchestra) -- both favorites of Sarasate -- for the Hyperion label under conductors Vernon Handley and David Davies. Audience reaction to these works and Mackenzie's Scottish Rhapsody No. 2, among other orchestral pieces recorded for Hyperion, has been very positive. Read less