John Blackwood McEwen


Born: April 13, 1868; Harwick, Scotland   Died: April 14, 1948; London, England  
John Blackwood McEwen was, along with Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Hamish MacCunn, one-third of a great triumvirate of late nineteenth century Scottish composers. He was less the obvious nationalist in his work than MacCunn, though his orchestral works also tended to incorporate Scottish folk themes (as well as a recognizable French influence). McEwen's primary instrument was the organ and he distinguished himself as a virtuoso in Glasgow and Read more Lanark during the late 1880s and the early 1890s, and in Greenock into the late 1890s. McEwen was educated at Glasgow University and later at the Royal Academy of Music, from which he graduated in 1895. In 1898, after three years of teaching at the Athenaeum School in Glasgow, he joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music in 1898 where he remained for 38 years, spending the last dozen years as its principal.

Though much of his energy was taken up by his academic work, McEwen was a fairly prolific composer until age 45. His career can be divided into two periods. From 1893 until 1913, he devoted most of his attention to orchestral works, including five symphonies, a rhapsody, and several dance suites; and choral pieces and part-songs, with a smattering of chamber works. After suffering a breakdown in 1913, however, McEwen devoted most of his energies to chamber works, including trios, quartets, and piano sonatas. His major activity as a composer was rooted in the early years of the new century, during which he brought forth such orchestral compositions as the Border Ballads (1908) and the Solway Symphony (1911), and the choral piece Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1905). The Solway Symphony, a slightly unusual piece for its time as a three-movement work, wasn't performed until 11 years after it was published, but its acceptance was such that it became the first symphony by a British composer to be recorded by the HMV label and it received occasional broadcast performances in the decades after. McEwen's music was thoroughly tonal and melodic. Influences of the Romantic era can easily be heard, especially Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, and Sir Edward Elgar, but also of Claude Debussy's early works. His later pieces, by contrast, have drawn comparisons with such post-Romantic figures as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Sir William Walton.

In 1905, he served as co-founder of the Society for British Composers and he was a tireless champion of the works of those composers who came up behind him in the decades after. In 1931, primarily in recognition of his work as an educator and his relative handful of successes as a composer, McEwen received a knighthood. He had no less an adherent than Havergal Brian, England's most prolific symphonist, who declared his admiration for McEwen's orchestral works upon the latter's retirement from teaching in 1936.

His most important late works include the String Quartet No. 6 in A "Biscay" (1913), the String Quartet No. 13 in C minor (1928), and a late pair of large-scale pieces, Hills O' Heather (1918) for cello and orchestra and Where the Wild Thyme Blows (1936). His music languished in obscurity, apart from the Solway Symphony, in the decades after his death. In the 1990s, however, as British orchestras and producers began rediscovering the country's forgotten musical heritage and seeking out melodic works that were not already war horses in the repertory, McEwen's music was principally resurrected in new recordings (and in all but one case, first recordings) by Chandos Records. Read less
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