McEwen Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity
Here is comfort for composers who feel (as probably most do) that they have been neglected in their lifetime. Fifty years after his death, a major work is edited, performed and recorded, and the name of John Blackwood McEwen is heard again in the land. Not that he has been entirely forgotten. The advocacy of Bernard Benoliel, who writes the introductory essay for this issue, and of Alasdair Mitchell, who also conducted an admirable Chandos recording of the Solway Symphony, has restored him to notice in recent years. AA reviewing (6/95) pronounced the symphony ‘a strikingly impressive work’, with pleasures of a ‘passionate, marvellously invigorating’ kind, ‘of memorable sweep and uncommon lyrical beauty’: altogether more of a ‘come-on’ than the report in Musical Times, August 1922, which found in McEwen’s works music ‘for those who are ready to forego excitement and take measured delight in fine quality’.
My delight in the present work might also be described as ‘measured’. Written over a long period (from 1901 to 1905), we are told, it is ‘major’ in scope and length. The 11 movements and their interrelationships are conceived symphonically; the choral and orchestral forces envisaged are quite large, and the idiom is European rather than distinctively British. The opening of the fifth movement (‘The shepherds on the lawn’) does indeed strike a pastoral note, so that one thinks momentarily of the English ‘pastoral’ school; but it passes (too quickly I would say) and settles into something much more opulent, with suggestions of the Russian ballet. The inspired verses beginning ‘Ring out, ye crystal spheres’ are set with a certain panoply of splendour but without rejoicing. And in the quiet conclusion to the whole work, McEwen takes rather abrupt leave as though too promptly accepting the hint in Milton’s ‘Time is our tedious song should here have ending.’
Still, this is not music that should lie for ever in a drawer or on the shelf. Brought back to life by a good performance, it has life in it. Chorus and orchestra work with conviction, Janice Watson sings with freshness and clarity, and Alasdair Mitchell can justifiably feel that he has done his fellow countryman good service. The Chandos team has played its part too, and gained another premiere recording to its credit.'