Hiding In Plain Sight

Part of the manuscript of The Wreck of the Hesperus  by Hamish MacCunn.

By Richard Laing

Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear. – Thomas Gray

Every so often a fanfare in the press announces the discovery of a long-lost or hitherto unknown fragment of music by a famous composer. Libraries, attics and floorboards occasionally give up their treasures and for a brief time there is general rejoicing in the upper echelons of the classical music world. Yet these discoveries, exciting as they may be, are insignificant next to the plethora of incredible music hiding in plain sight.

Regular readers of these pages will have enjoyed Kate Romano’s article On Neglected Music, noting the injustice of so many wonderful composers failing to find performances or audiences for their work, and the imperative to ‘keep an impossibly huge expanse of music alive and vibrant.’ As Romano makes clear, performers and promoters have a responsibility here, as do audiences.

Indeed, to my mind, the preservation and expansion of the repertoire requires a collaboration between performer and audience. Performers lucky enough to work together regularly can, over the course of several seasons, introduce unfamiliar, ‘neglected’ or new music to an audience in such a way that a level of trust is established, and eventually many concert-goers look forward to such programming rather than fearing it. Sadly, the temptation to focus on ticket sales makes this kind of adventurous, long-term programming rare.

Not only do musicians have a responsibility to search out new music, commissioning and championing contemporary composers, but we must also stay curious about music of the past, and actively fight against the whims of fashion. A couple of years ago I was browsing the shelves of music in my father’s music room in Yorkshire, looking for music suitable to use as sight-reading for choral singers. Scores of orchestral and vocal music, mostly collected in the 1960s, have lain relatively undisturbed in this study for twenty years, due to their owner’s poor health.

Here were the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the ubiquitous Italian Songs and Arias, the entire oeuvre of Wagner, and a healthy selection of Cole Porter, but also a pile of ancient Novello vocal scores of cantatas and oratorios that I had never heard of. One jumped out at me, almost literally: The Wreck of the Hesperus by Hamish MacCunn.

Like just about everyone else, I knew one piece by MacCunn and one piece only, for The Land of the Mountain and the Flood is a frequent visitor to the concert hall, a TV theme tune from my parents’ generation, and can be heard on a certain Classical music radio station pretty much daily, or so it seems. Playing through MacCunn’s cantata at the piano I was hooked from the first bars; the sweep of the music was perfectly suited to the melodrama of Longfellow’s poem, and the sensitivity of MacCunn’s word-setting moved me to tears. This was clearly a work which deserved, or even demanded, performance.

And yet, as I soon discovered, none of my colleagues had ever heard of it either, and the score had been out of print for years. I conducted a couple of performances with piano, which served to confirm my belief that singers and audiences would enjoy it immensely, though of course there were a couple of dissenters (like Dwight Macdonald, I distrust any work which is universally liked).

Subsequently I learned from Dr Jane Mallinson, an expert on MacCunn, that The Wreck had only been performed by two other groups since 1930, and then, apparently, only with organ, rather than with the large orchestra for which the piece was written. I was able to obtain a copy of the manuscript full score, held at the Royal College of Music, and set about reconstructing the orchestral parts. This week, the 180 singers of the Nottingham Harmonic Choir, with the Orchestra da Camera, will be mounting a performance of The Wreck of the Hesperus in Nottingham’s Albert Hall.

Persuading people to come to hear this wonderful work, however, is more difficult. Nottingham Harmonic is a choir which sells 1,000 tickets for its annual Messiah performances, and around 2,500 tickets for its carol concerts every December, but ticket sales for this nautically-themed concert are barely into three figures.

I know that The Wreck of the Hesperus is a piece people will love once they hear it, but getting them into the building to experience something new is a challenge. Of course, we utilise the usual tricks – adding popular works into the programme, advertising on radio and in print, writing blog posts, and promoting the concert on social media, but ticket sales remain stubbornly low.

Perhaps the mistake is to include two unknown works rather than just one – for this concert also features Herbert Howells’s extraordinary Sir Patrick Spens, which vanished from concert halls in 1930, the same year as The Wreck of the Hesperus, before being unearthed by Paul Spicer (again, in the library of the Royal College of Music) in 2006. Or we could just blame Coronavirus.

Yet, pace my choir’s treasurer, a largely empty concert hall is not a complete disaster, as long as it does not become a regular occurrence. An amateur choir (or orchestra) exists not only for the audience, but for its members; indeed, one could argue that it exists primarily for those that come to make music every week. The members are a major source of the group’s income. Much of the purpose and pleasure of amateur music-making is the rehearsal process; the concert is the proverbial icing on the cake. Thus amateur groups are more able than professional groups (who have less need to cater for the desires of the performers) to programme new and unfamiliar music, and given this ability perhaps have a responsibility to do so.

As each year goes by, the pieces guaranteed to fill a concert hall seem to become fewer (and, it could be argued, their quality diminishes, but that is perhaps an argument for another blog discussion). If we do not strive constantly to expand it, concert repertoire will shrink until it consists solely of works which are on a certain list determined by a popular vote.

As performers we have a duty to be curious. Had I not stumbled on the tatty old score of The Wreck of the Hesperus that afternoon in Yorkshire, the music would surely still be languishing like Thomas Gray’s gem, unexperienced and unappreciated. How many other wonders are sitting on shelves, out of print and out fashion, but hiding in plain sight, waiting for rediscovery?

Nottingham Harmonic Choir and the Orchestra da Camera and bass-baritone James Oldfield will be performing Hamish MacCunn’s The Wreck of the Hesperus and Herbert Howells’s Sir Patrick Spens, together with music by Mendelssohn, Stanford and Britten, at Nottingham’s Albert Hall on Saturday 21st March at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from the Royal Concert Hall Box Office.

Richard Laing is a conductor, violinist and writer. His directs choirs in Nottingham, Leicester and Somerset, and is Principal Guest Conductor of Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, Associate Conductor of Chandos Symphony Orchestra, and a guest Principal player with the English Symphony Orchestra. His articles and reviews are regularly published in The Wagner Journal and Wagner News.