John Blackwood McEwen was a Scottish drifter who killed nine men in gunfights between 1889 and 1895. He was the scourge of the New Mexico territory and finally had his neck stretched in 1899. He was the last victim of vigilantism in the Southwest.
If only it were true. With a name such as John Blackwood McEwen one hopes for a biography of romantic adventures. In reality, Sir John Blackwood McEwen was a reticent Scotsman who’s romantic adventures were carried out in music.
Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1911)
Today’s adventure is the Solway Symphony. Solway Firth is a coastal area along the border of Scotland and England. McEwen used his native land as inspiration for his music but he was not particularly nationalistic.
This Solway Symphony is, as are almost all of the esoteric picks of the week, an appealing piece of music which is tonal. There is no hint that Stravinsky, Prokofiev, or Schoenberg ever existed even though they are his historical colleagues.
The problem with McEwen’s music and that of our other esoteric composers is that they have been condemned, more or less, as derivative. No composer has ever composed without influences and inspiration from other composers.
The value seems to come when a composer takes the influences and then advances the conversation. Prokofiev’s first symphony has the cognomen Classical because he tried to compose as if he were Haydn in the current day. This is clearly bailing out.
It’s Prokofiev’s first symphony, not his second, third, or fourth. For his first symphony he blatantly looks to Haydn for guidance and then composes the piece in his own musical language. Nobody faults Prokofiev for this because he is advancing the conversation.
What would it sound like if Haydn composed a symphony in 1917? Prokofiev proposes the question and then gives us an answer. We are satisfied even though it’s a one-sided conversation.
I think we can open ourselves up to composers such as McEwen because they have written great music even if it hasn’t reshaped musical history. Of course, we get so excited to make statements such as, “Music was never the same after blah, blah, blah” or “The course of operatic history pivoted at its foundations after blah, blah, blah.”
It’s just a tad pretentious. No?
None of that rhetoric means that music which isn’t that is music which isn’t worth hearing.