Cyril Scott: Symphony No 1. In G

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins in a world premiere recording

I don’t remember exactly how I came across this gentleman, but I think it went something like this.

I was looking through lots of super-modern Scriabin-esque Russian pianists and composers (Roslavets, Mosolov, Stanchinsky, Feinberg, etc,) where I believe I read something somewhere about Leo Ornstein, this composer who moved to America, retired when he was in his fifties or something, but came out of retirement in like his eighties to live to the grand old age of 108. One of the only things I could find of his was his fourth piano sonata, played by one Marthanne Verbit from an album of hers called Past Futurists where she plays Ornstein, Antheil, and Scott, I think. I was blown away by the piece, but I’m not sure if it was the piece itself or Ms. Verbit’s interpretation of it, but I loved it. I looked around on the Interwebs for her name, and found a radio interview on YouTube she did like 20 years ago, and she was so charming. Raised in Georgia, lives in New Mexico, and very insightful. She played Scriabin’s eighth sonata at a recital in NYC. I think she said she was too young or stupid to be afraid at the time.

Anyway, I looked around for Cyril Scott after she spoke so highly of him and found this, his first symphony. At the time, this recording (the only one in existence that I am aware of,) was on YouTube, and I listened and enjoyed. Close to a year later (last week) I tried to find it but it had been taken down. So I bought the album.

Composed in 1899, when Scott was (extremely English and) still quite young at only 20 years old, premiered in 1900, but not recorded until 2008. Some list this as a five movement work, others as only four (combining the Tema con Variazioni and the Finale into one movement; I think it’s attaca in the recording anyway, but mine separates them into individual tracks).

This is a SUPER English piece. Scott was apparently close friends with Percy A. Grainger, who I really like. Grainger apparently dated the published addition or published it or something. I don’t understand, but they were friends, and you can hear it, especially in the first and third movements.

The first movement, Allegro, is pastoral and very texturally interesting. The lyrical theme in this movement in the strings is stunningly beautiful. The whole first half of this piece has a very pastoral, nostalgic, almost TOO sweetly sentimental feel about it, but it is overwhelmingly pleasant and extremely English. The andante is slower, and uses an English horn (I think) for a lyrical passage that reminds me of the second movement of Dvorak’s ninth (one wonders if Scott heard it and enjoyed the piece. It was published only a few years before this one). It sounds almost hymnal or religious, but is also just… Beautiful writing. It really is. Another theme in this movement is regal and just slightly removed from sounding marchy. All just very happy.

The third movement, Allegretto, is lively and sounds very neoclassical. Counterpoint and bubbly energy and general happy. It makes me think of a big green field with animals smiling and jumping and frolicking and that general playfulness and laughing. Again, very pastoral.

The last movement or two (depending on how you count them) is a series of theme and variations. After the first three movements, the beginning of this movement sounds heavy, dark, and even a bit ominous, but it lightens up. It has a different kind of energy, a more driven, vigorous kind of motion, and the dark-clouded tone doesn’t last. It’s nice to see what a 20-year-old friend of Percy Grainger could do with the theme and variations, but I almost feel it was thrown in there to show if some composing chops, because it doesn’t seem to fit a ton with the rest of the piece in places. It does have moments of the same regal, triumphant sound (that even sounds a bit medieval,) and it is enjoyable to listen to the different variations and timbres and how it changes.

As pleasant as this piece is, I see it possibly becoming a bit….. Saccharine with multiple listens. While delightful, it doesn’t have much drama or variation in emotion or scope. It’s great writing, but as a whole, may not be as comprehensive or complete a work as his more mature symphonies, but I wouldn’t know cuz I don’t have them. An enjoyable piece, but one that… Makes me wonder a few things.

1. How can writing as good as this be ignored so thoroughly? This is a world premiere recording… Over a century after its publication.

2. How can a piece that sounds so pleasant still leave something to be desired or just “get old” faster than others? Does it lack depth? Is its appeal simply a superficial delight in melody and harmony, with a lack of appreciation or attention to structure or form?

I don’t know. But I am still impressed.


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