It is commonly believed that the greatest work for violin and orchestra based on Scottish folk melodies was written by Max Bruch, a non-Scot. However, Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie's (1847-1935) Pibroch Suite might easily be considered its equal. And yet, this masterpiece by an important composer is virtually unknown - in Scotland and in the rest of the world. Perhaps its neglect can be attributed to the Scots' notorious dismissal of their own composers, especially when comparing them to England's.
Nevertheless, Mackenzie is recognized as one of the greatest British composers of his time. His extensive output includes many operas, oratorios, orchestral works, chamber music, and instrumental compositions, including many for violin. Franz Liszt, Hans von Bülow, and Sir Edward Elgar were among his many fans and supporters. After playing the violin at the premiere of one of Mackenzie's cantatas, Elgar declared that meeting Mackenzie was the event of his musical life.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Mackenzie started out as a violinist and Scots fiddler. Although he played in the violin sections of local orchestras, he did not want to remain a professional violinist. The limited music scene in Scotland led to his studying in Germany and traveling to London to extend his career. He began composing while in his early teens and was composing fulltime by age 32.
"I realized that, following in my parent's footsteps, a careful study of our national music would be the shortest, indeed the only way to win any degree of popularity at the start," Mackenzie states in his autobiography. "On my own inclinations no tax was needed, for its touching verse and melody always had a fascinating hold upon me, and the results of the preparation soon justified the resolve." Thus, like his three Scottish Rhapsodies for Orchestra and his Scottish Concerto for Piano (written for Paderewski), many of Mackenzie's compositions have a programmatic or nationalistic character.
He compiled and arranged Scots tunes for published collections, and even composed original tunes. "A tune of my own, evidently so racy of the soil as to have been accepted as a genuine antique of long forgotten parentage, was innocently reproduced as such, and for some years I have enjoyed the pleasure of hearing myself played and whistled 'incog.'"
In 1888, Mackenzie became Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. During his 36-year tenure, he co-founded the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and was active as a conductor, teacher, and lecturer.
Mackenzie began his Violin Concerto in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 32, in 1884. It was to be performed at the 1885 Birmingham Festival with Joachim as soloist. Because the work was written with Joachim in mind, its character is decidedly Germanic. At the last minute, Joachim backed out, possibly because of his ongoing divorce proceedings. Sarasate agreed to take on the challenge, even though he and Mackenzie had only met in passing after an 1881 concert in London.
Sarasate enjoyed Mackenzie's concerto and performed it often. After successful concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1885, he asked Mackenzie to write a piece for violin and orchestra that had the flavor of the composer's native country. The Pibroch Suite, Op. 42 was dedicated to Sarasate, who premiered it at the Leeds Festival in 1889 under the composer's baton. Sarasate subsequently performed the Pibroch Suite on tour throughout Europe, America, and Mexico. Mackenzie also dedicated his Highland Ballad, Op. 47, No. 1, to Sarasate in 1893.
In his autobiography, Mackenzie affectionately describes his "dear friend" Sarasate and the first performance of the Pibroch Suite:
To know Sarasate was to love a simple-minded, unaffectedly modest and generous artist. There cannot be many with a greater claim to speak of his gifts and character, for I enjoyed an intimacy which revealed the estimable qualities of the musician and man.
Easily pleased as a child, in spite of all temptations quite free from vanity, living for his violin alone, he disliked "Society," and his joy was to entertain a circle of congenial friends and compatriots; the more the merrier.
A very much more cultured musician than some of those who dubbed him "Prima Donna" were capable of judging, his favourite recreation was chamber music and quartet playing; but, aware of limitations and his own métier, these pleasures were mostly reserved for private enjoyment. In my opinion, Sarasate left a deeper mark upon violin playing than any other performer of his day.
The more laboured style of the North German school at times provoked gentle ridicule from one whose outstanding qualities were an entire absence of effort, a fascinating natural grace, and unfailing certitude of intonation. . . . An opportunity of realizing the phenomenal ease with which all this was achieved was mine when, at his invitation, we enjoyed a fortnight's companionship at Frankfort, where he introduced my Pibroch to Germany under the composer's direction. Occupying a couple of bedrooms leading to a circular sitting-room, we were so constantly together that there could be no question of practice without my knowledge. During the two weeks his violin-case was only opened twice: once to put on a new E string before leaving for rehearsal, and again to assure himself that all was well on the evening of the performance. Five minutes sufficed on each occasion; serious study and practice were confined to the leisure of his summer holidays at San Sebastian. A method not to be recommended for adoption by less agile-fingered instrumentalists.
Mackenzie had related this story previously as part of his eloquent tribute to his recently deceased friend in The Musical Times in November, 1908. Also included in that article is a quote from a letter Sarasate wrote a few days before the Pibroch Suite's premiere.
I was pleased to show myself on this occasion a true-blooded Scot - with the exception of costume - and to prove that your national music is some of the most beautiful and poetic that exists in the world: you know that I'm a great fan.
The first movement of the Pibroch Suite, Rhapsody, has a free-form style. While not quite a full-fledged movement in its own right, it is more substantive than just an extended introduction. After two cadenza-like statements from the soloist, the main theme first appears, accompanied by a harp. This Celtic-flavored melody of Mackenzie's own creation could almost be a traditional fiddle tune until it flows into an obviously 19th century world of harmony. The structure and orchestral colors of this movement create a world of sound very similar to the opening of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, but Mackenzie uses many more "gaelicisms," such as Scotch snaps and turns, in his original material.
The second movement, Caprice, is an introduction, theme, and variations on the traditional tune, "There's Three Good Fellows Down in Yon Glen." This tune appeared in printed collections from the 1740s by McGibbon, Oswald, and others. Melodic interludes are inserted after variation 6 and the final variation 9. The movement ends with an unaccompanied cadenza that leads into the last movement.
At first glance, it would appear that the Caprice accounts for the work's title, Pibroch. The repertoire of the Great Highland bagpipe is divided into two categories: ceòl beag ("small music"), which includes lighter airs and dance music, and ceòl mór ("large music"), also called pìobaireachd ("piping"). Pìobaireachds are a ceremonial form often written to celebrate or lament events such as a battle or the death of a hero. After beginning with a painstakingly slow statement of the theme or ùrlar ("ground"), an extended set of variations build upon one another, not unlike today's minimalist music. The work ends with a repetition of the ùrlar, which may also appear as a reference point once or twice throughout the piece. Pìobaireachd is an acquired taste, and listeners and performers who truly appreciate it describe the experience as being almost spiritual.
There are some key differences between Mackenzie's Caprice and a real pìobaireachd. "There's Three Good Fellows..." is a charming tune, but clearly in the ceòl beag category. Each variation has its own separate character. Together they form a typical 19th century showcase of a virtuoso's catalogue of pyrotechnical tricks (false harmonics, arpeggios, playing on the G string alone, fingered octaves, left-hand pizzicato, etc.). The slower melodic interludes are reminiscent of appearances of the ùrlar, but the melody is entirely different from that of the variations.
In his autobiography, Mackenzie writes, "Years ago a Highland piper at Blair Athol enlightened my ignorance by describing a pibroch as 'Juist a sumphony, Surr.' Not far wrong." It is doubtful that Mackenzie titled his Pibroch Suite in error. Rather, the title was probably in homage to the bagpipe's "classical" music, not a description of his own composition's architecture.
The short, flashy last movement, Dance, incorporates two traditional tunes. The major-key "Leslie's Lilt" is from the Skene manuscript (c.1625), which Mackenzie knew through its publication in Dauney's Ancient Scottish Melodies. The contrasting minor-key tune, "The Humours of [the] Glen," appeared in many notable 18th century collections such as the Flores Musicæ and fiddler Neil Gow's Complete Repository. The two brief moments of slow melody towards the end of the movement are taken from the B section of this tune.