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Views And Reviews: Alexander Mackenzie's Britannia Overture

Paul Serotsky introduces a work by Alexander Campbell Mackenzie – “An accomplished and prolific composer, in his day he was – within Britain’s parochial shores – highly influential. Nowadays, though, he is almost entirely neglected. Yet, the impression he made on Elgar was such that, on hearing his music, folk tend to think it sounds rather like Elgar. That’s reason enough, I reckon, for dusting it off and putting it back where it belongs – before the public.’’

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Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935) – Britannia – A Nautical Overture

An observation, first mooted in 1866, suggested that England was the only cultured country without its own music. It contained more than a grain of truth, even if for “England” we read “Great Britain”. The “Brits”, probably too busy with their Industrial Revolution, seemed to have tucked their indigenous “classical” music away in the cloisters. Oh, there were some fine British composers – but, at best, they imparted a local flavour to a menu already served, consumed and digested in mainland Europe. Musically, Britain was indeed a backwater, producing plenty of also-rans but regrettably no front-runners.

Then, in 1899, Elgar’s Enigma Variations put paid to all that. However, this bombshell didn’t come out of nowhere: Elgar had long been simmering on the back burner. In particular, as a provincial orchestral violinist he’d been busy soaking up influences like blotting-paper does ink. Arguably the most notable influence came courtesy of the 1881 Worcester première of a cantata called “The Bride”. Elgar was bowled over by the composer’s “masterly orchestration”, exclaiming, “Here was a man fully equipped in every department of musical knowledge.”

That man was the eminent Scot, Alexander Campbell Mackenzie. An accomplished and prolific composer, in his day he was – within Britain’s parochial shores – highly influential. Nowadays, though, he is almost entirely neglected. Yet, the impression he made on Elgar was such that, on hearing his music, folk tend to think it sounds rather like Elgar. That’s reason enough, I reckon, for dusting it off and putting it back where it belongs – before the public.

Cruikshank’s caricature “Saturday Night at Sea” provided the spark for “Britannia” (1894) which, incidentally, ended the concert at which the Enigma Variations made its debut! Its bright and breezy façade is a window onto a wealth of ingenuity. The bare bones of the opening become a crank-handle to start the motor of a sonata-form. The fizzy, busy first subject is enlivened by some sly syncopations and judiciously-placed triplets, whilst the eminently hummable second subject slips with seamless ease into the development. Mackenzie’s reprise is far from literal, each theme being varied and embellished with captivating counterpoint.

In addition to the main subjects, two “traditional” tunes are pressed into service. Mackenzie deftly deploys a strand of “Jack’s the Lad” to help sew the seams, but his use of Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!” is a master-stroke. Not content with mere quotation, Mackenzie weaves the theme, both plastically and elastically, into the very texture of his music. He may have cadged the idea from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, but he makes so much more of it!

As the Yorkshire Herald reported of a concert given on 6 May 1903, “It opened with Mackenzie's ‘Britannia Overture’, which approaches very nearly to the popular. It was given with a great deal of spirit and was greatly enjoyed.” Let that be as true today as it was then!

© Paul Serotsky


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