Cyril Scott (1879-1970) was truly one of the more remarkable men of his generation. Far ahead of his time in many ways, in others he was inescapably a product of the Victorian age in which he grew up. As John Ireland his friend and exact contemporary wrote to Scott in 1949 “You were the first British composer to write music which was non-academic, free and individual in style and of primary significance. Long before I could write anything in the least worthwhile you had made a great reputation in England and on the Continent”.
His music, though certainly the most important, is only one aspect of his enormously varied creative output. He wrote the lyrics for many of his songs and the libretti for his operas. He published forty books; on alternate medicine, ethics, religion, occultism, psychology, humour and music; wrote two autobiographies forty years apart and six volumes of poetry. Many of the books he wrote remain in print today and one trilogy in particular, The Initiate, written in the 1920s was optioned just recently for a film and continues to be translated into other languages, the latest being Swedish and Romanian.
In his staunch advocacy of alternate medicine decades before it became mainstream Scott was again ahead of his time. His poetry on the other hand is very much of the period, deeply romantic and infused throughout with a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. In the same mode he designed some of his own furniture, trying, as he said, to make his lodgings look as much like a monastic cell as possible. More practically, he later devised a unique piano. It was a regular upright but with a sloping front replacing the lid to form a broad writing desk leaving him space beneath to play on and compose.
Aware that some people felt he was spreading himself too thin, he defended himself in his later biography Bone of Contention, (1969) by saying: “Holding the belief that the more subjects one can, within reason, become interested in, the less time and inclination one has to be unhappy, I will make no excuses for what the friends of my music call my versatility, and its detractors the dissipation of my energies (for) in a sad plight is the composer who has no sideline or pastime to turn to during those desolate periods when musical ideation gives out, leaving but that painful sense of emptiness and frustration so familiar to all creative artists.”
Scott was born in Oxton, near Liverpool to a middle class family in 1879. As his son, I truly find it hard to realise that I’m intimately connected to someone who, as a student in Frankfurt heard Clara Schumann play and remembered his teachers taking the day off to go to Vienna for Brahms’ funeral. He was born into a world we wouldn’t recognise today, except through costume dramas on the BBC. It was a world of the horse and carriage and cobbled streets, a world without cars, planes, radio, TV, computers, CDs or the Internet. The last time I saw him we sat in front of the TV together and he watched a man land on the moon. That’s quite a change in one lifetime!
Scott’s father was a businessman involved in shipping whose chief interest was the study of Greek. His mother played the piano “with a certain superficial brilliance, and had even written a waltz which somehow got into print.” (Bone of Contention) As a young child he was abnormally sensitive and precocious, bursting into tears at any music that affected him.
He played the piano almost before he could talk, picking out tunes from the barrel organs heard in the street outside. When he was 12 his parents sent him to the Conservatory in Frankfurt to study piano where he was the youngest pupil accepted up to that time. He stayed there for eighteen months, came home, decided he was more interested in composition than in teaching or being a concert pianist and returned to the Conservatory when he was not quite 17. There at one time or another he met Norman O’Neill, Balfour Gardiner, Roger Quilter and the one he remained closest to, Percy Grainger, the five musicians becoming collectively known as the Frankfurt Group. Grainger became not only an especially good friend but also a tireless advocate of Scott’s music, playing his compositions, in particular the Sonata No. 1, all over the world. He was also extraordinarily generous to him. During WWII, having earlier become an American citizen and with restrictions on taking money out of the country, he insisted that Scott be given all his British royalties and after the war lent him his cottage in Pevensey Bay rent-free for two and a half years. Success came early for Scott. His First Symphony was performed in Darmstadt in 1901 and his Second under Henry Wood in London two years later.
It took one hundred years, though, before his next Symphony, The Muses, had its first hearing in 2003! For the first quarter of the last century he was in the forefront of modern British composers, hailed by Eugene Goossens as ‘the father of modern British music’ and admired by men as diverse as Elgar, Debussy, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. By the time he died in 1970, however, he was remembered by the general public for little more than Lotus Land (1905) and small piano pieces such as Water Wagtail (1910), which at one time, according to Lewis Foreman, was used as the signature tune to the Test Match broadcasts on the BBC!
What caused such a sharp decline is hard to assess. Musical tastes change. Avant garde can easily become vieux jeu. Maybe Scott’s highly individual style, which to listeners more accustomed to the work of Stanford and Parry would initially have appeared radical and ‘modern’, began to seem dated. Or, maybe Diana Swann was right when in a perceptive article for the British Music Society in 1996 she wrote, “ ... Perhaps too much hope was pinned on him at a point when England’s fading Imperial importance craved a compensatory and valuable place in European music.” Another possibility, as she noted, was that after WWI, “English music was encouraged to progress only along the folksong/Tudor revival/Christian agnostic path” and the new composers finding favour had all been trained at the Royal College or Academy of Music.