In the 1860’s Greenock was renowned for its extensive shipping business, and wide range of industries including ship building, sugar refining, textiles and potteries. At the same time the town’s rapid industrial growth had led to some appalling social conditions such as poor housing, overcrowding, poverty and ill-health.
However the same decade also saw the birth of two Greenockians, William Wallace (b1860) and Hamish MacCunn (b1868) both of whom went on to achieve considerable national success as composers in late Victorian Britain.
The two men had quite different personalities and personal lives, but it’s tempting to consider that the experience of their family lives and early background in Greenock helped shape their future development and careers.
Both men were brought up in families which were financially very comfortable, and with parents who enjoyed considerable social standing in the town. Wallace’s father, Dr James Wallace, was Greenock’s first Medical Officer of Health who campaigned vigorously for the removal of the town’s notorious slums and bad sanitation. Sadly, he did not support his son’s wish for a musical career, and as a result William first studied medicine at Glasgow University, qualifying as an eye specialist in 1888. Shortly after that he abandoned the medical profession to pursue a career in music in London, resulting in a number of vocal and orchestral works, including several symphonic poems and the mighty Creation Symphony.
Hamish MacCunn’s parents both had connections to local industries; his mother Barbara was the daughter of John Neill a local sugar refiner, whilst his father James was a ship-owner and merchant. In addition, both were highly talented musicians, who encouraged all their children in a range of cultural and musical opportunities at the family home in Ardgowan Street. At the age of fifteen Hamish won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London where he made his mark immediately. Within two years he had written the work for which he is best remembered – the concert overture Land of the Mountain and the Flood, followed by wide range of orchestral and vocal works including an opera Jeannie Deans.
From a similar environment in Greenock William Wallace and Hamish MacCunn progressed in distinct ways to national and international renown in the early part of the 20th century. But like many composers of that period, their music has become somewhat neglected and is rarely performed nowadays in concert halls. However a few selections of both composers music, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, are available on CD and are worth seeking out for serious listening.
*Hamish MacCunn died one hundred years ago on 2nd August 1916
(A fuller version of this article is published in a pamphlet, available free from the McLean Museum Greenock)