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born in Greenock, Scotland, composed during the Modern period
MacCunn was the son of a wealthy ship owner; both of his parents were musically inclined and encouraged him in this direction. He began composing at age five and by age 12, had written most of an oratorio. In 1883, at 15, MacCunn entered the Royal College of Music as the school's youngest student and his teachers included Sir Charles Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford; by 17, however, he had left the school, bitter over being treated as a social inferior (as a Scot) by his English-born fellow students. He didn't suffer for this decision, for at 17, his overture Cior Mhor entered the repertory of conductor Sir August Manns. Soon after, inspired by Sir Walter Scott, MacCunn wrote the composition for which he is most famous, the overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887). An astonishingly bold work for an 18-year-old, the overture was more authentically "Scottish" than pieces by Mendelssohn and Bruch, while retaining a sophistication and elegance equal to the concert music of any continental European composer of the period. MacCunn was heavily influenced by the programmatic music of Franz Liszt and he turned Liszt's brand of expansive Romanticism toward his own sensibilities, formed in Scotland, and thus, became as much the Scottish nationalist composer as his younger contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams would define English nationalism and Antonín Dvorák and Bedrich Smetana represented Czech nationalism. His later output included the overtures The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow, a Wagnerian-scale piece, and the dark, brooding The Ship o' the Fiend; choral works such as The Lay of the Last Minstrel; and song settings. He also wrote a pair of operas, Jeanie Deans and Diarmid, the former regarded as possibly the finest serious British opera of the late nineteenth century, while the latter was premiered at Covent Garden in 1897 and was selected for a Royal Command Performance before Queen Victoria.
Unfortunately for MacCunn, his career often took him away from composition; he had the responsibility of a wife and family, which required him not only to hold a teaching post at the Royal Academy of Music into the mid-1890s, but also to pursue work as an opera conductor, most notably with the Carl Rosa company. He received acclaim in all areas of the repertory, from operetta to Wagner's works. MacCunn's pace as a composer slackened as his health declined during the twentieth century. He resumed teaching in 1912 and also served as a conductor in Thomas Beecham's opera company late in his life. During the mid-teens, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and he died in 1916 at age 48. Only The Land of the Mountain and the Flood retained a place in the concert repertory in the decades that followed. In the 1990s, in tandem with the renewed interest in Britain's forgotten Romantic-era composers and the success of the Scottish Nationalists in restoring a Scottish parliament, MacCunn's music -- along with that of Mackenzie and McEwen, among others -- was rediscovered, performed anew, and recorded by Hyperion Records, which released his three major overtures and excerpts from Jeanie Deans, among other works. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi