The career of Hamish MacCunn illustrates the vital importance of choral music, including festival commissions, to British composers. Since the time of Handel choral music had played an integral role in the musical fabric of British life. Even Mendelssohn, whom the British Isles adopted as their own, cemented his reputation with oratorios performed at choral festivals. In the nineteenth century the rise of tonic sol-fa and the popularity of choral festivals and provincial choral societies provided opportunities for composers to write large works (such as oratorios and cantatas), as well as smaller genres (including partsongs, occasional pieces, and sacred music), to secure their professional reputations. Composers who successfully fulfilled festival commissions for large choral compositions—like Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Edward Elgar, and Ralph Vaughan Williams—elevated their careers.
Within this choral-based music culture MacCunn emerged as a leading composer in Britain. His meteoric rise to fame on the back of his Scottish choral-orchestral works performed at London’s Crystal Palace shows how successful choral compositions could launch a composer’s career. After achieving early prestige with Scottish works, however, he failed to complete an 1890 Norwich Festival commission, which marked the beginning of his slow decline as a composer. Realizing the limitations of his self-created Scottish artistic persona, MacCunn began to explore new genres and styles, though commissions for occasional works generally failed to spark his musical imagination. MacCunn’s twenty-five extant unaccompanied partsongs—all but four of which were written between 1883 and 18935—illustrate what he could write when free from national tendencies and reflect the evolution of his musical style better than his Scottish works. This exploration of MacCunn’s choral works (particularly his a cappella choral compositions) provides an interesting perspective from which to view his life, career, and musical output. It also sheds light on the importance of choral music in Britain, the challenges faced by composers of the time, and the complex issues of national identity in the British Isles.