John Blackwood McEwen

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Piano Sonatina in G minorSolwayThe Thought in MusicA Little SonataViolin Sonata No.2String Quartet No.4Martinmas TideString Quartet No.9Charm Me AsleepLet Me the Canakin Clink2 PoemsPiano Sonata in E minor3 PreludesVignettes from La Cote d'ArgentO that men would praise the LordAn Introduction to an Unpublished Edition of the Pianoforte Sonatas of BeethovenNugaeString Quartet No.8
Sir John Blackwood McEwen (13 April 1868 – 14 June 1948) was a Scottish classical composer and educator. He was professor of harmony and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London, from 1898 to 1924, and principal from 1924 to 1936. He was a prolific composer, but made few efforts to bring his music to the notice of the general public.
John Blackwood McEwen was born in Hawick in 1868, the son of James McEwen and his first wife, Jane, née Blackwood. James McEwen was a Presbyterian minister; he moved to a church in Glasgow, where his son grew up. McEwen gained an MA degree from Glasgow University in 1888, between then and 1891 he studied music while working as a choirmaster, first in Glasgow and later at Lanark parish church. In 1891 he moved to London to gain wider musical experience, and by 1893 he had composed two string quartets, three symphonies, a Mass and other works. In that year he entered the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), where he studied with Ebenezer Prout, Frederick Corder and Tobias Matthay.
While a student at the RAM McEwen won the Charles Lucas medal, and had his First String Quartet played at one of the academy's concerts. Two years later he returned to Scotland, as a teacher of piano and composition at the Athenaeum School of Music (later the Royal Scottish Academy of Music) and choirmaster of South parish church, Greenock.
In 1898 McEwen accepted an invitation from Sir Alexander Mackenzie, principal of the RAM, to become professor of harmony and composition. He held the post for the next 26 years. Among his students were the composers William Alwyn, Dorothy Howell and Priaulx Rainier. He was known as an exacting teacher, who emphasised discipline, but encouraged a liberal aesthetic outlook in his pupils.
In 1902 McEwen married Hedwig Ethel Cole (1878 or 1879–1949), daughter of Henry Alwyn Bevan Cole, naval architect. There were no children of the marriage. In 1905, together with Frederick Corder and Tobias Matthay, McEwen co-founded the Society of British Composers; he also served as president of Incorporated Society of Musicians He held radically egalitarian political views, and wrote a series of left-wing tracts, including Abolish Money and Total Democracy.
In 1924, on Mackenzie's retirement, McEwen was appointed principal of the RAM. The Manchester Guardian said of his tenure that although he did not go out of his way to seek popularity among his students and staff, "his unfailing loyalty and integrity won him the respect of all those who came into touch with him". In 1926 he received the honorary degree of DMus from Oxford University. He was knighted in 1931, and retired in 1936.
McEwen died in 1948 in London, aged 80. His widow died the following year. He bequeathed the residue of his estate to the University of Glasgow to help promote the performance of chamber music by composers of Scottish birth and descent.
McEwen's biographer Jeremy Dibble writes that the composer's orchestral music shows an indebtedness "to the highly coloured, post-Wagnerian palette of Strauss, Skryabin, and the late French Romantics such as Chausson, Dukas, and Charpentier … a late-Romantic propensity that even extended to 'Sprechgesang' in the Fourteen Poems for 'inflected voice' and piano (1943)." Dibble comments that McEwen's large output of chamber music "reveals a creative mind disposed towards more abstract, polyphonic thought." Bernard Benoliel, in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians observes that McEwen's music "synthesizes Scottish (and sometimes French) folk idioms and the Romantic legacy of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, and the French and Russian schools; Debussy was particularly influential".
Dibble writes that In the Three Border Ballads (1905–8) the composer's "mastery of form and orchestration, backed by a powerful emotional impetus, rivals mature Elgar". McEwen's best-known orchestral work was the Solway Symphony of 1922; it was the first British symphony to be recorded for the gramophone. He wrote a Viola Concerto for Lionel Tertis, described by The Times after its premiere in 1901 as "interesting and very well written". The consensus of critics is that McEwen's finest works are his chamber compositions.
McEwen's music achieved little public recognition, partly because he rarely sought it. Dibble remarks that he was "seemingly unconcerned about the dissemination of his own works". Despite that, McEwen nevertheless did much to further the cause of other British composers, particularly as a prominent member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in the years between the First and Second World Wars.
In recent years Chandos Records has revived many of McEwen's works, issuing three CDs of large-scale pieces including A Solway Symphony, Hills o`Heather for Cello and Orchestra, Where the Wild Thyme Blows, Three Border Ballads, and Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity; three more CDs of McEwen's string quartets; and a single CD of solo piano music.
McEwen wrote two musical text-books: Exercises on Phrasing in Pianoforte Playing, and The Principles of Phrasing and Articulation in Music . The Musical Times considered that his chief literary contribution was The Thought in Music: An Inquiry into the Principles of Musical Rhythm, Phrasing and Expression.