Hawick set to honour its great composer

Hawick composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen, whose exhibition and concert in the Heart of Hawick.
Hawick composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen, whose exhibition and concert in the Heart of Hawick.

Hawick-born musician, teacher and composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen is being honoured with what is believed to be the first tribute exhibition about him, and a tribute concert, at the Heritage Hub in January.

The event will open on Saturday, January 5, at noon with a free short lunchtime recital when violinist Andrew Sherwood, professor of violin at Trinity Music College in London, and pianist Jim Letham, former head of music at Hawick High School, will play excerpts from McEwen’s music.

The concert on Sunday afternoon, January 27, featuring McEwen’s music, will also include a visit from Dr Alasdair Mitchell of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, who is the leading authority on McEwen’s music.

John Blackwood McEwen was born in East Bank United Presbyterian – now Trinity –Church manse on April 13, 1868, son of the Reverend James McEwen and Jane (nee Blackwood). In 1872, following his mother’s death, the family moved to Glasgow. A year later, the Reverend McEwen married his second wife – a Hawick woman, Margaret Melrose, whose father John ran the Hawick engineering firm of James Melrose & Sons.

John McEwen studied at Glasgow University and later at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He returned to Glasgow in 1895 where he was appointed professor of pianoforte, harmony and composition at the Athenaeum School of Music – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Three years later, in 1898, he was invited back to London to join the staff of the Royal Academy of Music as professor of harmony and composition, and rose to become its principal from 1924 to 1936. In 1926 he was awarded the degree of Muc. Doc. honoris causa from the University of Oxford, and in 1931 he was honoured with a knighthood. Even though he spent most of his working life in London, he was recognised during his lifetime as one of Scotland’s leading composers, and its traditional folk music is often expressed in his compositions, such as ‘Prince Charlie’, ‘Three Border Ballads’, ‘Hills o’ Heather’, the ‘Solway’ symphony and his evocative ‘Where the Wild Thyme Blows’.

Describing his style of music, McEwen’s obituary in the Glasgow Herald in 1948 read: “[It] has an intimate quality that does not compel attention, but by its excellent craftsmanship and refinement of feeling makes a real appeal to those who get to know it.” McEwen’s chamber music, for which he was most famous, included violin and piano sonatas, and 13 string quartets.

His obituary in The Times added: “Like many thoughtful Scotsman, he had a philosophical turn of mind, and this found a further outlet in a number of critical writings, of which the most profound is ‘The Thought of Music’ (1909), which contained some interesting and original discussions of the nature of rhythm.”

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Hawick provost George Fraser said: “We salute Scotland’s greatest living composer, and our pleasure in doing so is enhanced by the knowledge that you are, in truth, a Borderer and ‘one of us’.”

Sir John died in London on June 14, 1948, a few weeks following a series of BBC broadcasts celebrating his compositions.

Hawick Live’s Gordon Macdonald said: “This is, as far as we know, the only exhibition ever organised as a tribute to Sir John Blackwood McEwen, and we trust it will stimulate a renewed appreciation of his music.”

Both the exhibition and the concert are thanks to the work of Hawick Music Live!, the Heritage Hub, Hawick Museum and the Heart of Hawick.