The Aesthetic Life of Cyril Scott

By Sampsel, Laurie J. | Notes, December 2014 | Go to article overview

The Aesthetic Life of Cyril Scott


Sampsel, Laurie J., Notes


The Aesthetic Life of Cyril Scott. By Sarah Collins. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Eng.: Boydell Press, 2013. [xxxi, 248 p. ISBN 9781843838074. $95.] Music examples, illustrations, list of library sigla, bibliography, index.

Proponents of Cyril Scott (1879-1970) have been delighted with the publication of new recordings and scores of his music during the past fifteen years. Much credit should be given to the composer's son, Desmond Scott, who has become a strong advocate for his father's music and has readily assisted performers and scholars alike by providing access to his father's archive. The complete solo piano works have been recorded by Leslie De'Ath in five volumes (Dutton CDLX 7150, 7155, 7166, 7183, 7224 [2005-2009], CDs). Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra have recorded many of Scott's orchestral works (including several premiere recordings) on four compact discs (Chandos CHAN 10211, 10376, 10407, 10452 [2004-2008]). Both of these labels have also recently released recordings of major chamber works (Dutton CDLX 7116 [2001], CD; Chandos CHAN 10575 [2010], CD). In 2001, Scott's Sonatina for guitar was rediscovered. Written for Andres Segovia, it has now been published and recorded. Scholarly work on Scott needs to catch up. Musicologists have called for a reevaluation of Scott's music for decades. A fairly steady stream of doctoral students have focused on Scott for their theses. One of these resulted in the book currently under review, Sarah Collins's The Aesthetic Life of Cyril Scott. The book has both strengths and weaknesses to consider.

Collins's approach is certainly intriguing and relevant, but her task is difficult. She sets out to show the influence of symbolism on Scott during his youth and how it became both a central part of his guiding aesthetic and "a pathway into a spiritual conception of his life and work." The latter refers to Scott's interest in theosophy.

Collins did not set out to write a biography, but her book depends upon it to set the foundation of her study. Divided into two parts, the first section of the book, titled "Public Indiscretions, Private Confessions: Scott's Life and Influences" is "largely psycho-biographical" (p. xxviii). The second part, "Artist, Priest, Prophet: Scott's Aesthetic Thinking" draws on the first part to examine Scott's aesthetic views. Throughout her study, Collins draws upon Scott's two autobiographies, My Years of Indiscretion (London: Mills & Boon, 1924) and Hone of Contention (New York: Arco, 1969); his books on music and other topics; his anonymous books; and letters from a variety of libraries and archives (British Library, Grainger Museum, Stefan George Archiv, University of London, and Wurttembergische Landesbibliothek).

Scott's two autobiographies are important and cannot be dismissed in any serious study of him or his work. In fact, I will quote from them in this review. But the autobiographies must be approached with skepticism. As 1 have said elsewhere of My Years of Indiscretion, "one can leave the book having gleaned few details about his [Scott's] life, much less gaining insight into his personality" (Laurie J. Sampsel, Cyril Scott: A Bio-Bibliography [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000], 129). I have described Bone of Contention as "frustratingly inadequate ... as a source of facts and dates" (Sampsel, p. 143). In short, Scott is an unreliable narrator, and caution is in order. That is why Collins's use of letters to corroborate the events of Scott's life is so valuable. When she turns to the anonymous writings by Scott (the Initiate series, Autobiography of a Child, etc.) even greater caution should be used. Collins mentions this, saying "... it would be extremely unwise to trust the word of the 'unreliable narrator'" (p. 17). Yet at times, Collins does just that if it helps her prove a point. While Scott's anonymous books are surely autobiographical to some extent, that extent has not been determined. …

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