Scott (1879-1970) was born in Oxton, England to a shipper and scholar of Greek and Hebrew, and Mary Scott (née Griffiths), an amateur pianist. He showed a talent for music from an early age and was sent to the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany to study piano in 1892 at age 12. He Studied with Iwan Knorr and belonged to the Frankfurt Group, a circle of composers who studied at the Hoch Conservatory in the late 1890s. His first symphony was performed (through the good offices of his friend Stefan George, the great German poet) when he was only twenty years old.
In 1902 he met the pianist Evelyn Suart, with whom he had a long artistic association. She championed his music, premiering many of his works, and introducing him to his publisher, Elkin, with whom he remained for the rest of his life. Evelyn Suart was also a Christian Scientist, and it was through her that Scott became interested in metaphysics. Scott dedicated his Scherzo, Op. 25 to Evelyn Suart.
Those who heard Scott play the piano commented on the extraordinary vitality of his playing, above all his always well judged rubato, and subtleties of tone and pedalling. These can be appreciated from the reissue on a Dutton CD (Collected Piano Music, vol. 1) of his performance (in the 1930s) of eight of his own pieces on piano rolls.
Scott married Rose L. Allatini in May 1921. They had two children: Vivien Mary Scott (born 1923) and Desmond Cyril Scott (born 1926). He separated from Rose following World War II. In 1943, he met Marjorie Hartston, a clairvoyante, who remained his companion until his death, and persuaded him to go on composing, despite the indifference of the musical world to his work. His neglect after 1930 was due to a very narrow view in the English musical establishment of what sort of music a modern composer ought to be writing. Undeterred, he continued to compose up until the last three weeks of his life, dying at the age of 91. By the time of his death he was remembered for only a few popular pieces (such as Lotus Land) that he had composed over sixty years before. His many books and pamphlets on occultism and alternative medecine always, however, found readers.
The first decade of the new millennium saw, however, a revival of interest in his music, stimulated by a flood of recordings, discussed below.
Scott was essentially a late romantic composer, whose style was at the same time strongly influenced by impressionism. His harmony was notably exotic. If in his early works it was perhaps over-sweet (Alban Berg dismissed his music as ‘mushy’), it became steadily more varied and more refined in his later years. Indeed it is his late works (written between 1950 and his death) that are the most individual, with their ever-shifting harmonic colours and wayward inflections of phrase and mood, capturing perfectly the way the mind shifts, backwards and forwards, between reminiscence, regrets, and self-assertion.
Scott wrote around four hundred works (though the number is deceptive, since more than half of these were short songs or piano pieces). These include two mature symphonies, four operas, two piano concertos, concertos for violin, cello, oboe and harpsichord, and three double concertos (of which the scores are now lost), several overtures, four oratorios (Nativity Hymn (1913), Mystic Ode (1932), Ode to Great Men (1936), and Hymn of Unity (1947), as well as a mass of chamber music (four mature quartets, five violin sonatas, three piano trios, and many others). Between 1903 and 1920 Scott wrote copiously for the piano. Most of these pieces were harmonically adventurous for their time and easy to play; they circulated widely in many countries of the world, in contrast to his more ambitious works, none of which received more than a handful of performances.
Scott was called the “Father of modern British music” by Eugene Goossens, and was also admired by Debussy, Ravel, his close friend Percy Grainger, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. His experiments in free rhythm, generated by expanding musical motifs, above all in his truly revolutionary First Piano Sonata of 1909, appear to have exerted an influence on Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. He used to be known as ‘the English Debussy’, though this reflected little knowledge of Scott and little understanding of Debussy.
Among the orchestral music, arguably finer than any of the symphonies are the First Piano Concerto (1913-4), Disaster at Sea (a tone poem on the sinking of the Titanic, composed in 1918-26, and published in a revised version with the title ‘Neptune’ in 1935), the Violin Concerto (1928), and ‘Neapolitan Rhapsody’ (published 1959). The shorter piano works suffer in the main from unimaginative form and texture, though the five ‘Poems’ (1912) are an important exception; more worthy of revival are the piano sonatas, especially the innovatory first (1909) and the intricate, wayward third (1956). The largest body of successful work is to be found in his chamber music, the Clarinet Quintet and Trio and the five violin sonatas being especially notable.