Ken Walton: Time to reappraise the work of Scots composer Charles O'Brien

Obscurity can be explained, but it is not always deserved. Take the case of Edinburgh composer Charles O'Brien, born in 1882. He was prominent in the musical life of the Scottish capital, studied composition with Hamish MacCunn, and wrote an interesting canon of orchestral and chamber works that had received favourable performances and broadcasts by the time he died in 1968. Yet we know virtually nothing about him today.

Charles OBrien
Charles OBrien

He was brought to my attention by his grandson, David O’Brien, also a composer, in the context of a major recording project aimed at rescuing his grandfather’s music from oblivion. The result is a substantial CD series on Toccata Classics, the latest of which – Volume One of the Complete Chamber Music – has just been released in anticipation of the 50th anniversary, on 27 June, of the composer’s death.

The disc features two Piano Trios which were among his final compositions. The equally significant Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, which O’Brien considered among his very best works, will feature in Volume Two. Like all the previous recordings, these are pieces that deserve to be heard. And still to come, promises David O’Brien, are enough songs to fill three CDs.

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O’Brien’s problem was clearly an unwillingness to embrace early 20th century experimentalism – he was more inclined to recline comfortably in a bygone style. His Symphony in F minor is Brahms by any other name, its sturdy Romanticism more reliant on seamless craftsmanship than any sense of provocation or challenge.

David O’Brien puts this stylistic retro-ism down to accident of time and place. “I can’t imagine why he would have written anything avant-garde,” he says. “By studying with MacCunn, a pupil of Stanford and Parry, both of whom were very conservative and taught according to strict Germanic principles, everything he experienced would have been rooted in the Mendelssohn/Brahms tradition.”

Moreover, having grown up in Edinburgh, been a pupil at George Watsons (at roughly the same time as another recently rediscovered Edinburgh-born composer, Cecil Coles), then undertaken Oxford and Dublin degrees by correspondence, he never really travelled much out of Scotland, other than to examine for the London College of Music.

“Edinburgh was very much a backwater during grandad’s formative years, where the city’s arbiter of musical taste, Donald Tovey, and his Reid Orchestra presented programmes that did not look adventurously toward the emerging avant-garde. The advice to most young Scottish composers then was, if you want to make your name, head south if you want to be accepted.”

O’Brien stayed put, and continued to work as an organist in Edinburgh, as conductor of the Bach Choir and Royal Choral Union, and as director of music at the School for the Deaf.

But even if early works, such as the Piano Sonata in E minor, seem preoccupied by antiquated musical discourse, what we find in the Piano Trios is the mature outcome of all that: two hefty monuments to 19th century musical expression written as late as the 1940s and 50s.

Listening to these in performances by violinist Yuri Kalnits, cellist Alexander Volpov and pianist Oleg Poliansky, there is something honest and absorbing about O’Brien’s music. The Andantino in the B flat major Trio, for instance, assimilates a haunting Brahmsian opening, darkly impassioned, with a central section that suddenly alludes to Scottishness.

And it’s that latter aspect that really opens our eyes to a deep-rooted originality in O’Brien’s music, and which informs a whole series of colourful character works – some bearing such obvious and unpretentious titles as Scottish Scenes – that complement his more stoical output.

Among them is the gorgeous concert overture Ellangowan, written in 1909 (the same year Stravinsky’s Firebird was commissioned) and premiered in 1914 by the Edinburgh Amateur Orchestral Society prior to further performances in Bournemouth and Eastbourne, and many years later, after O’Brien’s death, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Inspired by Scott’s novel Guy Mannering, and named after the Scottish Borders house where much of the action is set, the Scottishness of the music is charmingly subtle and sophisticated. O’Brien eschews direct quotation of Scots tunes, integrating instead references to Scots snap, pentatonic melodies and even a Strathspey within a disciplined and cogent structure.

“There are definitely two stylistic strands to his music,” O’Brien’s grandson agrees. “But it has so much personality that pulls it together.” Ellangowan definitely deserves to be performed more often. “It could be played by most orchestras, from the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra to the RSNO.”

I’m inclined to agree. There are undoubted gems deserving to be heard afresh and in a live context. Go on, let’s do him the honour.

Charles O’Brien: The Complete Chamber Music, Volume One is out now on Toccata. Information on all previous O’Brien releases is at