Scottish, Sensational and Splendid: Geraldine Mucha lives on!

Post Date: 5 July 2018
Post Type: Piano Things

A Sensationally Splendid Scot who has been scandalously excluded: Discovering the music of Geraldine Mucha (1917-2012)

There is so much music waiting to be discovered and re-discovered! When thinking of neglected music by British female composers from past generations after Dame Ethel Smyth names such as Elizabeth Machonchy, Phyllis Tate, Grace Williams and Elisabeth Lutyens come to mind, as does Thea Musgrave, who only recently celebrated her 90th birthday and is currently enjoying something of a revival in fortune.
But Geraldine Mucha is a name that will be unfamiliar to many. And her story is touching and politically charged. Born in London as Geraldine Thomson, she benefitted from early lessons with Sir Arnold Bax before attending the Royal Academy of Music under the mentorship of William Alwyn and Alan Bush. She witnessed both Elgar and Strauss conducting their own music yet lived long enough to savour not only the rise of the Darnstadt school but also the post-modernist approach from composers who followed Stockhausen and others from that generation. As can well be imagined, her music contains a great deal of contrast! Mucha was writing music for ninety years, and it is only now, with generous support from the Mucha Foundation (see that recordings are beginning to appear.
Why so neglected? Geraldine emigrated to Czechoslovakia in 1945 with her husband Ji?i Mucha to live in his home city of Prague. Unfortunately, Ji?i , who had worked as a correspondent in the war, soon fell fowl of the ruling communists and was imprisoned, leaving Geraldine as a single mother, forced to bring up their only son alone. Prague was to prove her home for the remainder of her life, leaving her out of touch with the musical community in the UK. Though she was not entirely ignored in terms of performance opportunities after she joined the composers’ union in her adopted country, and though eventually her husband was released from prison, her self- effacing personality, combined with the fact that she was eventually best known as the custodian of a remarkable collection of art left by her father-in-law Alphonese Mucha, meant that she was not immediately thought of as a composer first and foremost. In her latter years Geraldine was very much a ‘Grande-dame’ of Prague, living in fin-de-siècle Parisian elegance in a lavishly beautiful baroque apartment. She had devoted much time and energy to organising exhibitions and travelling on behalf of the Alphonse Mucha designs. Yet in her time the BBC had broadcast a number of her works, and muscians of the stature of Rafael Kubelik, David Oistrakh, Leonard Bernstein and Yehudi Menuhin had expressed an interest in her music.

‘Macbeth and Other Orchestral works by Geraldine Mucha is an attractively produced new CD from ArcoDiva (UP 0192 2 231) which should go at least some of the way towards more recognition for an intriguing and original Scottish voice. The performances with the Hiradec Kralove Philharmonic are impressive: The band clearly seem to enjoy getting their teeth into both the pictorially attractive (and rather romantic) Tempest overture from 1964 as well as the much earlier but perhaps more exciting Macbeth Suite, written whilst Mucha was still a student at the Royal Academy. This is fabulous material for amateur and youth orchestras, with more than a hint of the silver screen to much of it- not a criticism but rather a sense that the author had vivid inner pictures in mind when working on both works. Indeed, recently The Solway Sinfonia in Dumfries successfully performed the overture under their inspired conductor Geoff Keating- an enterprising choice for an orchestra mainly made up of non- professionals.
The expressionism and esoteric colours of the much, much later John Webster Songs (written in 1975) make for a vivid contrast. With soprano Irena Troupova taking a stand diametrically opposite the ‘shrinking violet’ brigade of singers this certainly makes a striking impression! Troupova has certainly got a lot of presence and bravado, and it would be terrific to hear her sing this work live.
Patricia Goodson is the soloist in the Piano Concerto of 1961. There is a relative lack of substantial moderately difficult piano concertos in a reasonably accessible idiom from the 20th century, so this work could well fill a space in the repertoire for ambitious young pianists in search of unusual, cinematographic, excitingly colourful material. It certainly has more than a whiff of Celtic dance rhythms and harmony too. Goodson takes to it with consummate ease and understanding, making a great case for its structure and projecting the phrasing with intelligence and commitment.

For me though the highlight of the music and the playing is the closing track- a masterful account of Sixteen Variations for solo piano from Goodson on the Old Scottish Song ‘Ca’ the yowes’. Written in 1954 this is strikingly conceived music that never ceases to sound Scottish- in a sophisticated way. I loved the textures, craftsmanship, economy of expression, immediacy of the ideas and development, and the sense of confident individuality. Bravo. The late Erik Chisholm and Ronald Stevenson as well as the-very much alive- James McMillan and John McLeod would surely be just as impressed with this latter work as I am. More recordings and performances are awaited with much interest.

Murray McLachlan