Father Sydney MacEwan was unique, a man whose lyrical tenor voice brought him accolades from all over the world and made him one of Scotland’s greatest ambassadors, while at the same time following his vocation as a priest, serving his parishioners in his parish in Argyle. Few great artists have been able to bring happiness to others in such different spheres and in return have the contentment brought by the affection of his flock and his other friends scattered in different countries in their millions.
Sydney MacEwan was born in Glasgow in October 1909, the son of a Scottish travelling salesman and an Irish mother, who brought the family up single-handed after the early death of her husband. Both sides of the family were musical, and he grew up in an atmosphere where the traditional Celtic songs and melodies were cherished and performed. His older brother was already a fine amateur pianist, so young Sydney was taught the violin. His singing voice developed early and he appeared in public for the first time when he was ten, in 1919. The family had gone on holiday to the seaside at Dunoon, and there was little spare cash for ice-creams or drinks, so his brother entered him in a children’s singing competition. Fresh from the beach, dressed in sailor’s jumper and faded cords, he sang ‘My Ain Wee Hoose’, and despite the competition of a lot of pretty girls, came away with the first prize of seven and sixpence – enough to keep the boys in rowing boats for the rest of the holiday.
He was educated by the Jesuits at St. Aloysius College at Garnet Hill in Glasgow and after matriculation went on to Glasgow University, where he appeared in many student shows, and was encouraged by the Lord Rector of the University, Compton MacKenzie, to make a career in music, and while still a student made many radio appearances for the Scottish regional station, specialising in children’s programmes. MacKenzie was adamant that Sydney should do something with his voice, and took him to London to meet the great Irish tenor, John McCormack, who agreed with MacKenzie, and with their support won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he had the finest possible teacher – Plunkett Greene.
After his studies at the Royal Academy, Sydney MacEwan sang wherever he could – concerts, solo performances, radio – all with increasing success, and in 1934 made the first records in what was to be a long and prolific career on disc. But although outwardly he appeared happy with his rise to fame, he had a nagging feeling that he should be doing something else, and after spending a year where he made seven retreats to seek spiritual guidance, he abandoned his professional life and went to the Vatican, where he began his studies for the priesthood at Scots College. He was ordained at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow in 1944. While studying, he had still made occasional records, and had certainly not been forgotten by his public. On the day of his ordination both Radio Eireann and the Australian Broadcasting Commission broadcast special programmes telling his life story and celebrating his new life.
But much of his old life remained. His church superiors gave him permission to continue recording and give a limited number of concerts that could be fitted into his new works as a priest. So, during school holidays when he was teaching, or when on leave from being an RAF chaplain, Father Sydney MacEwan made overseas tours, most prominently to the United States and Australia, where he was given the welcome usually reserved for royalty or pop singers. His large earnings on these overseas trips were handed to the Church Extension Fund in the Diocese of Argyle. By now, he was parish priest of St. Margaret’s in Lochgilphead in Argyle, which his singing had helped to rebuild. His parishioners became used to his absences and looked forward to his stories of new places he had seen.
The recordings in this collection are the earliest made by Father Sydney MacEwan and include all of the recordings he made between 1934 and 1936. The light tenor voice is amazingly mature for a young singer of twenty-five, as is the inate understanding he brings to his repertoire of Scots and Irish songs. Most are accompanied by his friend, Duncan Morrison, at the piano, sometimes with the addition of a string trio. The effortless lyricism of his interpretations was described in The Gramophone magazine by his original mentor, Sir Compton MacKenzie: “Sydney MacEwan’s art is the art that conceals art. Audiences suppose that what looks easy must have been easy. I have often told the story of my Irish gardener to whom I played a record by Fritz Kreisler. He enjoyed it, but at the end he asked if I had ever heard his neighbourhood violinist. “Ah, he was a splendid fiddler. You could see the sweat pouring off him when he was playing.” Well, there is no sweat pouring off Sydney MacEwan. Every song is sung with the grace of a natural artist who has had the patience and the humility to learn his job.
It is now too late to hear this kindly, unassuming man in concert, but his records continue to show how the simple songs of his people were welcomed everywhere. His superb diction and his artistry as a singer made him the finest interpreter of Celtic music of his day. Father Sydney MacEwan’s warm charm is implicit throughout, and his sincerity is obvious and heartening. There have been many great singers over the years. Father MacEwan has the blessing of also being a great man.
© 1989 KEVIN DALY