Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Musician and Composer | Number 41


Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935) followed his father (also called Alexander), grandfather and great grandfather into a musical career. Sure of his son's talent even as an eight year old, his father took him to study music in Thuringia. It must have been a huge jolt for a small boy, more so as his father died shortly after returning to Edinburgh. But he served his apprenticeship and joined the ducal orchestra. This experience gave him access to the work of contemporary European composers like Schumann, Mendelson, Wagner and Lizst.  At fifteen, he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Returning to Edinburgh when he was eighteen, he set up the Scottish Vocal Association and a string quartet. He introduced music lovers in the city to a wide range of orchestral and chamber music. He took charge of music at St George's, Charlotte Square. He also developed as a composer.

Keen to further his career and increasingly estranged from his Edinburgh family after marrying Mary Burnside, a seamstress they looked down on, he moved south. He lived for some time in Florence, composing and spending time with Franz Liszt.

In 1887, Mackenzie became principal of the Royal Academy, remaining in that post until 1924.  He also became conductor of the Royal Choral Society and the Philharmonic Society Orchestra. He was made President of the International Musical Society in 1912. He was knighted in 1895 for his services to music, and was created a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) in 1922.

His performances spanned folk, choral and symphonic music. He gave the British premieres of symphonies by Tchaikovsky and Borodin. He thrived as a player, conductor, composer and teacher.  His enjoyed friendships with Liszt, Clara Schumann, Gounod, Dvorak, Elgar and Delius. But he drew a line at Ravel's chamber music, calling it 'a pernicious influence'.


he drew a line at Ravel's chamber music, calling it 'a pernicious influence'