For bass voice, optional choir, French horn, bass clarinet, percussion, strings
Text Egil Skalgrimsson (10th century Icelandic)
First performance: Rúni Brattaberg, Cambridge University Chamber Choir, London Sinfonietta, conductor Olari Elts
Cambridge Corn Exchange, November 11th 2004
From Egil’s Saga (2004)
For solo bass voice, optional choir, chamber orchestra, optional electronics
My third opera, based on the life of Gutenberg gave me the chance to spend a great deal of time focussing on the solo bass voice – something that had not been necessary in my first two operas which feature higher voices. In “G” there are four different bass parts, each of which is a substantial role. Rúni Brattaberg, who happened to be the first singer I heard in rehearsal, took one of these parts. I was immensely impressed with Runi’s voice, we became good friends and I resolved to find an occasion to work with him in more detail.
When I was asked to propose an idea for a project with the Eastern Orchestral Board I immediately thought of the connection of the east of England with Viking history – the area where I grew up in East Yorkshire is steeped in Viking history and many of the towns and villages have names taken from the Viking invasions. As Rúni is the only professional singer to come out of the Faroe Islands and this led me also to Runi – a gentler modern version of an archetypal Viking.
The piece takes its text and narrative material from Egil’s Saga, one of the great classics of Icelandic literature set in the 10th century, but written around 200 years later. The words I set (in Icelandic) are those of Egil, an astonishingly fierce Viking warrior but also a stunning poet – one of the most original and advanced of his time. The extracts from the poems come from four different periods of Egil’s life: from a praise-poem delivered in York to King Erik Bloodaxe in order to save Egil’s own head; from a lament for the deaths of his two sons; from a poem in praise of a noble ally Arinbjorn; and his last poems written during his gradual, though furious, descent into blindness.
The scoring is essentially of low instruments: bass clarinet, bassoon, French horn, percussion, strings (no violins, just violas, celli and basses). There is an optional chorus, and the work also uses elements of environmental acoustics – field recordings and recordings of Rúni singing in the caves on the Faroes that he would use for his daily practice.