Text: George Bruce
Male choir, solo double bass, solo baritone, strings (violas, celli, basses)
Ian in the Broch
For solo baritone, solo double bass, male choir, strings
Text: George Bruce
For a recent work, for string quartet and 4 part vocal ensemble commissioned for Steve Reich’s 70th birthday, I chose two poems by the Scottish poet George Bruce, whose work I discovered when setting sonnets by Edwin Morgan. I decided to use his poem, Ian in the Broch, for a new work for the Estonian National Male Choir and to use the same forces as those in Schubert’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassen, which is included in my concert with the choir. Schubert uses only low strings (violas downwards), which is something I have used in many works starting with my first opera Medea (1982) and this is a formation that characterises my own ensemble, which has 2 violas, cello and bass at its heart. Here, though, I also add a solo baritone voice and an obligato solo double bass (written specially for Daniel Nix, the soloist in my bass concerto, which also has no violins in the orchestra).
George Bruce is a poet from the east of Scotland (Edwin Morgan is from the west) and write also in Scots, an essentially east coast language (Gaelic is from the west) and wrote a number of poems in this language (Edwin Morgan translated Mayakovsky into Scots). “Broch”, for example, is the local Scots name for the east coast fishing port Fraserburgh, George Bruce’s home town and he also uses two Scots expressions in this poem: “fou’s aa?” (“how’s everybody?”) and “fit’s deein?” (“what’s doing?”). Ian in the Broch is a poem whose narrative is revealed in its dedication:
“To Ian McNab, civil engineer and singer, who sang the Iona Gloria in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, at a commemoration of the 1400th anniversary of the death of Saint Columba, memorably.”
There are references in the poem to the occasion when George Bruce and Ian McNab climbed the steps of the Kinnaird Head lighthouse whose three ton light could be moved by one finger, once set in motion. Bruce from one of his poems, which referred to “ballbearing frictionless lamp” but Ian McNab pointed out that they were not ballbearings but “tapered rollers” and this was the genesis of the poem.
In my setting I allude several times to Schubert’s piece, especially in the orchestral strings. However, I do not quote the Iona Gloria directly, but rather allow an extended, almost baroque, expression of “Gloria” as the duet for baritone solo and double bass that ends the piece. I take this idea from the fact that, in the poem, the word is written “GLORIA!” in capital letters, and followed by an exclamation mark!
Text of Ian in the Broch
(To Ian McNab, civil engineer and singer, who sang the Iona Gloria in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, at a commemoration of the 1400th anniversary of the death of Saint Columba, memorably.)
Returned, but never away.
Rain storms at arrival, but
sun prevails. Brightness is all,
white on the wings of the glancing
fulmar. Wave breaks, white light
shakes from its blue. All one
to him at the centre, an internet
in himself: hardly a step
at the harbour, and another
McNab has a word with him.
This is the flower of friendships
engendered in the generations,
caught up now in this talk-talking
town, aaye toun, ‘fou’s aa?’
‘fit’s deeing?’, and on again
as if heaven were not about him
in this place in time, where
the running boy runs forever
in the mind, yet he would know,
know his place, know how
the lighthouse light projects its beam,
timely, exact on the dark waters.
But look at the tapered rollers
bearing the weight of the
gyrating mirrors, steel supports,
that issue the light to all seamen.
Now he walks the town simply
as if the common talk’s enough,
but from him, from head and lips –