Songs from Northern Seas


Occasional Writings

I got to know George Bruce’s poetry when setting sonnets by Edwin Morgan for male choir (Edwin Morgan wrote an introduction to Bruce’s collected poems). I first set two poems for The Stones of the Arch (2006), a commission to celebrate Steve Reich’s 70th birthday. I set another poem, Ian in the Broch (2008) for the Estonian National Male Choir with the addition of low strings, solo baritone and obligato solo double bass, and this was followed by a third piece, Old Man and Sea (2008) for tenor and harp, written for the recent NMC Songbook project.

George Bruce was from Fraserburgh (called locally “The Broch”) in the north east of Scotland and wrote many of his poems in the Buchan dialect of Scots. His grandfather, George Bruce, was one of the earliest herring curers, and his father, George Henry Bruce, was head of the oldest herring curing firm in the north of Scotland. The four poems that I have chosen for this group of songs, and the grouping is my own, come from two different collections of George Bruce’s poetry written around the time of the Second World War (the first two just before) though none have any reference to a specific period of time. They focus, rather, on universal qualities – of man’s relationship to a harsh environment, to images of coastal life and of the sea, to that resilience and independence of spirit that Glen Gould identified in The Idea of North and which I admire unreservedly – an acceptance, and even relishing, of the concept of solitude as something positive. The first line of the fourth song is inspiring “What vision his. Northward he stares…” It is worth noting that Fraserburgh, although on the east coast, faces due north looking out towards the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, and beyond to the North Atlantic – hence the title of this group of songs. I am never happier than when I am writing for the human voice: for the two singers in my ensemble, for a capella early music groups, for male choir, for female choir, for traditional singers, jazz musicians, writing madrigals, laude, opera. I have written a number of song cycles for voice with chamber ensemble, and the chance to write within the lieder tradition is very welcome, My musical models are, unsurprisingly, the cycles of songs by the great lieder composers whose work I have loved since I first studied them many years ago – Schumann, Schubert, Wolf, Liszt, Strauss, though with perhaps a glance towards a different tradition exemplified by, say, the songs of Vaughan Williams or Percy Grainger. These songs are dedicated to the memory of George Bruce, in his centenary year. Gavin Bryars
Gavin Bryars