Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write a choral composition for Cappella Nova, in response to a twelfth century Orcadian hymn fragment entitled Nobilis Humilis, dedicated to St Magnus, patron saint of Orkney.
Written for two parts, with harmonies in thirds, the seven Latin stanzas celebrate the life of the earl-saint, Magnus Erlendsson, who was martyred in 1115. The lyrics emphasise his gentle and pious nature.
Nobilis humilis, Magne matir stabilis Habilis, utilis, comes venerabilis Et tutor laudabilis tuos subditos Seura carnis fragilis mole positos
O noble, humble, great and steadfast martyr, Gentle and helpful, we revere You Venerable protector of our fragile hearts Placed beneath the burden of frail flesh.
The same portrayal of Magnus as a peaceful soul appears in the Orkneyinga Saga, as the young earl refuses to take up arms during the Battle of Anglesey, remaining instead on board ship singing psalms. Historians debate whether this account is accurate – it may well have been written into the saga for political reasons – but, fictional or not, I was drawn towards the anti-war sentiments of the tale.
Inspired by the account in the Orkneyinga Saga, I have composed a piece in three sections, which re-imagines Magnus’ sea voyage to Anglesey and his refusal to fight.
Section One: from the sea is composed with lyrics from Orkney Norn (O) and Shetland Norn (SH), using words relating to the sea, inviting the vocalists to inhabit the sibilant sounds of sea swell, and the pull and push of waves and wind.
sju (SH) : sea swaa (O) : noise of sea heard from a distance swaal (O) : sea swell laar (SH) : light steady breeze swap (O) : sudden gust of wind
The words are from a collection of tidal-related terms, mostly from Jamieson and Marwick dictionaries, which Alec Finlay recently published in Ebban an’ Flowan.
Section Two: psalm adopts lyrics written after psalm 77. The lyric is woven across the parts in a non-linear fashion. I invite the vocalists to imagine they are Magnus, sitting in the boat, hearing the sound of the sea storm and battle, feeling fear, awe, and then the beginnings of hope. I worked from the original text, modernising and emphasizing the sense of an animate seascape.
when the waters saw you fearing the deeps trembled fearing the seas wavered when the waters saw you
in heavens o’er the ocean skies burst with rain earth shook with wind in heavens o’er the ocean
your voice thundered out hail in the storm arrows in the clouds your voice thundered out
guide us through the sea on a path ‘tween tides your steps go unseen guide us through the sea
Section Three: to the sea returns to the waves, echoes the beginning. This section leaves the human action of the battle, which the sea is indifferent to, and comes back to the more-than-human sphere.
Reflections on process:
As is usually my practice, I began my process of composing by singing, and recording small vocal sketches, to create a rough demo of the whole piece. Normally, I would spend time with vocalist-performers, workshopping my sketch, to choose which sounds suited our particular voices, personalities, and musical journey. But this time, having never met the choir, I have had to imagine their voices. Of course, in the classical tradition, this is quite normal, and so I embraced this imaginary space, enjoying experimenting with pitch shifting my own voice to lower tenor and bass registers.
The kind of notation required for this project was also less familiar to me. I have some experience of conventional scoring, but in my previous work with vocalists I create simple mnemonic scores as learning aids, to commit the parts to memory. This time it was necessary to notate the music accurately – there will only be one short rehearsal before the first performance, so I needed to get it right. Luckily I had helpful guidance from a composer friend, Emily Doolittle. Now that sea psalm is submitted I look forward to attending the rehearsal and hearing the final outcome.
With thanks to Emily Doolittle, Luke Devlin and Alec Finlay.
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