To compose or not to compose?

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With our up-coming visit to Ballachulish, we felt it would be nice to make something special out of our Service of Sung Evensong at St John’s. The building, the beautiful rural setting, the local history (gory as it is) …they all tell of a long-standing place of worship in this somewhat isolated (and perhaps a bit sad), community, close to the Vale of Weeping, Glencoe.

The choice of music for such a location and occasion must be determined by the wish of people to join in music they know, and the fact that evening hymns must be there. The Chants may or may not be known, the Responses should be known by a least some.

But to make it somewhat special, perhaps an anthem would be in order. So what should we do ?….pick an old favourite, do something extrovert with modern harmonies etc, or write and learn something original.

Scottish music has some rather unique features….the drone of the bagpipes, the scotch ‘snap’, the almost-plainchant simplicity of the melodic line of local music, and the obvious ‘sadness’ in much of the music, stemming from the nation’s history.

The name, St John’s, led me to thinking of some verses from Revelation about the ‘new heaven and earth’ replacing the ‘old heaven and earth’.

I used a mysterious organ introduction (with simulated bagpipe-drone) leading to a simple tune by the men, and a response from the ladies. A harmony of thirds gives the plainchant ‘feel’, small triplet figures simulate waves on the adjacent loch, and the climb to the high notes and descent indicate the soaring peaks of the area. Two part harmony only appears two thirds of the way through. A reprise of the early mysterious notes sweeps to the final phrases…’He shall wipe away each tear’, by the ladies, and then two- and four-part harmony take us to the final words of …’the former things have now passed away’. Instead of a gloriously-loud ending, the organ gives us a simple rendition of the original melody line……..

So there we have the dissection of this new piece. When it sees the light of day, I hope that it achieves the effects I wanted from it, but that has to be left to the listeners to decide. Let’s hope the Good Lord is forgiving of the paucity of the content, and the presence of all my errors!

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