02 July 2021

A Northumbrian Anthem for orchestra

You may be getting the feeling that I am inordinately proud of A Northumbrian Anthem. If so, you would be slightly off the mark, but it would be my fault. You have seen me publish it in four guises, no less, roughly at yearly intervals. Let me clarify: my insistence on sharing one version after another of this ditty is a sign not of pride, but of the need to ensure that it is put to the service it was designed for: to bridge a chasm, to promote togetherness, to spread love.


The piece is, of course, a paean to the part of the world I called home for the longest and most meaningful stretch of my life, and to the handful of people with whom I shared it. Newcastle upon Tyne and, more specially, rural Northumberland are places where I took the fundamental decisions that signal definitive commitment. I nailed my colours to the mast in a way that seemed irreversible. To be forcibly uprooted from that settled configuration was more traumatic than I can describe. A situation of enforced separation supervened and it was then that I wrote A Northumbrian Anthem.


As I have explained before, I composed it to a commission which came with specific requirements demanding simplicity, accessibility and, of course, an anthemic character. This, added to the challenge of writing for solo organ, would have made for a testing brief at the best of times. The additional ingredient that I was facing a personal cataclysm gives the resulting piece, in my own perception at least, the quality of a testimony. The fact that the commissioners decided that they did not want my piece for the designated event after all does, in retrospect, fit rather well with the moment’s drama. I hear that they chose to use a composition by John Treherne instead.


To write the original organ version, I studied organ scores and took advice from a professional organist. To arrange it for brass band, I had no one to ask, so I studied what brass-band scores I could lay hands on. In both cases I was in unfamiliar territory. Writing for the orchestra is a different matter; I have been doing that since the age of seventeen, by which time I had been working as a player in an orchestra for over a year. I won’t waste everybody’s time counting how many orchestral pieces and arrangements I have written. Suffice it to say that with the orchestra I feel on home ground. Although it did take the best part of a week, it would be fair to say that the orchestration of A Northumbrian Anthem wrote itself. The music knew where to go, what orchestral spaces to occupy. It was easy to feel that the orchestra is where the piece belongs.


To address the issue I started with: do I feel proud of A Northumbrian Anthem? Pride is not the word, but the piece is very special to me. Although I wrote it away from the Northeast of England (or because of that?) all the circumstances around its composition invest it with the quality of a summation of everything I did and experienced in the region. The resulting piece moves me, which is more than I can say of most of my music. 

I cannot promise that this will be the end of the series of versions for various combinations. At the moment I feel a need to fill the space with versions that will make this music accessible to as many as possible of those who love Northumberland and the Northeast of England, and of those anywhere who share with me the belief that love, truth, loyalty and respect (including self-respect) are values worth living for and, if necessary, worth dying for.  


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