Ian Major (b. 1947) has developed a deep affection for the northwest of Scotland and he has incorporated the folk melodies of this remote region into the ten titles which form his 'Scottish Opus'. Here he talks about the background to his fascination for Gaelic culture and how he has absorbed the traditional music of the Highlands into his own compositions.
Ian Major in the Coigach Hills, north of Ullapool - where it all started!
"I am Aonghus Beag - Young Angus - son of Angus, son of Hector, son of Donald, son of Calum, son of Donald MacLellan."
What a name! Shades of Robert Graves' "I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus . . . " and this one was certainly as impressive in its original Gaelic: "Aonghus Beag mac Aonghuis 'ic Eachainn, Mac 'ill'ialain . . ."
Aonghus Beag, MBE died in 1966 but even in his eighties he would spend the summer alone looking after his sheep in the croft where he was born in 1869 on the shores of Loch Eynort, South Uist.
It was his way of life and that of others close by - Peigi and Mairi Macrae, the bard Seonhaidh Campbell; Donald Ross, Sandy Fraser and Murdo Mackenzie on the mainland - that first attracted me to the Gaelic peoples' oral traditions, their Ceilidh of stories, songs, dances, pipe and fiddle music.
When at the RCM, my teacher of composition told me, "you must have something to say." This was way back in the sixties. In the eighties I believed I had found it on a first visit to Ullapool where one or two people were heard to speak 'strangely'. I would try to make some of the stories, poetry and music of this 'strange' language live on but for an instrument for which it was not intended and thus introduce countless oft-called 'musically introverted' organists to a new genre for their instrument as well as helping to keep this rich oral heritage alive. Perhaps, with study, an outsider could also create such beautiful tunes and so some of the work in the 'Scottish Opus' uses original melody which tries to match the superlative Donald Ross. No modern college students of composition here - just people with an excellent aural memory, natural melody makers of a very high calibre shaped by their traditions, landscape and lifestyle.
Many of the older generations did not read or write their own language. Most were always singing to some degree - it was not the voice that mattered but what they were singing about! Peigi MacRae for example had recorded some two hundred and seventy songs by the time of her death in 1968. Songs for all possible occasions in her life - she was always singing in her job as one of the maids at Boisdale House. Milking songs, spinning songs, lullabies, laments . . . many learnt from her parents in their first language of Gaelic. As such these songs (unaccompanied) were often very old or just composed yesterday when, perhaps, a new road had been completed! Passed on from parent to child in the usual oral tradition they could go back centuries. When listening to the storyteller in the blackhouses 'aig an teine' (at the fire) in the long winter evenings when no work could be done on the crofts, the stories could often make you feel as if the subjects were just outside and not over many centuries earlier, even as far back as the time of St. Patrick!
Thankfully, many have 'collected' this tradition and I hope I have helped to acknowledge their work in some small way. For the musician, Father Alan MacDonald, John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw in particular have left much material which might otherwise have been lost. Much of this is held at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh University and also John Lorne Campbell's lifetime collection in Canna House where he and his wife (Margaret Fay Shaw) spent over fifty years together. This is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. Not all my opus deals with the folk melodies of the oral tradition but it is hoped that the music will help to keep alive the dance, song, poetry, stories and so forth from this infinite heritage handed down from the northwest of Great Britain.
The Scottish Opus
1. Gaelic Suite 'Coigach'
2. Four Lullabies from South Uist
3. Three Miniatures
4. Four Laments
5. Gesain agus Sgeulachd
6. Four Versets
8. Three Miniatures, set two
9. Four Lullabies from South Uist, set two
10. Gaelic Suite 'Invercauld'
Other organ works with a Scottish connection:
Six Trumpet Miniatures (three containing Gaelic melody)
Four Pieces from the poetry of Sir Walter Scott (manuals only)
Blàhan Coèlmhor (Musical Flowers) - Three Masses, each dedicated to a primary collector of the Gaelic oral traditions.
Notes on The Scottish Opus:
Gaelic Suites 'Coigach' and 'Invercauld' Op. 1 & 10
Coigach is a region of mountain and moor north of Ullapool on the way to Lochinver and Achiltibuie. It was near here that both Sandy Fraser and Murdo Mackenzie had their homes. The first suite contains amongst other movements a 'strathspey' - the traditional slow dance of Scotland with dotted rhythms, and a meditation on Cailin mo, rùin-sa . . . Donald Ross's famous tune which was the first piece of the entire collection conceived in the cathedral church of St. Andrew, Inverness.
The view from Murdo Mackenzie's old croft at Blughasary north of Ullapool in the Coigach Hills
Invercauld was the final work in the original set and deals with the Scot's marching tune of the same name. Also used is a Gaelic song from Loch Broom Like the Swan on the Lake by a Mrs Mackenzie of Ullapool. The poet Burns was well aware of the main tune: his poem O Tibbie, I hae seen the day was to be sung to the tune of Invercauld's Reel. Both suites have four movements.
Lullabies from South Uist Op. 2 & 9
Of obvious use in the crofts, some of the melodies have been adapted to suit other purposes, for example Tàladh ar Slànair - the Saviour's Lullaby (Op. 2 no. 2) was sung as a hymn at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. These eight quiet pieces range from the most haunting of all the tunes used to the typical Mozartian Gille beag ó . . . Op. 1 no. 3
Miniatures Op. 3 & 8
Six pieces portraying people who live(d) in the Ullapool area or on the island of South Uist. The music for Uilleam dona and Sandy Fraser is original.
Ian Major at Ullapool harbour, looking across to the Braes, home of Donald Ross and Willie Macrae
Laments Op. 4
Four laments composed for relatives - one of whom is still living! The song Blughasary was used for an eightieth birthday remembrance to express 'the loss of one's youth'. (Thankfully the lady concerned is presently ninety-one!) Based on Cumhaichean and the Oran Mor (literally the 'laments' and 'great song' of the Gaels - the latter being an elegy about a person or, possibly, an event).
The composer outside the remains of Murdo Mackenzie's old croft at Blughasary, north of Ullapool
Gesain agus Sgeulachd Op. 5
'Gaelic spells and legend' is a through-composed piece attempting to portray the story-teller in the croft on a dark winter evening with other gathered around the peat fire listening. The sections after the story-teller are 'the northern lights', 'Will-o'-the-Wisp' and 'A storm witch at Scourie, Sutherland'.
Versets Op. 6
Four quiet voluntaries around tunes by Donald Ross, John MacDonald, Hector Mackenzie and Uisdean 'MacPhail' Morrison and his sons.
Dances Op. 7
The Ceilidh House or even a simple kitchen in the typical three-roomed cottages would make do for dancing in the evening's entertainment! This work contains four traditional dance tunes which have been arranged for the organ and the work can be played either as a suite or each dance individually. The Hornpipe, Jig and Strathspey are featured while Hey, tutti taiti is really a marching tune referred to by Scott as having been sung and played at Bannockburn. Its two-in-the-bar fits in well with the remaining dances.
Drumrunie Press ISBN 1 870486 05 6; Christine Martin ISBN 1 871931 088; Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 1 84158 008 2; Maggie MacInnes, MARRAM, Scotland