Choir brings echoes of Magnus to churches across Scotland

Kate Molleson

Wednesday, 31st August, 2016

The Herald

MAGNUS Erlendsson was a gentle soul, or at least he was according to the legends. His life is told in the epic Orkneyinga Saga: how he ruled as a compassionate Earl of Orkney for just over a decade at the start of the 12th century, how he had a reputation for piety which the Norwegians laughed off as cowardice, how he was murdered on Egilsay by his cousin Haakon Paulsson then martyred by his nephew Rognvald Kali Kolsson and his relics laid as the foundations of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. His death was in 1117. Eight and a half centuries later, the Stromness writer George Mackay Brown wrote a richly poetic novel called Magnus in which he drew parallels between the Orkney saint and the philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War.

There’s a lovely hymn dedicated to St Magnus, too, which is probably the oldest surviving evidence of harmony we have in Scotland. It’s a 12th century plainchant called Nobilis Humilis whose Latin manuscript was penned (or quilled, strictly speaking) in St Magnus Cathedral and is now kept in Uppsala University in Sweden. The voices rise and fall in tranquil parallel thirds: “Noble one, humble one, you the martyr’s course have run/ Gentle one, helpful one, your merit we revere.”

This simple tune has been noticed before. When he first moved to Orkney in the early 1970s, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies integrated Nobilis Humilis into his own Hymn to Saint Magnus, which was the first major piece he wrote from his storm-battered little home on Hoy. The music is full of the brutality of martyrdom and the rugged violence of the sea, but also with serene handbells and soft sounds. I love the anomalous image it creates: Magnus, that gentle Viking, that pacifist warrior.

And now Nobilis Humilis has become the starting point of a whole programme of new choral pieces called Echoes and Traces. Eight Scottish composers have been sent the hymn and asked to respond with a work for 12 voices lasting around eight minutes. The brief, as far as I can glean, was no more specific than that, so the results should hopefully be nicely multifarious. The programme will be premiered by Cappella Nova in Dunfermline Abbey then toured around historic venues including St Magnus Cathedral.

Instigator of the project is the harpist and composer Ailie Robertson, an Edinburgh-based musician who spans traditional and contemporary classical idioms and who set up a contemporary music company called Larimer Productions precisely to make programmes like Echoes and Traces come to fruition. She tells me that she chose the seven other composers (she has written one of the new works herself) with the aim of representing a range of stylistic backgrounds and an equal gender balance. “And let’s be honest,” she grins, “to get my own name in the same programme as some of my favourite musicians.”

So how have the eight composers responded? Hanna Tuulikki – herself a vocalist as well as a composer and visual artist – focuses on themes of pacifism, and a passage in the Orkneyinga Saga that describes the young Magnus refusing to take up arms during the Battle of Anglesey and instead remaining on board his ship singing psalms. (George Mackay Brown’s novel describes the scene vividly, and how Magnus’s fellow fighters are none too thrilled with his singing). Tuulikki uses approximations of the extinct Norn language that would have been spoken in 12th century Orkney: sju for sea, swaal for sea swell, laar for a light breeze.

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