Runes from a Holy Island

For instrumental ensemble


10 minutes




Commissioned by The BBC for the Radio 4 programme Not now, I'm listening





Alto flute, clarinet in A,*percussion (1 player), viola, cello, celeste
*percussion (1 player): glockenspiel, 4 wood blocks (large, medium, small, very small), Chinese cymbal, castanets, 4-octave marimba, bass drum


1. Andante
2. Presto
3. Andante moderato
4. Lento
5. Presto


Composer Notes

The five short movements of Runes were written for the Sunday lunchtime magazine programme Not now, I’m listening and were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 6 November 1977. The work was first performed in concert by The Fires of London at the 1978 Edinburgh International Festival.

The pieces are in a very real sense runic as they have ‘crossword puzzle’ features involving magic squares, acrostics and plainsong-transformations. But at the same time they have, for me, ‘picture-postcard’ qualities, in that each movement is associated with a particular part of my own island and its related musical acoustic. The listener is encouraged to fill out his or her own miniature sea and island soundscapes from the patterns that my ‘runes’ provide.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

There are five ‘runes’, making together a miniature symphony in movements of strong character for all their brief duration. The third and last movements feature virtuoso marimba parts.

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin

Runes from a Holy Island was commissioned by the BBC for the Radio 4 programme Not now, I’m listening, and in this context the work’s five short movements were dispersed and played at different points in the programme. It was presented in continuous form at its first public performance by The Fires of London at the 1978 Edinburgh International Festival.

The ‘holy island’ of the title might well suggest Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian coast, with its ruins of a Benedictine Priory. In fact, it refers to the Orkney island of Hoy, where Maxwell Davies lives and works – an island not specifically ‘holy’, but none the less full of powerful presences. In Old Norse, ‘Hoy’ means ‘high’, and denotes the island’s huge hills and dramatic western cliff-line. But the title could equally well refer to another Orkney island which is specifically holy – Eynhallow, site of the former Orcadian monastery, whose ruins remain.

From ‘high’ to ‘holy’ and from ruins to runes: both parts of the title are apt. If the ‘holy’ suggests the work’s powerful atmosphere, then the ‘runes’ indicate its concision and concentration of utterance. Runes are incisions of silence. ‘Not now, I’m listening’.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.


First Performance

St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh (at the Edinburgh International Festival)

6 September 1978

The Fires of London