Solstice of Light

Cantata for tenor, SATB chorus and organ


46 minutes



Dedication Norman Mitchell and the St. Magnus Cathedral Singers and Richard Hughes

Commissioned by





SATB chorus, tenor, organ


1. New Hills and Lochs and Shores
2. The Mild Circle of the Sun
3. We Rowed Blindly North and North
4. Green Whirls of Melted Ice
5. The Hill, the Skies, the Sweet and the Salt Water
6. Earthbreakers, Hewers of Mighty Stone
7. Circles of Stone on the Blank Moor
8. Solstice of Light
9. The Celtic Priests
10. The White Weave of Peace
11. Hawkship
12. Norsemen
13. Invocation of the Dove
14. Prayer for these Islands: New Troves


Composer Notes

The idea for a large-scale new work for the St. Magnus Singers was born during the last St. Magnus Festival, suggested by Norman Mitchell. In early July, I asked George Mackay Brown if I could search his published poems for something to set for this purpose, and a fortnight later the postman brought a brand new poem, Solstice of Light, cataloguing successive waves of incomers ‘ ‘stone age, hewers of the mighty stones, broch builders, Celtic monks, Norsemen, oil and uranium seekers’ with reflections upon these settlers by the Orkney Islands themselves – ‘presences of hills, waters, shores, clouds, sky.’ The poem ends with a prayer to the patron saint of the Islands, St. Magnus, ‘ that the last ice may not cover us, that the dove fall still between sun and cornstalk.’ I have set the poem for tenor solo, four-part chorus and organ. There are fourteen movements, including several virtuoso organ solos. The tenor at the first performance was Neil Mackie, who sang the title role in The Martyrdom of St. Magnus, the opera I wrote to open the first Festival in 1977; the St. Magnus Singers were conducted by Norman Mitchell, the Festival’s co-director and organist at the Cathedral, and the organist was Richard Hughes, organist at the East Kirk, Kirkwall.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

There are fourteen movements in this poetic history of Orkney in the form of a cantata. The choral writing for SATB is comparable with that of Maxwell Davies’s carols; there is the same tri-tone enriched modal harmony. Five of the movements are organ solos, needing competence though not professional virtuosity, and altogether the work achieves a beautiful balance of different degrees of skill.

Extended Note by Paul Driver

Solstice of Light is a setting of a specially written text by George Mackay Brown describing ‘successive waves of incomers’ to Orkney and their displacement up to the present day. It is cast for tenor solo, mixed chorus and organ, and was first performed at the 1979 Orkney Festival by the St. Magnus Singers, for whom it was conceived. Partly because of the exigencies of a basically amateur performance and partly because of Maxwell Davies’s recent development towards an ever-clearer harmonic definition and richness, the work is fairly overtly in the key of C minor. The constant play of modal variants thereon, and the exploratory contrapuntal invention that remains Davies’s primary compositional asset, do not fundamentally alter this. There is, indeed, a fascinating tension between the versatile counterpoint, used quite characteristically in the five virtuoso organ interludes (reminiscent inevitably of the O Magnum Mysterium Fantasia, but far more precisely imagined), and the tonal figurations and progressions upon which they effortlessly converge in the choral movements.

The range of musical imagery is considerable. There are frequent echoes of Britten and, more obliquely, Sibelius in the main body of the work, together with a title movement that seems distantly to be remembering ‘Sumer is icumen in’. The carol style of O Magnum Mysterium (1960), with its engaging Lydian tritone, as well as the chorus-writing of the children’s opera The Two Fiddlers (1978), another tonal work, are pervasive. The organ solos recall an austerer Maxwell Davies and beyond that, a kind of icy, desensualized Messiaen. Then there are moments of pastoral reflectiveness and hymn-like gravity which are quite new.

The work’s twelve-bar introduction, a kind of refrain, sets the prevailing tone of quasi-Sibelian remoteness, and in fact resembles Sibelius technically in its use of a pivotal E flat/F bass-line upon which different harmonies may be superimposed, and which is sometimes extended scalically to provide a passacaglia-like subject. The voices sustain this atmosphere in a concise and beautifully harmonized first setting, which gains dramatic emphasis when C minor appears unambiguously at the start of the third ‘movement’ – emerging, characteristically, from modal elements (F-A natural) in the lower parts. After a slow and quiet organ interlude, inaugurating transformations of the material just heard, a vigorous and steadily loudening chorus for male voices builds up to the first powerful climax, abold declamation in bald intervals, of ‘Look, the blue whales, children of ice!’ It is soon succeeded by the first of two violently onomatopoeic organ solos (‘Green Whirls of Melted Ice’: ‘Earthbreakers, Hewers of Mighty Stone’). Later in the piece similarly descriptive passages occur for chorus, notably in the sparkling last lines of the title-poem, in ‘ “Little silver brothers” they call the fish’, and in the bell-like, a capella setting in ‘Hawkship’ of ‘Matins, lauds, terce …’ A tenor soloist is added at movement 7 in poignant, Brittenish questioning: ‘Why should the hands be red always with battle?’; and it is with soaring tenor cantilenas that the extended, concerted finale of this luminous work is brought prayerfully to a close.

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


First Performance

St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney (at the St. Magnus Festival)

Monday, 18 June 1979

Neil Mackie  tenor