Four songs and a prayer, with seascapes for SATB chorus


18 minutes




Commissioned by Uppsala Akademiska Kammerkor, with support from the Swedish Institute for National Concerts





SATB chorus
Suitable for professional or accomplished choruses only


1. Seascape I
2. First Song: A Golden Whale
3. Seascape II
4. Second Song: The Ancient Tryst
5. Seascape III
6. Third Song: Our Gods Uncaring
7. Seascape IV
8. Fourth Song: Landfall
9. Prayer: Orkney Norn Pater Noster


Composer Notes

Westerlings was composed in the winter of 1976-7 to a specially written text by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, concerning the crossing of the North Sea by the Scandinavian Vikings, and their first landfall in Orkney in the eighth century.

On my desk at the same time were the sketches for A Mirror of Whitening Light, a virtuoso instrumental work for chamber ensemble, and, like that, Westerlings is permeated by the sounds of the sea, but realized in terms of a virtuoso work for voices. The two works have thematic and harmonic material in common.

The work settings are separated by vocalised ‘sea-scapes’, and the final verse in a version of The Lord’s Prayer in the old Orkney Norn, which now survives only in a fragmented condition in the dialect.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Spaciously and variously scored for SATB chorus with frequent division, this is a set of songs and wordless seascapes evoking the Viking past of the Orkney Islands. The intonation is challenging, but the modal feel is generally strong, and the work ought to be approachable by skilled and amateur choruses while more than justifying the attention of professional ones.

Extended Note I

Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Westerlings during the winter of 1976-7 at his home in Orkney. On his desk at the same time were the sketches for his chamber-orchestral work A Mirror of Whitening Light. Referring to the latter work he has described the light outside the window above his desk, reflecting and reflected in the bay, which itself, he says, is like ‘a crucible of ever-changing miraculous light… similarly there is this extraordinary sound, – a kind of wash – which comes across the bay’. This sight, this sound of the sea permeates both A Mirror of Whitening Light and Westerlings – virtuoso works, the one for instruments, the other for voices. The songs describe the journey and its reason.

The first song is titled A Golden Whale:
Oarsmen, we drive a golden whale
Westward each day. We strain the west
In welters of crimson, and yet are hungry.
What lures us after the whale of the sun?
The Dragon had taken stag and boar,
All the young heroes. Our doors were hungry.

The second song, The Ancient Tryst, continues the tale of hunger and want (‘the hearts of hunter and hungerer coldly furrowed’) – empty fishing nets, fishing boats warped, while the third song describes how even their gods forsook them; ‘our Gods uncaring, they withered and died’. The last poem by George Mackay Brown is called Landfall and tells of the Norsemen’s hopes:
We will come to a land thick with gleams of the sun
Plough, and harrow, scythe and flail and quern.
You will bend the back, oarsmen, to kinder furrows.

This leads straight into the final prayer, the Orkney Norn Pater Noster, which the composer has also adapted as a separate work (see Norn Pater Noster).

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin

Davies describes Westerlings as ‘Four Songs and a Prayer, with Seascapes’. The four songs, to texts by George Mackay Brown, form movements 2, 4, 6 and 8, while movements 1, 3, 5 and 7 comprise a series of extraordinary, wordless seascapes, in the form of hummed-and-sung vocalises. The prayer is the ninth movement, and consists of a Pater Noster in Orkney Norn, the form of Old Norse specific to Orkney. Poetry and music together depict the sea voyage of the first Norse settlers from Scandinavia to Orkney in the eighth century. The work is of enormous vocal virtuosity and is both predictive of, and worthy of standing next to Maxwell Davies’s mighty orchestral seascapes.

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


First Performance

BBC Broadcasting House, London, (complete)

Saturday, 15 October 1977

BBC Singers