The Voice of a City

Programme note

Edward Harper (1941-2009)
The Voice of a City

Of the commissions I have received The Voice of a City was in many ways the most challenging. To design a half hour piece using primary school choirs, an adult community choir, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and organ required a great deal of thought. My experience in writing Music for King Arthur, which similarly combined amateur and professional forces, stood me in good stead. Indeed, writing what had to be simple, direct vocal music but colouring it with more elaborate instrumental music proved again to be very stimulating. For the texts, I thought it appropriate to choose contemporary Edinburgh ‘voices’ and took poems from an anthology of work by children from Craigmillar and from Edinburgh, An Intimate City - an anthology of contemporary poetry about Edinburgh, published by The City of Edinburgh Council. The Craigmillar anthology was published in 2000 by the Craigmillar Literacy Trust, in part as a tribute to the work done with the children by Ron Butlin, Craigmillar Writer in Residence at the time. Ron has an instinctive gift for writing texts which work naturally in musical settings and seemed the ideal person to supply the cameos I wanted for the final section. He provided a number of images which proved musically stimulating.

I planned the work using the combined choirs in three sections, gave the second section to the adult choir and the third and fourth sections (which use the Craigmillar poems) to the school choirs. The Voice of the Wind has great atmospheric exuberance and The Way I Feel is a simple ballad I find very moving. Whilst the poems don’t specifically refer to Edinburgh, the weather conditions described were presumably observed in the City and are familiar to us all. Walk an Edinburgh Street also attracted me by its atmospheric qualities, evoking Edinburgh’s historic past. My heart leaped up when I saw The One o’ Clock Gun - absolutely perfect for a kind of music hall setting with interaction between the choirs. I couldn’t prevent Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture from getting in on the act.

These songs are enclosed by an Introduction and Finale. The Introduction, building from a quiet, low clarinet solo, aims to evoke a sense of earlier times using Edinburgh’s ancient British name, Din Eidyn. In the central section I use the modern version and try to capture something of the nineteenth century romantic appeal - reinforced with a brief quote from Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony. The Finale starts with the organ, taking the form of short reflections on each of the four songs, and is followed by a reworking of the ‘romantic’ section of the Introduction. Then come the cameos of notable Edinburgh people (and animals), and a final crescendo of names concludes the homage to “this unique city”.

© Edward Harper, October 2003