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Digital Season: MacMillan Tuireadh

28 Mar 2024

News Story

Sir James MacMillan Tuireadh is available to view free of charge for 30 days, from 7.30pm on 28 March to the same time on 27 April. You can view all content relating to the work on the event page.

During the night between 6 and 7 July, 1988, a fire broke out on the Piper Alpha oil and gas platform in the North Sea, about 120 miles northeast of Aberdeen. The blaze quickly spread out of control, and the platform eventually collapsed entirely. The Piper Alpha tragedy remains the worst ever off-shore oil and gas platform disaster in terms of loss of life: 165 men were killed (30 of their bodies were never recovered), and just 61 survived. With the platform’s lifeboats and helideck both damaged by the fire, many of those survivors were men forced to jump into the sea below. As well as a personal sense of shock and grief for those directly affected, the Piper Alpha tragedy made a profound impact on a nation whose prestige and reputation rested so heavily on the fuel riches of the North Sea.

Exactly three years after the tragedy, on 6 July 1991, a memorial sculpture by Scottish artist Sue Jane Taylor was unveiled by the Queen Mother in Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen, depicting three oil workers facing out to sea. One of the disaster’s survivors had posed as a model for the sculpture.

James MacMillan wrote his clarinet quintet Tuireadh the same year, as a musical complement to Taylor’s memorial sculpture, and in response to a request from a relative of one of those who had been lost. He explains in his own programme note: ‘I was specifically inspired by a letter sent to me by the mother of one of the dead men in which she wrote movingly of her visit to the scene for a memorial service. The ceremony became a rite of passage for those whose loved ones had not been found, and the mother described how a spontaneous keening sound rose gently from the mourners assembled on the boat. Tuireadh attempts to capture this outpouring of grief in music and makes allusions to the intervallic and ornamental archetypes of various lament-forms from Scottish traditional music.’

A deeply compassionate threnody which shows the influence of Gaelic psalmody still practised in the Western Isles today


Its title is the Gaelic word for a lament, specifically a requiem for the dead. And indeed, it’s hard to think of a piece of music that more eloquently conveys a sense of deep grief. In discussing the piece, MacMillan has drawn attention to music’s healing powers in terms of the role it can play in understanding and expressing emotions, and also its capacity to encourage empathy.

Tuireadh unfolds as a series of large-scale musical episodes, and a sense of emotional development across the piece – almost a journey of moods and responses – is in many ways just as evident as traditional musical transformations. Three long clarinet notes surge at the very beginning – perhaps reflecting the keening sound MacMillan mentioned, or simply summoning listeners as witnesses. Those notes are soon joined by increasingly confident, even angry string gestures, punctuated by moments of ethereal reflection, before the music turns to a raw, lamenting and distinctively Scottish song.

After a pause, Tuireadh’s second large section opens with aggressive, percussive chords from the strings, to which the clarinet adds a wailing melodic line. Memories of the earlier Scottish song return, before a slow-moving, three-chord idea slowly emerges, implacable and never-changing, perhaps offering a sense of comfort, even hope.

Following another pause, the piece’s final and longest section casts the clarinet almost as a protagonist, delivering an angry, grief-stricken soliloquy, against that distinctive three-chord idea from the string quartet. The harmonies slowly descend from ghostly harmonics to low in the stringed instruments’ ranges. As the music dies away, it’s left to the quartet’s violist to express the piece’s unresolved grief in a sobbing solo line.

Two years after writing Tuireadh, MacMillan returned to the distinctive three-chord idea that pervades so much of the piece in his choral work Seven Last Words from the Cross, exploring it further in another musical contemplation of torment and grief, on similarly personal and universal levels.

© 2023 David Kettle

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