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Edward McGuire Calgacus: Symphonic Poem (1976) 16'
Bgp / 3+22+12+12+1 4331 Tp 2 Perc Pf Hp Str
Commissioned by: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
First performed on: 24 Oct 1976
First performed by: BBCSSO / Norman del Mar
First performed at: Bute Hall, Glasgow University
The Pict Calgacus led the united tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius in AD84, an attempt to halt Agricola's Roman Armies as they advanced to the foothills of the Grampian mountains. Before the battle, Calgacus addressed his troops. His speech - an early and impassioned cry against Imperialism - was vividly recalled by Tacitus:
"Our goods and fortunes are ground down to pay tribute, our land and its harvest to supply corn, our bodies and hands to build roads through woods and swamps - all under blows and insults. We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and seclusion for which we are famed. We have enjoyed the impressiveness of the unknown, but today our boundary is exposed; beyond us lies no nation, nothing but waves and rocks and Romans. Brigands of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder; and now they ransack the sea. They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy. Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create a desolation and call it peace."
McGuire's music is not of a documentary nature. Rather, it takes its inspiration from the imagery and spirit of defiance and optimism in Calgacus's speech, and it relevance to the present day. The music's mood, too, captures something of the desolation and pity of battle lost.
A dark opening introduces high strings over a ferment of sound with distant drumming and bleak shrieking from the woodwind. Gentler exchanges settle between the instruments, then sounds begin to cluster and complain, and the unison violins break into a raw, angular battle song which splinters quickly into an atmosphere of chill and misery. Solo strings and woodwind sustain the feel of a mean, lowering weather, with darkening menace.
The music becomes more rhythmic and edgy; gradually violence erupts and a cymbal clash heralds a beautiful and dignified line from the bagpipe, which sustains nobly over the rumbling drums and a slow boiling of sound from the full orchestra.
The battle chaos clears, with mellifluous woodwind and a high violin solo chafed by percussion and snarls from the brass, before the work settles into emptiness, rimed with the hollow whine of desolation.
In the diadem of Scottish composers, Edward McGuire is perhaps best described as the gleaming opal. Neither he nor his music shout for attention. He is quiet, articulate and drily funny, but self-publicity is not his gift.
Arriving to study at the Royal Academy of Music, his portfolio reflected a self-growing enjoyment of sound-worlds and his own largely self-taught path of exploration. His teacher, James Iliff, proved wonderfully lax, absorbing McGuire's reluctance to embrace musical analysis or harmonic history, merely steering his pupil away from more wayward tracks. McGuire drifted through his academic course in a melee of protest, mild revolution and happy psychedelic experience, aligning himself with the English experimental school, and infuriating his composition masters Lennox Berkeley and Alan Bush, by refusing to sit their exams. Visits to the RAM from Morgan Feldman and John Cage encouraged him in his search for his own voice, and he soon won a British Council scholarship, intending to study with Ligeti in Sweden.
With Ligeti either abroad or stricken with illness, McGuire worked instead with Ingvar Lidholm, whose use of colour to amass texture in orchestration he fund invaluable. The Swedes were keen, too, to learn about the tunes of his homeland, and McGuire began to appreciate his roots. His String Quartet from 1982 speaks in a sure eloquent voice, with sustained rhythmic impulse underpinning a flowing tonality, punctuated by some dramatic atonal surprises.
His music today often manifests folk influence which may distract from the intricacy of the instrumental texture. McGuire likes to use the magnet of strong tonality to create peaks of recognition in his work: while he is fascinated by algorhythmic method (building texture from an ordered series of minute patterns), he maintains, "you can never amass anything as complex as a single note played with poignancy".
Nowadays much-commissioned by the BBC and major festivals, his early success included the violin piece "Rant", selected as a test piece for the Carl Flesch Competition in 1987. He made his BBC Proms debut in 1982 with the orchestral work "Source". In recent years his ballet "Peter Pan" has received critical acclaim, and his fourth opera, "Cake Talk", written for children, attracted enthusiastic reviews at its 1996 premier. A frequent guest as featured composer at festivals worldwide, McGuire also plays flute with the Scottish traditional folk group the Whistlebinkies, the first-ever Scottish ensemble to tour China.