Top ten amplifies 500 years of music in Aberdeen

August 18, 1995

Five hundred years ago, music played an important part in the newly founded Aberdeen University, with the establishment of the "Vicars Choral" to sing in King's College Chapel. Three years ago, the university's music department closed, the victim of Aberdeen's drastic financial situation.

But this year's quincentenary has seen a renewed blossoming of the university's musical tradition, with ten new pieces being commissioned from a range of composers with close links to the university or the city. Music graduate Kevin Haggart has composed a rousing fanfare, while law graduate Euan MacDonald has produced a set of fiddle tunes reminiscent of the region's folk traditions.

Former music lecturers Peter Innes, now at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and John Butt, now in the United States, have respectively contributed an anthem for chorus and organ and a lighthearted pastiche entitled Variations of Gaudeamus Igitur.

Composer Judith Weir has created two "human hymns" for choir and orchestra, and other compositions include a pipe tune, a set of songs, a string quartet, a piano sonata, and a piece for wind band.

"The university is making a significant contribution to Scottish culture and music by inviting so many composers to write celebratory compositions for this special anniversary," said Roger Williams, Aberdeen's director of music.

Music has not disappeared completely as an academic discipline: with the help of external funding from Elf Enterprise, Aberdeen sustains a music unit which oversees its symphony orchestra, string ensemble, chamber choir, chapel choir, choral society and wind band as well as running courses during the first two undergraduate years. Under Aberdeen's modularised system, students who perform in university groups can gain credit for this, backed by essay work.

Several of the new pieces are being performed by students, and David Smith, assistant director of music, sees this as crucial in extending their knowledge. Because the composers have a local link, they attend rehearsals, and seem to display none of the fabled sensitivities of playwrights.

John Hearne has composed a particularly demanding modern piece for the wind band, De Profundis, using the symbolism of the notes ABE and DEE for Aberdeen, and a rhythm of 1, 4, 9 and 5 notes as a datestamp of the university's foundation year.

"To begin with, there was a certain resistance from members of the wind band, but one of the most valuable things about commissioning new work for a student group is that they're exposed to a very different style from what they're used to," said Dr Smith. "Rehearsing is the best way of understanding how that particular composer's musical language works, and being able to accept and even enjoy it."

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