The Chronicle of Saint Machar

A highlight of the last year of the 20th century was the commissioning of a new work for orchestra and two choirs by the Aberdeen-born composer John McLeod: The Chronicle of Saint Machar. The piece was first performed in April 1999, and is based on the life of St. Machar - the Cathedral of the same name being where most of the choir's concerts are held.

In January 1999, after much hard work by the choir's Committee members, an application for funding from The Scottish Arts Council under the National Lottery New Directions Programme was accepted. This was an achievement in itself - we were among only 11 choirs out of the 27 applicants which were awarded funding. A total of £18 882 was awarded towards the cost of commissioning and performing the work.

Choir President David Way, as first bass, said it was a great opportunity for everyone. In an interview for the Evening Express, David said We made our application last September and at that time we knew we had certain criteria to meet before we could be accepted. We knew it had to have a Scottish theme and had to be by a Scottish composer, so because we have performed a lot in St. Machar's Cathedral, we decided to choose the saint. We are really looking forward to this chance to have a go at something completely new, especially as it was written for us.

There were four parts to the project for which funding was awarded:

  1. composition of the new work by John McLeod
  2. Schools Inventing Project workshops in November 1998, February 1999 and March 1999 held by Jennifer Martin (with John McLeod in March 1999)
  3. a Seminar on the history of St Machar and its significance in the composition, given by John Smith and John McLeod on 24 April 1999
  4. two performances of The Chronicle of Saint Machar on 25 April 1999 and 6 June 1999, and performances of selected inventions by young people on 6 June 1999

The Schools Inventing Project , in which a total of 32 school and college students produced inventions on themes from the new work, also produced works of a high standard, described in the Press and Journal of 7 June 1999 as “a host of musical offspring” of The Chronicle of St Machar. The review concluded Clearly music is very much alive and well in Aberdeen’s schools. The performances of the eight inventions performed with the second performance of the commissioned work gave the opportunity for more school and college students to perform in front of a large audience, many for the first time.

We had a second help from the Scottish Arts Council lottery fund after announcing our intention to perform The Chronicle of Saint Machar for the third time, this time in Edinburgh.  Again, some hard work and lots of form filling (well done Ian Downie!!) resulted in some financial support from Awards for All that enabled us to be able to perform the work away from our normal base in Aberdeen.

Our third performance of The Chronicle of Saint Machar was held on October 28th 2000 in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, and was reviewed by Conrad Wilson (The Herald):

Wisely resisting the opportunity to make an opera out of it, John McLeod last year transformed the life of St. Machar - or what little is known of it - into a cantata for Aberdeen Bach Choir to sing in St. Machar's Cathedral.  The first performance was successful enough to lead to a second, and, on Saturday, a third - this time in Edinburgh, with Greyfriars Kirk as its setting, to which to (sic) original chorus and orchestra travelled for the occasion.

It was a journey worth making.  McLeod, though born in Aberdeen, has long resided in Edinburgh, and Greyfriars - complete with a fine modern organ on which Roger Williams would play the important organ part – seemed suitably scaled for a cantata that was bigger than one of Bach's but quieter than the clamour of Belshazzar's Feast to which, once or twice, it showed a jubilant resemblance.

But if The Chronicle of St. Machar was suggestive of any other composer it was principally Britten, as any British work employing bells, a children's choir, a solo voice, chorus, and chamber orchestra is apt to seem.  McLeod's own simple, direct text, with its poetically risky reliance on rhyming couplets, supplied scope for the insertion of a Gloria passacaglia (another Brittenish touch), a Hebridean folk song, a children's song and dance interlude, and a reflectively Bachian aria for the baritones oloist, John Hearne, who also narrated the Irish saint's quest for a symbolic crozier, eventually identified as the mouth of the River Don.

Lasting about 45 minutes, the music was well-paced and attractively varied, if finally slightly perfunctory.  The performance was conducted by James Lobban to the point.  The Cults Academy Junior Singers contributed sweetly.  Works by Vivaldi and Bach served as introduction."

Nine years later, the work was performed once more in St Machar's Cathedral on 6 December 2009, when Alan Cooper wrote:

There was a fantastic performance from the Bach Choir throughout and the work ended in a joyous carillon clamour of bells, voices and orchestra.