James MacMillan discusses his new oratorio

Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan introduces his latest work, ‘All the Hills and Vales Along', which is being premiered at The Cumnock Trust next weekend

James MacMillan discusses his new oratorio

‘All the Hills and Vales Along' is an oratorio based on poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was born in Aberdeen in 1895 and his body of work is small, although Masefield and Graves thought of him as one of the most significant war poets.

Over twenty years ago I was given a copy of ‘Never Such Innocence: Poems of the First World War’ edited by Martin Stephen. It was the editor himself who gifted me the book when he was the headmaster of Manchester Boys Grammar School, and I met him on one of my visits with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. As well as the expected favourites by Owen, Sassoon, Brooke etc he pointed me towards a number of powerful poems by a Scot I had never heard of. I made a mental note of Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Robert Graves described him as 'one of the three poets of importance killed during the war', the other two being Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen. Sorley may be seen as a forerunner of Sassoon and Owen, and his unsentimental style stands in direct contrast to that of Rupert Brooke.

Sorley was studying in Germany when war was declared in 1914. He was even detained for an afternoon in Trier, but released on the same day and told to leave the country. He returned to England and immediately volunteered for military service in the British Army, joining the Suffolk Regiment as a second lieutenant.



Posted to the 7th (Service) Battalion, a Kitchener's Army unit serving as part of the 35th Brigade of the 12th (Eastern) Division, he arrived on the Western Front in Boulougne, France on 30 May 1915 as a lieutenant, and served near Ploegsteert. He was promoted to captain in August 1915.

Sorley was killed in action near Hulluch, shot in the head by a sniper during the final offensive of the Battle of Loos on 13 October 1915. His last poem was recovered from his kit after his death, and includes some of his most famous lines:

‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go’

A couple of decades after encountering Sorley’s poems I began work – setting five of them for The Cumnock Tryst. The main theme of this secular oratorio, long notes accompanied by sad chords, is presented on quiet strings before various marching themes strike up in the band.



The first text (All The Hills And Vales Along) is martial, defiant and sardonic with matching music. This is followed by a short movement for singer and strings on their own, the nocturnal and reflective 'Rooks.' 'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' is a slow chorale-like movement for choir and band, but a quartet of high solo strings interject with free, floating music at crucial punctuation points.

A fast 'aria' for solo voice and strings follows, 'A Hundred Thousand Million Mites We Go'. It evokes the chaos and fury of battle, but in the background there is the forlorn "sounds of hymns of praise" which clash with echoes of curses, snapping the air.

The last movement 'To Germany' points hopefully to a coming peace and resolution with old enemy, in music which brings the various different vocal and instrumental forces together in a more integrated way. Various threads from earlier movements combine with a new hymn-like melody, and the work ends with the main theme, this time blared out in the band, with distant chords on humming voices and strings.



My work takes five of his poems and sets them for tenor solo, chorus, strings and brass band. There are two versions; one for a quintet of solo strings, the other involving a full string section. The smaller version will be premiered at The Cumnock Tryst in Ayrshire, of which I am the artistic director. It will be performed by the Edinburgh Quartet, double-bassist Nikita Naumov, The Tryst's Festival Chorus and Dalmellington Band.

The dream for my little festival in Ayrshire is to bring together some of our starry visitors (Bostridge and the Edinburgh Quartet) with some of our local musicians, and to create work specially for the combination. Brass bands have been central to the musical life of some our industrial communities over the years. My grandfather was a coal miner and he got me my first cornet and took me to my first band practices. He had been a euphonium player himself in Ayrshire colliery bands and I inherited my love of music from him.

The Cumnock Tryst has become my new baby. There is a tradition of composer-led festivals in the UK – think Aldeburgh and St Magnus (Orkney). It was my admiration for what Sir Peter Maxwell Davies achieved at this latter festival which fed my imagination and inspiration to start my own in Ayrshire.

Over the last few weeks I've been dashing around, taking rehearsals with the band in Dalmellington, training young school kids who are singing and playing bells in other specially composed pieces of mine, overseeing a big composition and performance project involving young local musicians, dancers, actors and composers, and keeping in touch with our guest performers, who include The Sixteen again this year.


James MacMillan's new oratorio 'All the Hills and Vales Along' will be performed at The Cumnock Tryst on Saturday 6 October at 7.30pm. Tickets available here.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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