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Stuart MacRae

Publisher: Novello & Co

Birches (2007)
commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Novello & Co Ltd
Sub Category
Chamber Orchestra
Year Composed
10 Minutes
Programme Note
Stuart MacRae Birches (2007)
During the time when I was writing Birches I was living in Germany, and whenever I thought of home I found my head filled with images of the stands of birch trees that spread across the hillsides and streamsides of the Highlands. While there are certain aspects of the piece - 'woody' sounds from the strings, lines 'branching' out from one another - that evoke a certain impression of 'tree-ness', the piece came to express for me a deeper symbolism of the unity of nature and our place as humans within it: that we and everything we make are as much a part of nature as the birches.

In the first half of the piece the winds and strings are treated as separate, homogeneous units, symbolising the separateness we often perceive between ourselves and nature. In the central section the instrumental groups merge repeatedly to form three mixed groups of instruments (high, middle and low) - a metaphorical journey into the very substance of the birches. In the final section these mixed groups continue, rapidly tracing a life-cycle or seasonal cycle (from high to low instruments and back) which could be that of humans, birches, Earth, or any part of nature.

© 2007 Stuart MacRae

Score preview:

...this piece stood apart for its exploration of tonality and rhythmic complexity.
Mary Robb,,16/04/2008
Just 24 hours after the announcement of his forthcoming BBC commission, the Ted Hughes-inspired Gaudete for the Proms this summer, the 32-year-old Scottish composer Stuart MacRae was in Edinburgh for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's first major performance of his new piece called Birches. A fascination with Man's relationship with nature links both works, and this was an appetite-whetting prelude to MacRae's Proms appearance. The ten-minute piece works on several levels, and excites many responses. It can be perceived as picturesque - though MacRae says it is emphatically not tone-painting. There are, though, woody sounds for the imagining in the strings' pith and bark, a sense of branching out, of the cycle of the seasons. And then there is the metaphorical significance of MacRae's tratment of strings and woodwind as separate units, symbolising, perhaps, Man's alienation from the natural worls. The abiding effect, though, is one of strikingly powerful pacing of purely musical energies - of movement, stasis and arresting silences - leading to central complexity and turmoil. The work ends as suddenly and unpredictably as it began...
Hilary Finch, The Times,14/04/2008
A small Highland spa town isn't the most likely of venues for a new music premiere. But it was rather appropriate in the case of the SCO's latest commission, a work by Stuart MacRae, who was born in Inverness, not half an hour's drive from Strathpeffer. Though Birches was written while the composer was living in Germany, MacRae turned to his native landscape for inspiration: "Whenever I thought of home, I found my head filled with images of the stands of birch trees that spread across the hillsides and streamsides of the Highlands," he writes. It is a poetic image for what turns out to be a particularly poetic piece from this usually formidable composer. MacRae's idiom is still avowedly modernist, the work of someone at home with the music of Webern and Boulez, but here his rigorous style seems to have mellowed. The intricately layered opening section is music of extreme complexity, but it is also highly evocative. Time and again, MacRae touches on a lyricism not always apparent in his earlier work; the solo oboe being chased with increasing frenzy by pizzicato strings.
Rowena Smith, The Guardian,25/06/2007
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