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Haflidi Hallgrímsson

Publisher: Chester Music

Still Life (1995)
commissioned by City of Glasgow and Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Chester Music Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
15 Minutes
Programme Note
Haflidi Hallgrímsson Still Life (1995)
The composer writes: I was delighted when Craigie Aitchison agreed to collaborate with me as the visual artist for this, the second Glasgow Commission. I chose to work with Craigie because of his outstanding qualities as an artist whose work had been known to me for more than twenty years. His marvellous one-man exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, in 1982, convinced me that he is one of those rare people who deserves to be called an artist. His religious paintings have always moved me deeply, so it seemed natural to ask him to paint a crucifixion, which is one of his great themes.

I was far from disappointed when I met Craigie; he was so natural, courteous and gentle and was so what few people achieve himself. Craigie lives in an unfashionable area of London, but entering his house is an experience I shall never forget. Once past the front door you are in an extraordinary world. He led me through a hall painted blood red and into a front room in fuchsia colour with deep blue doors; chandeliers hung from the ceiling and the furniture was painted gold. His vast collection of kitsch objects looked like real art in these surroundings.

A few months after our meeting, I visited him again to see the Crucifixion he had completed. On arrival he told me he had been dissatisfied with the painting and had sent it to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where it was bought immediately.

On my third visit to London a few weeks later, I went to his home where, in the small studio on the top floor, he showed me a half-finished painting. It was light in colour and rather severe in construction and did not give me the scope for the range of ‘colours’ I was hoping to make use of for the Chamber Orchestra at my disposal. He then brought out another much bigger painting of a Crucifixion which I immediately liked. It was exactly what I was looking for, the brilliant strip of light from high heaven, with the immensely peaceful and human figure on the Cross. There are no other human figures, only one of Craigie’s Bedlington dogs getting into a state in the background.

A few days later, this wonderful painting was hanging on the wall of my workroom, and over the coming months it became a very important part of my inner world.

The painting exists on several levels; the abstract design of two large areas, which can also be seen as the sky and earth; the representational additions, like the moon, the strip of light, the birds and the flowers, and finally, on the spiritual and human level, the figure of Christ on the Cross, and the dog which seems to be the only living creature left to care.

The treatment of this dramatic event is classical in nature, even quite severe, and completely avoids sentimentality and sensationalism. It reminds me of the early Italian masters and old frescos dealing with this same event.

There was never any question of attempting to describe the painting in music, but my formal plan has strong links with the painting: the very thin layers of paint (there are no luscious brush strokes) are represented by spare and transparent orchestration. The abstract nature of the painting is represented in the music by chordal passages and often very wide spacing of pitches (piccolos and double basses),. The representational additions are represented in small solos, short fragments, and various orchestral colourings. Most important of all is the spiritual and human aspect which is represented in a long and slow lament which gradually involves the whole orchestra, leading to the main climax of the work. This lament is an orchestration of a section from my piano trio 'Metamorphoses'. A short hymnal ending brings the work to a peaceful close.

In the final analysis this is a composition, which was influenced by a painting, but both the painting and music can stand on their own.

© Haflidi Hallgrímsson

Preview the score

  • 27 OCT 2001
    Still Life Country Premiere
    Rensburg, Germany
    Landesjungorchester Schleswig Holstein
    André de Ridder, conductor

    Other Dates:
    28 October - Lübeck, Germany
  • 25 JAN 2001
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
    Susanna Mälkki, conductor

    Other Dates:
    26 January - Edinburgh

The concert opened with the German premiere of Still Life, Op. 21 by Haflidi Hallgrímsson in the presence of the composer. Even though the work was initially written in response to a painting by the Scottish artist Craigie Aitchinson, it can equally be understood as absolute music, as the composer explains. A dense and energetic ebb and flow of repetitive sounds and sounds with delicate harmonic variations came to life in a dynamically highly nuanced performance. The coherently structured work progressed calmly and inexorably from bar to bar towards its dramatic culmination.
Claudia Müller, Kieler Nachrichten,30/10/2001
What is immediately striking about Craigie Aitchison’s onstage painting, the inspiration for Haflidi Hallgrímsson’s new Scottish Chamber Orchestra piece, is its silence… Picked out by a dramatic single spot, the painting is a central but tacit actor in the drama, unchanging but seeming to change as the piece unfolds. Hallgrímsson’s score is executed in the same muted sky and earth tones… Even at the climax, there is no melodrama, no shouted consummation, just a quiet surrender and a wonderful sense of stillness that makes the work resonate long beyond its modest bounds. Hallgrímsson has written in this vein many times, Now the voice is unmistakeable. He has rarely written so evocatively.
Brian Morton, Scotland on Sunday,01/04/1996
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