Farewell to Hirta

for piano

duration: 7'00"
published by: Composers Edition

Includes Hunt’s Bay (1994) for piano solo and Sonata for cello and piano (1995; this work was revised and shortened in 2001).

Composers' Note

Hirta is not a person, but an island; more properly several. The archipelago of St Kilda (Hirta in Gaelic) lies some fifty miles west of the Outer Hebrides. Beyond lies only Rockall. On the main island of this otherwise ultima thule lived for centuries a uniquely interbred and self-supporting community of seldom more than two hundred. St Kilda boasts the highest sea cliffs in Great Britain, its summit rising fourtten hundred feet sheer out of the North Atlantic. The islands present one of the most awesome sights in the world when approached in rough weather, and form a fitting backdrop to the human tragedy with which they are linked. With the encroachment of ocean-going tourism in the late nineteenth century the islanders fell prey to humiliation from creatures as of another world. Some succumbed mortally to the newly imported common cold; the rest began to discover the meaning of material wealth, and, with it, envy. Slowly they lost their dignity and their innocence, while their young started to leave for the mainland and beyond. Survival had depended upon an astoundingly perilous (and usually nocturnal) harvesting of seabirds from the vertiginous cliffs, using primitive abseiling techniques. As the able-bodied began to set their faces towards a wider world, so gradually died a ‘perfect’ microcosm society of a kind which our generation ignores at its debatable peril. On 29th August 1930, with infinite sorrow but at their own request, the remaining thirty-six islanders were evacuated to the Scottish mainland, where, with a pragmatism entirely typical of remote, centralised British government, these people who had mostly never beheld a tree were given employment in the Forestry Department. From 1957 until very recently a small army presence on St Kilda monitored missile testing from Benbecula. The roofless stone houses of the solitary village, kept by the National Trust for Scotland in defiance of immense elemental odds, stand as a memorial to a time that is gone.

In 1930, as the islands faded behind the horizon for the last time, one of those departing was heard to murmur ‘May God forgive those that have taken us from St Kilda’, and it was at this point that the islanders finally gave way to tears. On such a fine August evening as it then heartbreakingly was and I have since seen, the vision of the sun setting at one’s back, away behind Boreray, the precipitous, uninhabitable north island, is such as to imprint itself upon the mind for life. Farewell to Hirta was actually written two years before my own visit, in response to no less haunting images seen in a television documentary. Subsequent first-hand experience presented no reason to revise it. Despite its chronology of events the music is, and always was, an attempt to capture the impressions described above, and to honour the feelings of that small group who had made its final journey away a half-century earlier, one of whom was later to recall, ‘To me it was peace living in St Kilda and to me it was happiness, dear happiness. It was a far better place’.

The style of this piece is unapologetically romantic, -perhaps even Schubertian in its simple aim to conjure sorrow in a major key (the main theme bears a conscious passing resemblance to that in the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat Piano Trio, D.898). Its dedication is to my mother, who was fond of it and whose death in 1995 might be felt to add another layer of personal meaning: music, one would like to imagine, for a far better place…

Composers' Note


Classical Piano, 1999

A ravishingly beautiful and moving rhapsody, …both old-fashioned and contemporary. The writing is immensely graceful, an unpretentious, personal piece from a composer who really knows the piano.

Tempo, 1999

…Especially moving, …all evocations of the sea  -Debussy in the Hebrides, if you will, with that strange emotional ambivalence of a major-key lament.




Farewell to Hirta

David Watkin - Cello, Howard Moody - Piano, Francis Pott - Piano

Guild GMCD 7141  x   1997

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