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The Singing: Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra

Composition Date: 2006

Duration: 22'

Orchestration: acn/2+pic.2+ca.2+Bcl.2+cbn/



Commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

First performed at Cheltenham Festival 2006 by James Crabb (acn), with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Programme Note:


Sally Beamish


Concerto for Classical Accordion and Orchestra

for James Crabb

The Highland Clearances began in the 1760s and continued over a hundred years. The landowners, mainly clan chiefs who were related to their tenants, were pressured for various reasons to replace the struggling crofting communities with the new tough breeds of sheep. It was certainly the case that there was much more money to be made from the land through sheep than through tenant farming. But it was also felt by some landowners that the people, many of whom could barely scrape out an existence, would be better off moving to allotments on the shore, or emigrating to the New World. The reality was a brutal eviction of entire villages, and many deaths from starvation or drowning as the people tried to accustom themselves to herring fishing. Many also died from disease on the boats across the Atlantic, or failed to eke out a living on the hard and frozen soil of Northern America. The Highland communities were decimated, and the landscape was altered forever.

Having recently completed the stage musical Shenachie, with poet Donald Goodbrand Saunders, which is set against a background of the Clearances, I have revisited the theme using the complete freedom of expression offered by a contemporary concert work. The idea of songs, blessings and prayer infusing every aspect of life, as was the case in 19th Century Highland communities, was also a strong influence.

The first movement opens with rhythmical, pitch-less sounds on the accordion, which are gradually picked up by the orchestra. The central section is based on loom-rhythms, and there is a sense of industry, of busy-ness. The whole movement is pervaded by Gaelic psalm – the extraordinary music of the Scottish Free Church, which takes the form of a lead voice followed by endless variations and ornamentations from the congregation – and by Celtic working songs.

The second and third movements run together; a set of variations comprising a slow movement with scherzo elements, and a finale. The opening ‘ground’ begins as a ‘pibroch’ – the heavily ornamented ‘classical music’ of the Highland Bagpipes. Pibrochs are often based on laments, and this is the case here; the theme is varied and developed throughout the movement to express anger and defiance as well as loss. The abject grief eventually descends almost into silence, with the accordion simply ‘breathing’, notelessly. From this total passivity there emerges the ‘finale’; new influences trickle in, and the mood gradually alters to one of optimism, ending with the customary ‘reprise’ of the Pibroch theme, and a virtuosic coda.

‘The Singing’ is inspired by the playing of James Crabb, and by his extraordinary range of expression. The title refers not only to the wealth of Gaelic song and psalm, but also to birdsong, and, in the sense of the Gaelic ‘seinn’ (singing, sounding or playing), to the voices of instruments and of the land itself.

‘The Singing’ was commissioned by the Cheltenham Music Festival and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, generously supported by Beryl Calver-Jones and Gerry Mattock. It was first performed at the Cheltenham Music Festival 2006 by James Crabb, its dedicatee, and the Halle orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The first Australian performance will be given by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, also conducted by Martyn Brabbins, in September 2007.

Sally Beamish 2006


Buy/Hire from Norsk Musikforlag

Available Recordings:

The Singing

BIS 2015

James Crabb accordion

Håkan Hardenberger trumpet

Branford Marsalis saxophone


Martyn Brabbins conductor

A CD of symphonic works, featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland with soloists Branford Marsalis, James Crabb and Håkan Hardenberger, under conductor Maryn Brabbins.

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