Farewell to Stromness

A comment on my Judith Weir article by regular reader Henry Holland quite correctly pointed out that Peter Maxwell Davies isn't really a Scottish composer as he was born in Oldham in England, and studied in Manchester. Henry's thoughtful comment set me off down a few personal Overgrown Paths which I share here, and which will eventually explain the mystery photograph above.

Despite his Lancashire origins I have a particular fondness for Max's more Scottish music, and first heard his exquisite 'An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise', with its memorable part for Highland Bagpipes (below), played in the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling, Scotland when we lived there in the 1980's. The MacRobert auditorium on the University of Stirling campus was a regular venue for BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. I remember a very young Nigel Kennedy sitting in the back row listening to the second half of a concert after playing the Walton Violin Concerto in the first half. He was waiting for the orchesta bus to take him back down the motorway to Glasgow. These days a personal helicopter would be hovering outside as the last bars of the Walton died away - if the BBC Scottish could ever afford 'Nige's' fee.

I have to guiltily confess that one of my favourite compositions by Max, in fact one of my favourite pieces of music by any composer, is his distinctly non-avant garde five minute solo for piano Farewell to Stromness. I have put it on the CD player as I write, and yes, it still sends shivers down my spine. The story behind this piece is worth airing. Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground are piano interludes from The Yellow Cake Revue, a sequence of cabaret-style numbers first performed at the St. Magnus Festival, Orkney in Scotland, by Eleanor Bron, with the composer at the piano, in June 1980. The Yellow Cake Revue took its name from the popular term for refined uranium ore, and the revue was written to highlight the threat of a proposed uranium mine to the economy and ecology of the Orkney Islands. Stromness, the second largest town in Orkney (pop. 1500, photo to right), would have been two miles from the uranium mine's core, and the centre most threatened by pollution. Yesnaby is the nearby clifftop beauty spot under whose soil the uranium is known to lie. Farewell to Stromness also exists as a guitar arrangement, and once appeared in a soft-rock version. It had the questionable distinction of being arranged for strings by Rosemary Furniss (not by Max I note) for the blessing of the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle in 2005, Max of course being the Master of the Queen's Music, of which more below. Note to any jazz pianists reading this - here are two pieces just waiting to be translated into a jazz idiom. If you do not know Farewell to Stromness or Yesnaby Ground you are missing something seriously beautiful. These links take you to the guitar and piano versions of Farewell to Stromness.

All of which gives me a reason to tell my very favourite Maxwell Davies story. Earlier this year Max was investigated by the police for making terrine from a dead swan found on his property in the Orkneys. The swan had hit power lines, so was dead on arrival in a very Parsifal kind of way. As the swan is a protected species a police investigation followed complete with search warrant. No charges were brought, but if they had been it would have been interesting as all swans in the UK come come under the prorogative of the Queen, who employs an official swan keeper. And the Queen happens to be Max's employer. See this link for the full story.

And yes, I know you are all asking what has the header photo got to do with this story? Well, there are personal connections with the Orkney Islands which explain it. During the Second World War my late father was a gunnery instructor with the RAF Regiment attached to the USAF. He spent much of the latter part of the war in the relative safety of an Orkney Islands training base teaching the American crews of B-17 Flying Fortress crews to shoot-down German night fighters, while my poor mother suffered the worst of the bomb raids in central London where she worked. A string of celebrity air crews attached to the US 8th Army Air Force passed through the Orkney base, and one of them was Clark Gable, star of Gone with the Wind (right) and many other classic films. The previously unpublished photo found among my father's papers shows Clark Gable working on a B-17 in the Orkneys, rather than working on a film set.

Of course Gone with the Wind also has strong musical connections. The composer of its Oscar-nominated score was Max Steiner. He was born in Vienna where his grandfather was a musical impresario, and his godfather was Richard Strauss. Like Peter Maxwell Davies he was something of a child prodigy, and reputedly graduated from Vienna's Imperial Academy of Music at the age of 13 after completing an eight-year course in one year. He took conducting lessons from Gustav Mahler and made his concert debut at 16. After a short time in Britain he emigrated to the United States in 1914. He became a Warner Bros staff composer in 1936, and remained there until his retirement in 1965. Steiner (right) personally scored more than a hundred films, and contributed material to several hundred others. By far his best known work is his 1939 score for Gone with the Wind (my header picture of Clark Gable must have been taken a few years after the film was made).

So here to play this post out in style is Hollywood's answer to Farewell to Stromness - the original soundtrack version of Max Steiner's Tara's Theme, which also still manages to pass An Overgrown Path's 'shivers down the spine' test -

And this, of course, is where the credits roll .......

Pictures - header, copyright On An Overgrown Path. This photo is one of several of Clark Gable taken when he was with the US 8th Army Air Force. I don't think they have been previously published. Any Gable biographers or interested parties should contact me for more details.
Orkney Wedding performance -
Stromness – Visitorkney.com
Gone with the Wind - Amazon
Max Steiner -
The Columnists
Music - Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground are on the excellent disc of Max's music
A celebration of Scotland (see, he was a Scottish composer) on Unicorn Kanchana
Audio stream - Maxwell Davies works from MaxOpus, Tara's Theme from
Reel Classics
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. If bandwidth is a problem with your permission I will host your image.
Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Memories of the USAAF 389th Bomb Group at Hethel, the Green Dragons


Pliable said…
Re-reading Max Seabrook's excellent biography (which only goes up to the early 90's) reminded me of another Max story, this time about Orkney Wedding and Sunrise.

When he composed the work in the mid-80s Max was living in a remote croft on Orkney without a phone. But he had fitted an intercom link to a neighbouring croft whose owner used to do some shopping for him.

Max was in the habit of compiling shopping lists, and relaying them to his helpful neighbour David Hutchinson.

The short score of An Orkney Wedding bears amusing testimony to this arrangement: on the back of one page of manuscript score are the words 'David: bogg roll, salt, loaf'.
Pliable said…
I was delighted the other day to finally find a commercial recording of the guitar version of Max's beautiful Farewell to Stromness.

It is on an early CD by Mark Ashford released by Turnbull (950604). The other works on the 25 minute CD are by Roland Dyens(an exciting young composer I'm hearing a lot of recently), Henze, Albéniz and Sergio Assad.

Well worth seeking out.
This is my first time to your blog. It won't be my last. I thoroughly enjoyed EVERYTHING I found here. Bravo!
Pliable said…
October 2010 update – there has been considerable interest in this previously unpublished photo of Clark Gable. Further research by me has failed to confirm that it was taken in the Orkney Islands, although there is no doubt that the photo, and another that I have of Clark Gable with my father, are genuine.

My late father spent some time with the RAF Regiment in Scotland and I have always assumed that the photo was taken there. But research uncovers very few links between the USAAF and the RAF bases in the Orkney Islands.

I have found propaganda footage on YouTube which looks as though it was taken at the same time as the stills I have - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ppcki5iJ3zU

This footage was shot in England at an unspecified location. I know that my father also spent time at RAF Bovingdon and this was also used by the USAAF. So without further information Bovingdon or another English base would seem the more likely location for the photo.
jimmiebee said…
For all those who like to hear 'Farewell to Stromness, you might also enjoy John Stewart's song 'The Last Hurrah', it's uncannily similar.

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