• 2+pic.2.2.3/4331/timp.perc/hp/str
  • SATB
  • 2S, Ca, 6T, Bar, B Bar, 4B
  • 2 hr 30 min

Programme Note


The story of the early Christian hero Columba who, banished from his native Ireland after a battle caused by his unlawful copying of a Bible, sets about converting the Picts in Scotland. Opposing him is Broichan, the Archdruid, who worships the pagan powers of nature. The opera explores the perennial themes of political involvement, guilt, expiation and, above all, healing vision.


It is difficult to know why a composer chooses to write a particular piece and he himself is often least able to explain it. We are surrounded by commissions (probably too many and for the wrong reasons) but being uncomfortable heirs of both the 18th century idea of the craftsman and the 19th century idea of the individual we are bound to opt out from time to time and acknowledge our debt to the romantics.

Columba is well known in Scotland and certainly one of the biggest (in all senses) of the early Christians, but his background is complex and Adomnan's Life of Columba (Adomnan was ninth Abbot of Iona and died in 705 AD) is a series of stories and miracles which leave one somewhat puzzled as to the true nature of this remarkable man. The initial stimulus came from the landscape - a beautiful afternoon in 1972, while standing outside the Abbey in Iona and looking over to Mull. The light in Iona of the far West is quite unique. The first Act was composed during a winter (1975-6) in the Isle of Arran and not far from Holy Isle where one of Columba's many pupils, St Moluash, lived for several years and left his name to the lovely village of Lamlash. The short score was completed in 1978 and the full score in 1980. It may all seem a rather strange choice, but such ancient subjects are often good in the artificial world of the opera house, and the poet Edwin Morgan immediately agreed that we should try to make him into a real human being in poetic and musical terms.

The Acts depend very much on the settings and Act I set in Northern Ireland 561 AD deals mainly with the battle of Cul-drebne. It tries to bring out the fierier side of Columba's character, his anger, his slyness, his vindictiveness, and also his sense of guilt and overriding sense of vocation. He was a strikingly many-sided man, "fox" as well as "dove", practical as well as religious, royal as well as devout - in fact a man of many parts who played a key role not only in the shaping of Scotland but also in the growth of European Christianity.

Act II contains the most vivid and chromatic music and tries to give expression to the dramatic encounters between Columba, King Brude of the Picts and Brude's leading Druid, Broichan (or Foichan - there are different versions of his name). There is here in the setting of Inverness a real clash between two religions and two ways of life, and both composer and poet were anxious to express the beauty of the Druids' nature worship. Broichan is a sort of Lucifer to Columba's Christ and there is also an appearance of the Loch Ness Monster who becomes a perfectly natural and appropriate part of the story. After all, this was the first historical sighting of the beast. The main female character is an Irish slave-girl called Bridget and the references to the ever-contemporary Irish problem became increasingly apparent as we went along.

The final Act is set in Iona and contains the most simple and lucid music in the opera although the text had to be completely re-written for the sake of musical proportions. The light, the sheer beauty of the place and Columba's eventual peace of min are the main themes. I suppose that the perennial themes of political involvement, guilt expiation and above all healing vision were the main sources for both poet and composer throughout.

The music was composed straight through with no recitatives but with a mixture of arias and ariosi. The various choruses, and particularly the great choral contest between the Christians and Druids in Act II, are of crucial importance and the final Act includes a number of Passacaglias.

© Kenneth Leighton

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