A BBC Radio 3 commission for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Staging -
On balconies: 2ob, 2ssax, 1perc
On stage: 3(2picafl).1(ca).2(bcl).2+cbn/4331/3perc/pf/str(

  • 3(2pic,afl).3(ca).2(bcl).2ssx.2+cbn/4331/4perc/pf/str(
  • 20 min

Programme Note

Around the time that I began writing Earth I was reading three texts that helped some of the ideas for the piece to take shape. Two of these contain devastating descriptions of warfare and its aftermath: the poem Crow's Account of the Battle by Ted Hughes; and Solzhenitsyn's novel August 1914. Both were written in 1970 and the two passages are strikingly similar in form and content, if not in style, contrasting the relentlessness and deafening noise of battle with the wary, empty stillness that precedes and follows it.

Earth does not follow a linear narrative of battle, though extreme contrasts (of volume, of speed and dynamism, and of colour) are certainly present; and there are instruments on balconies surrounding the audience that help to immerse the listener in sound. As the piece was written I was increasingly aware that its musical ideas were related in similar ways to the relationship of the branches (or more appropriately, the roots) of a tree: separate, growing apart, expanding; but all connected to and emanating from the same centre. I began to think of our relationship to the earth in the same way. This is also implied in the denouement of Hughes's poem - "bones are too like lath and twigs" - which painfully invokes the image of death as a reunion with and reabsorption of our materials into our root system, the earth. If life, and blood, seep away into the earth like water, then earth is also the source of new life. It was this sense of unity with the earth, even in the most destructive circumstances, that formed the core of the music in Earth and its branching out.

Perhaps the most striking image is in the third text, by the 12th-century Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen:

"The earth has a scaffold of stones and trees.
In the same way is a person formed;
flesh is the earth,
the bones are the trees and stones."

Earth is approximately 20 minutes long and is played without a break.

© Stuart MacRae

(The texts quoted above are from Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow by Ted Hughes, pub. Faber and Faber, and from the letter To the Prelates of Mainz by Saint Hildegard of Bingen, quoted in A Journey through Christian Theology by William P. Anderson, pub. Fortress Press)


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