The Berserking

James MacMillan (1959)

The Berserking 1990

3333-4331-timp.perc(3)-cel-harp-strings (min:14.12.10.8.8)
Duration 
33
Solist 
Genre 
Publisher 

"Berserkers" were special warriors common to the Vikings and the ancient Celtic tribes, who would work themselves into a frenzy with mead, mushrooms and hyperventilation to achieve performances of ferocious courage in battle. Although deadly in combat, the berserking process was paradoxically a suicidal one since, having lost their senses, they were vulnerable to a more stealthy attack. As a Scot living in the modern world this behaviour seems very familiar! I see its pointlessness as resembling the Scots’ seeming facility for shooting themselves in the foot in political and, for that matter, in sporting endeavours. (In fact the initial burst of inspiration for The Berserking came in 1989 after watching a soccer game in which Glasgow Celtic turned in a characteristically passionate, frenzied but ultimately futile display against Partizan Belgrade!).

But this piano concerto is not programme music. Instead, the abstract subject matter (in this case misplaced energy) has become the defining element in the work’s material and structure. In the opening section there is a sense of swaggering futility in the way the energy is "misdirected" into climaxes without resolutions and maintained in a continual state of hyper-activity and excess.

The middle section is slow, reflective and delicate and has a simple verse and refrain structure like a folksong, creating an aura of traditional Scottish music. The relationship between soloist and orchestra changes from section to section. In the opening fast music they are in argument and opposition most of the time, each striving to dominate. In the slow section the piano is very much to the fore and in the final quick section they become equal partners, much of the time in unison and with frequent interlocking of fragments. The final section eventually reaches a more "meaningful" resolution. After the final climax there emerges something apparently new in piano, celeste and harp; but one can hear the contours of the melodic material from the slow section. The Celtic folk influence returns to leave its mark in the serenity of the final coda.

James MacMillan, August 1997

This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer

Performances 
22.9.90 Musica Nova, Glasgow: Peter Donohoe, piano / Scottish National Orchestra / Matthias Bamert
3
Flute
3rd piccolo
3
Oboe
3rd doubling cor anglais
3
Clarinet
3rd doubling bass clarinet
3
Bassoon
3rd contrabassoon
4
Horn
3
Trumpet
3
Trombone
3rd bass trombone
1
Tuba
1
Timpani
3
Percussion
2 timbales (high/low), glockenspiel, large tam-tam, mark tree, crotales, tom-tom, xylophone, snare drum (high), snare drum (medium), anvil, vibraphone, tom-tom (low), very large bass drum, loud claves, tubular bells, antique cymbals, snare drum (low)
14
Violin
12
Violin II
10
Viola
8
Cello
8
Double bass
1
Harp
1
Piano
celesta
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