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Open Air Arias II: Glencoe and Berg

In the second of his explorations of music and landscape, our Music Director designate Garry Walker finds resonances of an early-20th century work by Alban Berg in the Scottish Highlands.

“Glencoe should never be experienced for the first time in good weather. Although its sublime beauty would be more easily appreciated when you can see the high tops, rather than just cloud, it has more atmosphere, in my opinion, on one of the many days where it refuses to divulge its secrets, hiding behind tendrils of mist.  

It was on one of my early trips to Glencoe that I experienced such a day. We had intended rock climbing high on Bidean nam Bian, the complex mountain which dominates the south side of the Glen, but the rock was black with rain, so an exploratory walk in Coire Nam Beith was decided upon. Coires, generally north-facing natural rock amphitheatres, create curious acoustical effects. Sound is reflected, magnified, distorted. The beginning of the Präludium, the first movement of Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, with its mix of untuned percussion, almost seems to capture the mountain breathing. The use of instruments at the extremes of their natural registers (flutes 0:23, bassoon 0:31, trombone most obviously 0:52) creates the kind of weird and unsettling atmosphere one can find amongst mountains. 

Glencoe © Garry Walker

The mountain tops would occasionally reveal themselves, and their primordial beauty was somehow exaggerated by their fleeting appearance, and sudden disappearance (1:08-1:25). Berg’s music builds through a series of false summits to an enormous climax (2:57). I am reminded at this point that we were blessed with a brief window of better visibility from the summit, and the mood I experienced looking down Loch Etive and to the grim, storm-clad peaks of the Black Mount and Breadalbane seems to be captured by the music. 

As soon as the view had presented itself, it withdrew, not to reappear, and the Präludium, in a single organic arch, as if from sea to summit, recedes back to the shy and mysterious mists from whence it came.” 

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