Island

An oratorio by Jeremy Harmer and Phil Toms


Programme notes

Programme notes by Jeremy Harmer from the first performance of Island (March 2015, Ely Sinfonia conducted by Steve Bingham, Ely Cathedral)

What role, if any, does music have in preventing or resolving conflict and hurt? Well as Daniel Barenboim, the co-founder of the Western Eastern Divan orchestra has said, when an Arab and an Israeli cellist have sat next to each other in an orchestra trying to play the same note in exactly the same way ‘something about which they both cared, about which they were both passionate. Well, having achieved that one note, they already can’t look at each other the same way, because they shared a common experience.’

Island tells the story of Sophie and Jack (and Jack’s dog, Bubble). Though they come from different parts of the island, south and north, they strike up a childhood friendship. But this is put in jeopardy when drought strikes and soon everyone is saying ‘it is someone’s fault. Someone else’s fault, obviously.’ Before you know it there is shouting and fights and guns and armies, and soon the smoke of war covers the beauty they had once enjoyed – with potentially deadly consequences for the two children and their friends.

There must be some way out of this, surely, and maybe, just maybe, ‘Once people have made music together, once people have sung the same songs together in beautiful harmony it’s possible they will never be enemies again.”

Written in a merger of styles Island’s two central songs (Jack & Sophie’s themes, and the song of peace) grow naturally from DADGAD, a popular folk guitarist tuning which Jeremy uses more than any other. When Phil Toms joined in he contributed his fabulous orchestral arrangements and added his swirling island music and an exquisite Dona Nobis Pacem. And then there was his pounding arrangement of Jeremy’s war chorus, and the devastation of war represented in his plaintive threnody on the strings and much much more.

In one of the key moments in Island Jack and Sophie’s parents pray that ‘the song we are singing will be a song of peace’. And in the end, after that heartfelt Dona Nobis (‘give them peace’) the soloists, orchestra and choruses join together in a triumphant blending of the musical themes that run through the work. Peace is re-established and harmony prevails. And then, of course, there is Bubble the dog….