SEVEN HILLS: St Mary’s / Capperauld

Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh

More than most schools in Scotland, the pressure last term was on St Mary’s Music School to get its music performance function back on track at the earliest opportunity. That’s primarily what the specialist Edinburgh music establishment exists for, so Covid restrictions were an especial concern. 

Resilience, determination, ingenuity and ambition paid off, and this end of session concert, now online, is a glorious musical achievement in the harshest of times. Central to it is the premiere of Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld’s Theory of the Earth, the first of seven unfolding commissions by the school designed to celebrate its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023.

The number seven is key. In hatching the project the school’s director of music Paul Stubbings sought to connect the school to the community by taking Edinburgh’s seven hills and poems by Alexander McCall Smith as the inspiration for the new chamber works, and for related activity that would align with St Mary’s expanding outreach initiatives. Besides the seven commissions, Sir James MacMillan will write a major celebratory work for orchestra and choir.

Meanwhile, Capperauld’s latest premiere marks the start of the process from a public perspective, and a highly impressive achievement it is. Written for string quartet, piano and percussion, Theory of the Earth is performed by mostly students under the direction of head of strings, Valerie Pearson. The inspiration is McCall Smith’s poem Arthur’s Seat and Geology, who reads it prior to the performance.

As for the resulting music, Capperauld has latched on to the poet’s reference to James Hutton, the 18th century founder of modern geology, who confirmed, especially through his analysis of Arthur’s Seat, that the earth’s geological evolution was a constant process of renewal and decay over millions of years – “no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end”. In doing so he debunked traditional religious notions. 

Capperauld responds with a piece that seems as timeless as it is contained. From a single, insistent note on piano vying motifs emerge, some nostalgically modal, others more abstract and ethereal. The combined result is almost statuesque, an invigorating minimalist mix of movement and stasis. 

It’s a language these young players easily understand and are technically on top of. They negotiate its variable aleatoric elements with unflinching confidence, and are persuasive in shaping the big picture, with its gradual build to biting climax and ultimate evaporation. If this is the bench mark for the ensuing commissions, it will be quite a collection.
Ken Walton

Available to view at