The birdsong of the Scottish Borders has inspired composer Helen Leach to create The Blackbird’s Notebook – a new work being premiered in one of the country’s loveliest historic music venues.
Helen created the piece, for the pleasing combination of violin and organ, during a week-long residency in The Tower Studio at Marchmont House near Greenlaw.
The stately home’s oak-panelled Lorimer-designed Music Room regularly welcomed the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (who is thought to have helped design its organ) in the early part of the 20thcentury.
A delightful feature of the house is the ironwork of the staircase, which features highly stylised blackbirds by Lorimer to whom The Blackbird’s Notebook is dedicated.
The new compositions are part of a drive to return the house to being a centre for classical music in the Borders.
Helen, who composed a fanfare and arranged music for Prince William’s 2021 Edinburgh visit, has recently conducted and arranged music for an edition of the BBC’s Songs of Praise.
For May’s Marchmont residency she chose simply to write something inspired by the birdlife of the 1,500-acre Marchmont Estate, which has a number of projects to encourage native species.
She said: “One morning I got up very early and went down to a little bridge in the woods to just stand and listen, and I heard the blackbirds.
“They are so beautiful, so special, the sentinels of hope, wakening the world each day to the dawn. And then they fill our gardens with sound again at night – with a song of peace. It is the reiterated notes of the song of peace which undergirds the whole composition.
“It is not just the natural beauty of their song; I feel there is a spiritual significance. Nature can be a messenger for something else, and it’s this that I wanted to share with people.”
Born in Hawick, much of Helen’s early life was spent in The Borders. Latterly she lived in Manchester before returning in recent years with her husband Simon, who is the organist both at Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh and Marchmont.
The Blackbird’s Notebook will be performed by Simon along with violinist Benedict Holland at the Tea and Rhapsody event which takes place in the Music Room on Saturday, 30 July.
Helen’s work consists of nine songs or motifs with distinctive themes: hope, peace, freedom, resolution, soaring, courage, comfort, knowledge and creation. Her song of freedom, in particular, has a pastoral quality giving it a “kinship” to the work of Vaughan Williams.
Helen has been asked to create two more works, which are likely to reflect the presence of the lapwing and the many owls on the estate.
Her residencies are being supported by The Marchmont Makers Foundation, a young charity dedicated to promoting and nurturing artistic excellence in the Borders and across Scotland.
Lucy Brown, the foundation’s Managing Director said: “Helen’s work exactly fits our aims to nurture and inspire creativity both local and at a national level by providing super-talented people with the opportunity to create new work.
“This is an utterly wonderful piece that’s joyful to hear. We are also very keen to have pieces that can be played on the organ at Marchmont and in its Music Room – that is what it was created for and we are determined to have it used.
“It is wonderful that new pieces are being created that can be heard in this place and will hopefully be enjoyed for hundreds of years into the future, just as the works of people like Stanford and Vaughan Williams that were created or played here in the past.”
The Tea and Rhapsody programme is:
- Helen Leach – A Melrose Rhapsody
- Joseph Rheinberger – Op.166 Suite for Violin and Organ
- Helen Leach – The Blackbird’s Notebook.
- Naji Hakim – Capriccio
Performers: Simon Leach (organ), Benedict Holland (violin)
Time and date: Saturday 30th July at 4:30pm – duration 50 minutes with no interval
Details from The Marchmont House Eventbrite page at marchmont.eventbrite.co.uk.
Picture by Colin Hattersley.
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Notes for Editors
About Helen Leach
- Born in Hawick, in the beautiful Scottish Borders, Helen enjoyed a rich and diverse musical upbringing in the Scottish Borders, becoming Principal Clarinet of both the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and National Youth Chamber Orchestra of Scotland. Gaining a place to study clarinet, piano and academic music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, a Virtuosi Society bursary enabled a period of study with Gervase de Peyer in Washington DC.
- Helen graduated in 1996 going on to follow an exciting and varied career in and around Manchester for many years whilst raising a young family. As well as teaching, performing and directing across a huge spectrum of styles, she has directed the music for live BBC broadcasts, including her own compositions and arrangements on Radio 4.
- Helen is delighted to have now returned to her homeland with her husband Simon and their children and is loving her new lifestyle in this beautiful part of the world, combining instrumental and theory teaching with composition.
- Last May she composed a Fanfare and arranged music for Prince William’s trip to Edinburgh and has composed music for other recent royal milestones for her husband, Simon, to play at Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. She has recently conducted and arranged music for BBC Songs of Praise which will be screened in November.
- Helen was deeply thrilled to be invited to be Composer in Residence for Marchmont House in May of this year and, inspired by the exceptional birdsong and natural beauty of the Marchmont Estate, composed The Blackbird’s Notebook sitting in the Tower.
- As part of the vibrant community of artists at Marchmont, her music reflects her wonder for creation and seeks to express the worth of all life.
- Marchmont House is a 1750 Palladian mansion near Greenlaw in the Scottish Borders.
- It was awarded the 2018 Historic Houses/Sotheby’s Award following a seven-year restoration, which was described by the jury as “stunning”.
- The house has one of the finest Georgian and Arts & Crafts interiors in Scotland.
- It is open to the public for a limited number of days each year, for tours and special events.
- The Marchmont team is dedicated to bringing the house alive as a home for makers and creators, celebrating innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship
- The Creative Spaces project is entirely privately funded by Marchmont Farms Limited and has not called on grants from the public sector or charities – which are facing immense demands for their limited resources.
- The studios and workshops have been created by the conversion of a series of 19th-century outbuildings round a courtyard near the house and its spectacular walled garden.
- The project’s value has already been demonstrated by the establishing of The Marchmont Workshop, which has saved the great 19th-century tradition of Arts & Crafts rush seated ladder back chairs for a new chapter in the Scottish Borders.
- Visit www.marchmonthouse.com for more information.
- For information about The Marchmont Workshop see https://themarchmontworkshop.com.
About Marchmont Makers Foundation
- The foundation makes grants, donations and gifts to individuals and organisations who share its ambitions.
- The key focus areas for supporting artists are:
- funded residencies in the creative spaces.
- Providing opportunities/places to nurture creativity in the local community including garden/environmental/work spaces/organisations
- Enabling access to creative opportunities that would not otherwise happen.
- The foundation has developed partnerships with Visual Arts Scotland and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland amongst others, but is keen to establish links with charities using creativity to further their cause within the Scottish Borders and beyond, welcoming approaches from like-minded organisations.
- Marchmont Makers Foundation is a registered charity No. SC048981 – v124
- See https://marchmontmakers.org
For media information contact Matthew Shelley at Matthew@ScottishFestivalsPR.Org or 07786 704299.