Setting the 'score' straight on an Orkney great

Setting the 'score' straight on an Orkney great

An Orkney explorer whose reputation was sullied by history books will be remembered in a new light as part of a concert in Aberdeen which will showcase a new composer.

Ed Jones, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, has spent several years researching the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic in 1845 and the role of Orkney doctor John Rae in unravelling one of the great mysteries of the Victorian era.

He has written a 50 minute elegy to the 129 lives lost on the Franklin expedition and the subsequent efforts of Rae, a doctor and explorer from Orphir, Orkney, who discovered the fate of the crew but was discredited at the time.

It will be performed by two Aberdeen choirs and an orchestra for the first time in a concert at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, on Sunday, March 29.

Ed, 26, a former pupil of Aberdeen Grammar School, has worked alongside historian Professor Peter Davidson from the University who has written a libretto he has set to music.

It forms the key piece of work Ed is working on for a PhD in composition under the supervision of royal composer Professor Paul Mealor.

Ed said: “The story of the Franklin expedition to the Arctic is fascinating and the recent discovery of one of the ships has prompted even greater interest in what was one of the great mysteries of the Victorian era.

“It had people gripped both at the time and for generations to come as no one knew for sure what had happened to the crew.

“This led to many attempts, often spearheaded by Sir John Franklin's wife, to find them.

“To write the music I wanted to get into the mindset not only of the explorers but of those back home so I’ve spent a lot of time reading letters written by sailors, letters written by their wives and poems from the time.”

Ed, whose work will be performed by the University of Aberdeen Choral Society, Chamber Choir and the Marischal Chamber Orchestra, also wanted to introduce the story of Dr John Rae.

Dr Rae signed up with the Hudson’s Bay Company and charted huge areas of unmapped territory using his surveying skills. He was called upon to help uncover the fate of the Franklin expedition but his conclusions that the ship had been crushed by ice and that sailors had turned to cannibalism to survive scandalised Victorian society and his reputation never recovered.

Ed added: “The more I learned about Dr John Rae the more I felt it was important to tie the two stories together in music.

“Rae discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage, the navigable Arctic route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific but was not credited with this.

“His own reputation was tarnished by his claims regarding the Franklin expedition but much later studies have agreed with his conclusions.

“My music draws on these dark emotions but finishes with a little more light in the same way that some recognition is now being given to Rae for his achievements.

“The subject matter suits my style of choral composition and I am delighted to be given the chance to work with two choirs as well as an orchestra.

“As a new composer opportunities of this kind are rare and I hope people will come along to the concert to hear my work performed in this way for the very first time and to learn more about these fascinating voyages of discovery.”

The concert begins at St Andrew’s Cathedral, King Street, Aberdeen at 7.45pm on Sunday March 29. Tickets will be available on the door. For more information email music@abdn.ac.uk

Author
Joanne Milne

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