Hawick’s medieval music inspires young composers

A fragment of medieval music performed in Hawick last week for what is thought to be the first time in 450 years has inspired a national competition for young composers, writes Sandy Neil.

The Hawick Missal Fragment, discovered in the archives of Hawick Heritage Hub, is one bifolium – two joined leaves – of a 12th-century ‘missal’: a book containing texts and chants for Mass. The manuscript used by monastic orders during Holy Week was found in papers belonging to the Rutherford family of Knowesouth near Jedburgh – but how it got into the collection is a mystery.

The world premiere took place in the town’s Tower Mill last Wednesday, the first event in a two-year music and arts project by Creative Scotland. There was also an opportunity to see the missal fragment, and hear the story of how it was saved and interpreted.

As a rare surviving witness to the worship of the medieval church, the fragment is helping experts better understand how Mass would have been celebrated in the Border abbeys.

Dr Matthew Cheung Salisbury, lecturer in music at University College, Oxford University, said: “The Hawick Missal Fragment is a valuable witness of medieval life, but it also speaks to us today.”

Now, following its first performance, young composers are being sought to submit choral works inspired by the Hawick Missal Fragment for the Fragments Composition Prize.

“This competition aims to revive the fragment’s original inspiration,” Dr Cheung Salisbury added, “by exploring the very simple but compelling idea of the expression of the divine in the 21st century.”

Submissions should reflect or explore some aspect of the fragments project, which aims to help participants create new work on the theme of art and music as representations of the divine.

The value of the prize is £500, and three performances will be given as part of the project’s sprogramme. Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs at Holyrood, said: “This is a great opportunity for a young composer to draw inspiration from the Hawick Missal Fragment and mark the importance of the Scottish Borders’ historic culture. To see the music performed in the setting of one of the abbeys will be a wonderful experience for locals and international visitors to the area.”

Councillor Vicky Davidson, Executive Member for Culture, Sport and Community Learning at Scottish Borders Council, said: “The discovery of a fragment of music in the Hawick Missal was a remarkable find – an echo of our medieval past. This competition will give a young composer the chance to reimagine that music for a contemporary audience.

“We are delighted to be involved in this project – in both the fascinating revival of the original piece and the exciting opportunity to create a new composition from this 900-year- old fragment.”

For competition details, go to www.fragmentsproject.co.uk.

Meanwhile, Hawick Music Live! is presenting a season of ‘Contrasting Sounds’, beginning with Tenacious T’weed on Sunday, December 2, at 2.30pm in Hawick’s Tower Mill.

The programme includes Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock, for soprano, clarinet and piano, and two piano pieces by Hawick composers Francis George Scott and Sir John Blackwood McEwen. Tickets cost £10 (£2 for students).