The Confession of Isobel Gowdie


Background to Isobel Gowdie

  • It was written by the Scottish composer James MacMillan (1959-) for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to play at the Proms in 1990
  • Its story is taken from a period of Scottish history when over 4000 were killed as part of the mass hysteria which surrounded the persecution of witches. Isobel Gowdie was from the North of Scotland, and in 1662 she confessed under torture to belonging to a coven of 13 witches, to having baptised and ***** by the devil, and to various other devilish crimes. She was strangled at the stake and burned in pitch.
  • The composer doesn't tell the story in the sense of depicting a sequence of events, but describes the work as 'the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had', and appears to use Scottish religous song to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Scottish people for the murder of Isobel Gowdie
1 of 9

Structure of the piece

The work is in one movement. It divides into three sections

A  -  Bars 1 to 129   -   Opening section (largo) / Ends with the 13 stab chords

B  -  Bars 130 to 344 -   Middle section

C  -  Bars 345 to 426   -   Final section: recapitulation

2 of 9

Tonality and Harmony

The music is tonal, but it doesn't have conventional tonality (with a system of modulations)

  • It uses a modal scheme with contrasting groups of pitches for the different sections of the work
  • The first and last sections use the Lydian mode, with its sharpened 4th of the scale (C - D - E - F# - G - A - B C)
  • The sharpened 4th is also a feature of the Latin chant Lux aeterna, which is the most significant chant used in the piece. MacMillan also quotes modal and pentatonic melodies from Gaelic religous and folk music, and makes up other melodies of his own in the same style to show Scottish and Irish traditional music influences.
  • This overlaying of many chants, which are unified by a common melodic style, symbolise the people of Scotland
  • The overall scheme is based on C. The opening dissonant interval of a 2nd between D and C is resolved on a unison C at the end of the first section (bar 62) and in the final bars of the work.
  • From Bar 65, a change to a more violent mood is shown by changing tonality with use of Bflat and F# and a change to more dissonant chords made up of semitonal clashes. Also, parallel 5ths in the vilons starting pp ending with an ff glissando on an upward semitone, marked 'like a scream - molto vibr. tutta forza'
  • In bar 80, the music shifts up a tone with G-Fsharp-D-C cell prominent.

Compare with other set works?

-  while Berlioz quotes the Dies Irae in a way that would be obvious to a listener familiar with the chant, MacMillan integrates various chants into a complicated texture.

3 of 9

Orchestral Techniques

MacMillan uses a wide range of orchestral timbres and textures to interpret the story. There are specific effects for individual sections or instruments:

  • Wailing glissandi between repeated pairs of adjacent notes in the opening for the strings
  • Violent slapping of the fingerboard of the double basses in free rhythm
  • Rapid grace notes on the horns
  • Antiphonal placing of the two percussion players
  • Double glissandi on tubular bells, played by two hammers starting from opposite ends of the range

Bar 80 - the strings' wailing pitch bends are followed by complicated descending passages, successively using faster groups of tuplets to make the descent gather speed. The horns elaborate the sound of the lydian chord with angular grace notes before the sustained note or with semiquaver nontuplets at the end of a note

The outer sections are predominantly for the strings, with the woodwind, brass and percussion playing a greater role in the more violent middle section.

4 of 9

Orchestration and texture - Opening section

  • The first 13 bars are scored forclarinets, bassoons and horns only, beginning on middle C and D, and one by one introducing G, F# and E to cover the first five notes of the lydian scale
  • The C and D are held throughout (DRONE) in the horns with the 1st and 3rd horns alternating with the 2nd and 4th so that there is no break in the sound
  • At bar 14 - strings begin to be added to the texture. The use of 'divisi' allows MacMillan to build up a web-like texture of ten independently moving string melodies. Each part has a chant-like melodic character, restricted to a small range of neighbouring pitches, and together create a complicated texture of interweaving chants and litanies.
  • Second violas introduce an A in bar 17, the first group of second violins the higher B and C in bars 21 and 22, and by the time the first violins enter (bar 33 letter B) the texture already spans four octaves
  • There is often use of pairing in string parts playing in thirds e.g. bars 44-47 - upper violins 1 and 2 play triplet minims and sustained notes, lower violins 1 and 2 play sustained notes and triplet minims
  • At bar 54 - climatic fff chord spread over five octaves with a bass pedal on C, with the texture thinning with glissando sighs
  • From bar 65 (D) - the brass and woodwind are used as sections for the first time to show the more violent painful mood, with snare-drum rolls accompanying crescendos
  • complex texture achieved by combing: Chords that crescendo in the bass, built up by separate note entry of the chord, predominantly with figure of a descending semitone and a 3rd. The highest part (1st trumpet) begins with two notes but adds extension of previous phrases. This is over the rest of the orchestra playing a sustained chord, with a crescendo from pp to sfz
  • In bars 127-129 the 13 stab chords represent the 13 coven witches - highly dissonant using 11 different pitches, the high woodwind and trumpets 1 and 2 in a high or very high register.
5 of 9


  • In the opening section, any feeling of a definite beat is disguised by the slowness of the pulse and the use of syncopations in triplets and quintuplets in order to avoid placing notes directly on a stressed beat
  • from bar 47, the rhythmic character of the melodies begins to change, with held notes elaborated at the end in a flurry of semiquavers, a type of ornamentation found in Gaelic psalm singing
  • At bar 112 (letter G) - a new syncopated figure is introduced, first with a five quaver phrase. The use of the same rhythm in large groups of instruments is a clear contrast with the dense polyphonic textures already used. As the phrase is repeated it is extended by a few more notes.
  • In the middle section, the brass writing is highly rhythmic and dance-like, combining quavers in unpredictable patterns of twos and threes
  • The music gets faster, building up to eight bars of repeated crotchet Bs at 329-336
6 of 9

Gaelic and latin influences

  • There is a mood of threnody after bar 47 in the Opening of the piece, from the Greek for wailing and Ode, a song of lament at death. The music is in the Gaelic tradition of the funeral lament, known as corranach in Scotland.
  • The first use of the Lux aeterna melody is in the second double basses at bars 25-26, and is largely hidden by the rest of the texture. However, the moving notes of the melody are emphasised by the crescendo to mf
7 of 9

Middle section

  • The tempo gradually increases using metric modulation - at each tempo change the new pulse is two thirds of the previous crotchet beat e.g. bar 156 where snap-pizzicato in cellos and basses (doubled by bassoons, timpani and tuba). Crotchets at the new speed continue at the same pace as the triplet crotchets of the previous two bars. This is repeated in bars 182, 211 and 247
  • Each change of tempo introduces a new melodic and rhythmic variant of the most important pitches of the Lux Aeterna melody - C, D, G and Fsharp
  • the melodies in the middle section continue to have a strong motivic element. The example from bars 151 - 152 use octave displacement to invert the interval: the semiton E flat to E natural becomes a diminished octave.
  • The melody is made up of pairs of tones and semitones or their inversions. In bars 166-167, which are at a faster tempo, the melodic profile of the four notes has been retained, but the 4th leap between D and G has been stretched to a 6th (D to B). The repeated notes at the end of this phrase become an increasingly significant feature of this section
  • The lux aeterna melody is used in a slower harmonised form using extension of the melody
  • In bars 275-295, trumpets, first flute/oboe/clarinet (piccolo from bar 293) play lux aeterna melody with viloins' arpeggios highlighting the melody and rhythmic accompaniment
8 of 9

Takemitsu - Related repertoire

  • A flock descends into the pentagonal Garden (1977) - Toru Takemitsu 
  • Use of pentatonic scales - Yo (traditional Japanese scale)
  • Inspired by a dream, and traditional Japanese music
  • Slow tempo, with vague pulse and value attached to individual gestures or silences
  • The opening bars feature an oboe solo (occasionally in unison with a second oboe) - The oboe represents the birds, the repeated notes played normally (marked N) or as harmonics (circle), using the note C as a reference point
  • The first chord consists of the five notes of the pentatonic scale, and returns at various points to give a mood of rest in between more active, dissonant passages.
  • The phrasing and dynamic markings are highly detailed
  • The accompanying chords grow more dense with clusters of seven or eight notes
  • Elements of aleatoric music are used at letter J of the score, where the strict tempo is abandoned. The vibraphone, tubular bells, marimba, celesta and two harps - they have notated phrases which they are instructed to repeat many times at J, but at their own tempo over sustained harmonics in divided desks of cellos and basses. At the entry of the brass, the instruments listed are instructed to 'play only twice, then stop playing', and the texture dies down to ppp, followed by a two second silence
  • As the music reaches the end the final chord is built up of pentatonic notes with some added pitches
9 of 9


No comments have yet been made

Similar Music resources:

See all Music resources »See all Programme music resources »