Notes on Iain
Hamilton’s ‘The Bermudas’
A Forgotten Half
On the 30 October 2007
it will be the 50th anniversary
of Iain Hamilton’s The Bermudas
Op.33. It is a work that does not deserve
to have totally sunk without trace.
It may not be the composer’s most important
work, but there is no doubt that this
is a piece that is well written, uses
impressive musical resources and carries
considerable emotional depth. Additionally,
it is a transitional work between his
more romantic earlier pieces, the serial
compositions and the ‘light’ music of
the late 1950s.
Of course, even the
briefest look at the Hamilton catalogue
reveals a vast amount of music – most
of which is rarely performed and virtually
none of which has been recorded. Only
seven CDs are listed in the Arkiv catalogue
with only one of these being entirely
devoted to the composer’s compositions.
Yet The Bermudas
was a work that was eagerly awaited:
Hamilton was a composer who many critics
expected to become one of the leading
names of the second half of the 20th
It is not the purpose
of this article to give the biography
of Iain Hamilton. This has been well
done by Paul Conway on MusicWeb. However
a few pointers may be of help for readers
who are not familiar with the man or
Iain Ellis Hamilton
was born in Glasgow on 6 June 1922.
He was later to move to London where
he attended Mill Hill School. Music
was not to have been his original vocation
-in fact he became an apprentice engineer
and worked in this field until his mid
twenties. He won a scholarship to the
Royal Academy of Music where he studied
composition with William Alwyn. After
completing his Bachelor of Music Degree
at the University of London he divided
his time between teaching in both the
UK and the States and composition. His
teaching posts included being resident
composer at Tanglewood and the Mary
Duke Biddle Professorship at Duke University.
In 1981 he returned
to London where he remained until his
death on 21 July 2000.
The composer’s catalogue
includes works in virtually every form
– including operas, symphonies, concerti,
orchestral pieces, chamber and instrumental
music. Perhaps his masterpieces are
the operas, The Catiline Conspiracy
and The Royal Hunt of the
Hamilton’s works in
the first half of the nineteen fifties
tended to be large scale, romantic pieces
making use of complex chromatic harmonies.
Perhaps Berg, Hindemith and Bartok were
the key influences on his music at this
time. Compositions included the Symphonic
Variations (1948) the First String
Quartet, the Second Symphony
and the First Violin Concerto.
Yet in the middle of the decade he began
to experiment with serial technique.
He utilised this tool with more or less
strictness in works such as the Serenata
for Clarinet & Piano and the
Three Piano Pieces. In the last
part of the decade Hamilton turned his
attention to a number of lighter or
perhaps more approachable pieces including
the Concerto for Jazz Trumpet
and the Scottish Dances.
was commissioned by the BBC in June
1956. The other major work commissioned
at this time was the Second Symphony
by Michael Tippett.
is a large-scale work written for baritone
solo, chorus and large orchestra. The
work is basically in five contrasting
sections with solo, choral and orchestral
interludes. The text is based on extracts
from Sylvester Jourdain, a poem by Andrew
Marvell and notes gleaned from Caribbean
guidebooks and charts by the composer
Hamilton uses a kind
of derived serialism for this work.
It is certainly not strict, with one
of the key features of this piece being
the use of repeated chords.
The score was published
in 1957 by Schott & Co. Ltd of London.
The title page is prefaced with the
following words spoken by Ariel from
Act 1 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest:-
…in the deep nook, where
Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch
From the still-vexed Bermoothes…
is divided into five sections:-
- Interlude I Placido – Allegro furioso
- Maestoso –Allegro con brio
- Interlude II – Lento e calmo
- Con moto.
The opening pages begin
very quietly and slowly with a short
orchestral introduction followed by
a near unison recitation of extracts
from Caribbean charts and guidebooks.
This is a utilitarian text but works
extremely well – "Bermuda – lying
East-South-East two hundred and thirty
leagues from Virginia." Basically
Hamilton is putting the island on the
map! It is a technique that has been
used to great effect by minimalist composers
such as Steve Reich. The soloist reinforces
this geographical information before
the chorus recite a litany of names
– "Havana, Trinidad, Grenada"
and of course the "Spanish Main."
The movement ends quietly.
The first orchestral
interlude makes up nearly a quarter
of the length of this work. It is a
crucial part of the piece and is vital
to its overall structure. In fact, critics
have been most impressed with this section
of the work. It is classic sea and storm
music. The Interlude opens with the
first violins playing a ‘placido’ theme
on high strings. After a brief crescendo
the storm begins. Hamilton uses every
orchestral trick in the book to achieve
his effect – striding bass, arabesques
from the woodwind, tremolos on the strings
and brass chords which alternate between
pure concord and harsh dissonance. Hamilton
is never afraid to repeat phrases or
chords: neither is he concerned at introducing
what could only be described as ‘big
tunes’ – not in a ‘romantic’ sense but
in being memorable. The music expands
and subsides: a wide spaced cello part
is pitted against ‘sforzando’ woodwind
and harp chords. After an impressive
‘tutti’ the music seems to relax for
a moment, only to be interrupted by
stressful string and brass chords. The
storm cannot quite decide to abate.
Rushing strings and woodwind lead to
a harsh brass outburst. The Interlude
ends with a terrific build up of reiterated
chords – mostly dissonant but not horrendously
so. The movement ends with a ‘sfff’
chord for full orchestra.
The longest part of
The Bermudas is given over to
an exposition of words by Sylvester
Jourdain. This text is derived from
his book "A Discovery of the Bermudas,
Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils"
The history of this
book is interesting. In June 1609 Jourdain
had set sail from Plymouth Harbour on
board the passenger vessel Sea Venture.
This ship was one of nine that carried
some 500 colonists known as the ‘Third
Supply.’ They were bound for Virginia.
According to tradition this voyage was
to become the source for Shakespeare’s
great play, The Tempest.
The fleet of ships
was caught in a mid-Atlantic hurricane.
One of them was sunk and the Sea Venture
was wrecked on the coast of Bermuda.
For three days and nights the plucky
crew tried to keep the ship from running
aground on the rocks. They held the
boat long enough for the passengers,
crew and provisions to be saved and
salvaged. After the event Jourdain published
his book and this become something of
a best seller in England. One of the
characteristics of this volume was to
present Bermuda as a hospitable place,
not as a wild, dangerous land where
no-one could survive.
This section opens
with a fortissimo statement by full
choir that "Upon the eight and
twentieth of July sixteen nine after
the extremity of the storm was somewhat
qualified." Word rhythms announce
that …"we fell upon the shore at
the Bermudas." Attractive unaccompanied
music supports Jourdain’s contention
that Bermuda was formerly regarded as
a "most prodigious and enchanted
place, affording nothing but gusts,
storm and foul weather."
The relatively simple,
but dissonant harmonic structure of
this section lends mystery and even
fear. Of course, because of the reputation
that these islands had, no man ever
made for them against their will. A
few bars of bass chords leads to the
baritone solo. The mood has changed:
it is as if sunlight has appeared from
a cloudy sky. Jourdain insists "Yet
did we find there the air so temperate
and the country so abundantly fruitful
of all fit necessities." Relaxing
music underlines the statement that
"…it is truth the richest most
An ‘allegro brio’ permits
the chorus to get going with some exciting
reflections of their own. They tell
that fish is abundant: that they are
fat and sweet, there are many varieties.
There even seems to be a kind of pig
on these islands and naturally there
are plenty of fowl in the air. This
is fine music that explores the glory
of the island in an impressive manner.
A semi-chorus comments
on the fruits growing on the trees and
the great store of silk worms; the orchestral
accompaniment here is particularly will
o’ the wisp and is totally effective.
Syncopated woodwind and strings lead
back to the full chorus. Jourdain notes
that there is a "great store of
pearl… and some good quantity of amber…"
Much use is made of un-tuned percussion
in these bars. Lovely chords support
the idea that "There is also a
great plenty of whales…"
The baritone solo returns
with the bald statement that "Now
having finished we prepared and made
ourselves ready to ship for Virginia."
The remainder of the movement is given
over to Delius like ‘La la la’s’ and
declamations of Caribbean place names
– Trinidad, Havana and Honduras. The
soloist once again notes the location
of Bermuda in the Atlantic.
The strings introduce
this second orchestral interlude with
a figure which is almost like a barcarolle.
An interesting bit of counterpoint unfolds
before the woodwind provide quiet supporting
chords. This is what a friend of mine
once called ‘soft serialism’ - there
is nothing here that could possibly
offend the ear of people who were not
attuned to modernism. Yet as the interlude
continues the melodic line becomes a
little more disjointed with larger and
larger intervals between notes. The
strings soar higher before the timpani
announce a huge chord that is reiterated
four times and diminishes from ‘ff’
to ‘pianissimo.’ After a single note
on the bassoon, the last movement begins.
This is a setting of
the great poem by Andrew Marvell "Where
the remote Bermudas ride." A few
words about the poet may help understand
the reason why Hamilton chose to finish
the work with this poem.
Andrew Marvell was
a poet, politician and a Puritan. It
is perhaps in ‘Bermudas’ that the poet
reveals his thoughts about the English
expansion into the New World and in
particular the theology sustaining this
project. The bottom line was that settlers
were prepared to leave the relative
security of England and sail into a
harsher climate in the search of a spiritual
and commercial paradise. The present
poem is effectively a song of praise
raised by the mariners, giving thanks
to God for leading them through the
‘watery maze’ to an island that was
unknown to them yet was deemed to be
more temperate than their homeland.
Literary critics would
suggest that Marvell’s descriptions
of Bermuda are not of a literal island,
but an idealised place where people
are free to begin the new dispensation.
It is an ephemeral place that is probably
just beyond reach but which can inspire
mankind to create a better world free
from evil and corruption and one that
is truly in the image of the Garden
In an era of insecurities
caused by the Cold War and imminent
death in a nuclear holocaust these sentiments
would have resonated strongly with the
The movement opens
with the baritone soloist quietly expounding
the first few lines of Marvell’s poem.
He is accompanied by horn and bass clarinet:-
Where the remote Bermudas ride
In the ocean's bosom unespy’d,
From a small boat that row'd along
The list’ning woods receiv’d this
The basses join in with words encouraging
praise to God who has saved them from
the ‘watery maze’ and the huge ‘sea
monster.’ Meanwhile the altos and tenors
give a kind of Delian ‘Mm’ with closed
lips: I think that this is surely a
weak point of this work and can hardly
be deemed modernist! Fortunately, the
whole chorus combines to sing of sea
monsters and storms
The chorus, now divided into seven
voices describes the land that God has
brought them to. At the lines:
And sends the fowls to us in care
On daily visits through the air:
He hangs in shades the orange bright
Like golden lamps in a green night,
Hamilton introduces an interesting
string phrase complete with parallel
sixths in the bass and thirds and fourths
in the treble part. This figure is repeated
over the next dozen or so bars before
the tenors announce God’s generosity
to the travellers. Soon the chorus join
in with a litany of nature’s cornucopia:-
He makes the figs our mouths to
And throws the melons at our feet;
But apples plants of such a price,
No tree could ever bear them twice.
With cedars chosen by His hand
But then the mood changes: the music
starts to build up to towards the climax
of the movement. The mariners were to
make a temple on the island so as to
praise their creator:
He cast (of which we rather boast)
The Gospel's pearl upon our coast;
And in these rocks for us did frame
A temple where to sound His name.
Oh, let our voice His praise exalt
Till it arrive at Heaven's vault,
A huge explosion of praise is given
by the chorus with the words:
Which thence (perhaps) rebounding
Echo beyond the Mexique bay.'
Now the music dies down: the baritone
solo sings the last few lines of the
poem outlining the mood of the sailors.
Thus sung they in the English boat
A holy and a cheerful note:
And all the way, to guide their
With falling oars they kept the
Once again the chorus
comment on the proceedings with the
closed lipped ‘Mm’ The piece ends quietly
with reminiscences of the opening movements.
We hear soft sung ‘Trinidad, Bermuda
and Havana’ split up syllable by syllable
amongst the chorus again divided into
seven voices. The work finally dies
away ‘a niente.’
The first performance of Hamilton’s
The Bermudas was given as a part
of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 1957/8
concert season at the Royal Festival
Hall on the 30th October
1957. The conductor on this occasion
was Rudolf Schwartz. The other works
at this concert included the Symphony
No.8 (Unfinished) by Schubert,
the Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart
and Maurice Ravel’s Choreographic
Poem – La Valse. The soloist was
Thomas Hemsley and he was joined by
the BBC Chorus and Choral Society.
I have located a second
performance of this work given on the
penultimate night of the 1958 Promenade
Concerts. Hemsley was once again the
soloist; however the orchestra was conducted
by Sir Malcolm Sargent.
Unfortunately the work
seems to have disappeared from view.
I can find no further references to
performances of this work in the standard
musical literature. No commercial recording
of this work appears to have been made:
there is no entry in the catalogue of
the British Library Sound Archive. Information
from readers is welcomed!
Mr Clinton Gray-Fisk, writing in the
Musical Opinion December 1957 was not
over impressed with the ‘unnecessary
performance of Schubert’s Unfinished
Symphony; however he was impressed
with Ravel’s "iridescent and ever-welcome
‘La Valse.’ He is adamant that
what most of the audience had come to
the concert for was to hear the present
work by Hamilton.
He points out that
the work "eludes any precise formal
definition, but approximates to a cantata."
He considers that the music is well
organised and is couched in what was
then a contemporary idiom. However Gray-Fisk
regards this idiom as being indistinctive.
The orchestral colour and ‘atmospheric’
effects of the first interlude (storm)
were rated highly. Yet there is something
amiss in the work - he feels that there
is generally a dearth of incident in
the remaining movements and reveals
the composer as industrious rather than
inspired. He condemns the choral writing
as being "laboured, ungrateful
and enervating in its lack of propulsive
momentum." The last sentence of
his review is fatal. He writes that
the work arouses respect for the composer’s
obvious sincerity and honourable intentions,
but little desire to hear it again!
Harold Rutland (Musical
Times, December 1957) is also lukewarm
in his praise for this work. He concedes
that the work opens in "finely
evocative manner" and that "…much
of the writing has a haunting quality:
clearly an acute harmonic imagination
is at work." However Rutland concludes
his review by noting that "the
whole composition (which is not a cantata,
and certainly not a choral symphony)
sounded a little insubstantial for its
Geoffrey Madell writing
nearly a year later in the Musical Times
(November 1958) is a little more impressed.
He states that the "piece combines
brilliantly evocative orchestral writing
with some palely conventional choral
writing which almost destroys the central
poetic emotion of the work."
The general consensus
would appear to be that this work is
like the curate’s egg – good in parts.
It seems that the critics were impressed
by the orchestral interludes, whereas
they felt that the choral writing was
to a certain extent ineffectual. Additionally
there is a feeling that the form of
the work is confused. What is the work?
Is it a cantata or a choral symphony?
Certainly no one would suggest the latter,
but it is hardly a cantata either.
A study of the score
has convinced me that perhaps Hamilton
did not quite get the balance right
between the serialism, the incipient
romanticism and the willingness to repeat
chords many times. Furthermore the words
are not always set with consideration
for the choir.
However, looking at
The Bermudas in the round it
would be fair to say that it deserves
revival in our day- at least for one
recording. It was a work that sat on
the cusp of Hamilton’s stylistic metamorphism
between romanticism, serialism and lighter
more approachable music.
To listeners that have
been brought up on the likes of Stockhausen
and Berio all of Hamilton’s contemporaneousness
and modernity appear very tame. But
one cannot help feeling that the work
was a brave attempt to fuse words and
music and prevailing style. To this
end it was probably just about successful.
Clinton Gray-Fisk Musical
Opinion December 1957
Geoffrey Madell Musical
Times November 1958
H.R. Musical Times
Grove Dictionary entries.
Times Newspaper etc.