Keeffe – Overture St Kilda

Overture St Kilda – Scenes from Far and Near (2019)

David Keeffe

St Kilda portrays the contrast between two strikingly different places sharing a name, taking the listener on a journey from lonely islands to the energy of our city suburb. Think of the scenes that inspired Mendelssohn to compose The Hebrides.

The coastal town of St Kilda has always been Melbourne’s seaside playground, with its famous pier and kiosk, Luna Park and the grand Palais theatre. It took its name from a ship, the Lady of St Kilda, which was moored there for a while in 1841.

The original St Kilda that gave its name to the ship is a small group of rocky windswept islands lying west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It supported a tiny population who led a hard life for hundreds of years until 1930 when the last islanders left.

How is this represented in music? The work opens quietly, suggesting wind and waves, and the steady effort of a lone rower heading for the mainland. A plaintive bassoon solo highlights this loneliness. The journey is long, but brief snatches of folk song hint at an arrival soon. Eventually the journey ends and we hear a verse of an actual St Kilda folk song “Hiron Dail A Horo Hi” – also known as the “St Kilda Bird Song” – with its chirrups and tweets.

But the hard life demands endless toil and a new journey starts: the music gradually becomes stronger, almost as if the perilous crossing to the islands has become a journey across half the world.

This “sea journey” music gradually transforms into a melodious tango: it was the tango that engaged (and enraged) onlookers when the Palais de Danse opened in our St Kilda in 1913. The dance gives way to a visit to Luna Park, and a ride on the Scenic Railway (with a brief flashback to the lonely islands) brings the work to a close.

There are a couple of other “St Kilda” tunes that are hinted at in the work: they will remain a mystery, but they are hiding in plain sight.

Performed: 8 & 15 September 2019

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