Stephen McNeff, text by Richard Williams: for soloists, chorus and orchestra

Stephen McNeff’s spectacular opera-oratorio was commissioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as their trailblazing event for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Mark Forkgen conducted the World Premiere in Dorset in May 2012. The inspiration for The Chalk Legend was the discovery of a mass grave of decapitated Viking skeletons during the construction of the Weymouth relief road in advance of the Olympic sailing events.

From Concept to Performance

The Chalk Legend formed the culmination of an ambitious 18-month-long project initiated by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s education and ensemble department, BSO Resonate, to mark the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Weymouth and Portland. From the outset the project team, which included Stephen McNeff, Andrew Burn (Head of Education and Ensembles for the BSO) and conductor Mark Forkgen, wanted the event to be rooted in the geography, history and culture of Dorset and to involve small towns and villages as well as the suburbs of Poole and Bournemouth.

Varied community music groups of all ages were brought together to perform independently or with ensembles from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. For these community concerts, in which over 500 people from more than sixty villages participated, Stephen McNeff wrote additional short works and re-workings of emerging ‘Chalk Legend’ themes.

The overall project was awarded LOCOG’s Inspire Mark, and led to the official Cultural Olympiad premiere performances of The Chalk Legend on 18th and 19th May at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, directed by Richard Williams and conducted by Mark Forkgen. Over 300 performers took part, including Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s new music ensemble Kokoro, Dorset Youth Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, young singers and dancers from Dorset, student actors from Drama Centre London, together with soloists
Erica Eloff, Toby Stafford-Allen and Eleanor Boylan. The performances featured striking costumes designed by JaneJaney and made by students from the Arts University College at Bournemouth. 

Under the continued musical direction of Mark Forkgen, London Concert Choir is delighted to be staging the first London performance of The Chalk Legend as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, in which performers from the original production are joined by London Concert Choir, Ealing Youth Orchestra and choirs from Heath Mount and Twyford schools.

Unearthing the Story

Stephen McNeff has had a long association with Dorset. He was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence and has been involved in a great deal of local community work. He comments:

“I drew on this experience … to create a project that was broad and inclusive. I had learned … that public interest can be stimulated by a locally inspired subject and that beyond the too often narrow confines of contemporary classical music there is a very large group of people who enjoy listening to and performing music and who welcome a challenge … I wanted to include all of these people as producers of work as well as consumers, while also perhaps creating a modern form of Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik – ‘useful music’– that is composed for community purposes…

When I was a teenager, I remember the extraordinary feeling that I got from being part of a chorus in works like Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Verdi’s Requiem or Orff’s Carmina Burana.
I wanted others to experience that same communal music-making in subject matter closer to home. Participating in and experiencing a large musical work as part of a performance community is in part a discovery of personal creativity. We do not have to always just passively watch while things happen around us and we are all fit persons when it comes to joining in.”

McNeff turned to his friend and artistic collaborator of over thirty years, librettist Richard Williams, and looked for something to inspire them both for this new venture. This is when they came across the newspaper story of Viking skeletons discovered on Ridgeway Hill during the building of the new road to Weymouth.

“We took a very cold field-trip to the site where the Vikings met their end a thousand years ago and we could not fail to be inspired by the combination of huge vistas out to sea and the hills rolling towards a setting sun – possibly the last thing that the unfortunate Vikings ever saw.”

The Pit of Doom

The discovery in 2009 of a pit containing more than fifty bodies during construction of the Weymouth relief road was a local sensation but, when it was revealed that these bodies were beheaded Vikings, the story made international headlines. The nickname first given to it by the construction workers – ‘The Pit of Doom’ – has stuck ever since!

Unlike in former times, local archaeologists now get involved early on in construction projects, especially when they are planned in areas of known archaeological value. Steve Wallis, Senior Archaeologist at Dorset County Council commissioned extensive research and fieldwork to study the potential effects of the road building: how to avoid two surviving Bronze Age burial mounds, for example, and the chalk quarries dug by the Roman army for their own version of a relief road. Various burials of individuals were found, some dating as far back as the Neolithic period of 4,000 years ago, along with other finds of subsequent ages, including the foundations of a workshop used by railway workers in the 1850s. 

The supervising team, Oxford Archaeology, was nearby when the operator of an earth-moving machine noticed some bones in his machine bucket and, to his great credit, contacted the team before going any further. They knew immediately that he had discovered something extraordinary.

The mass burial has been dated to between AD970 and 1025. Analysis of the isotopes (variations of chemical elements) in the teeth shows that the men came originally from various locations in Scandinavia. The majority were young men who had been in good health before their death. The pit was dug originally in a prominent part of the landscape, near sacred burials, by a major causeway and on an ancient Parish boundary. This, together with the way in which the remains were deposited, points to some kind of ceremonial mass execution rather than battle, possibly enabling the local Anglo-Saxon leaders to assert their authority and prove to their community their power to defend their shores. There is no evidence of the executed men’s hands or feet being tied, so it could be surmised that they had to summon the bravery to stand or kneel by the pit’s edge completely free to move while awaiting their fate. Many of the skulls show that the executed men suffered multiple wounds to their skull and jaw as well as upper spine in the process. Did their faith in a hero’s afterlife help them face this terrifying end?

The Chalk Legend Emerges

Richard Williams, having visited the burial site with Stephen McNeff, comments:

“I was immediately excited by the possibilities of the story. It offered the chance to write about an historical event from both its contemporary and modern points of view. The other attraction was that I had studied Anglo-Saxon at university and could see the chance to use some echoes of their wonderful poetry in a libretto.”

The most famous Anglo-Saxon work of this era is, of course, the heroic narrative poem Beowulf, but other works of considerable variety exist, often reflecting the harsh realities of Northern European life at that time. The early chronicler Bede described the pagan life shared by both the Vikings and the early Anglo-Saxons in this way: 

‘The life of man is like to the swift flight of a sparrow flying in at one door and immediately out at another. Whilst he is within, he is safe from the wintry storm, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he had emerged.’ 

Consequently, the Vikings’ dream of a safe afterlife in Valhalla, or Paradise, was a likely and necessary comfort in a world when life was short and brutal. McNeff and Williams began to weave their own legend, intertwining the Weymouth discovery with knowledge of these ancient peoples’ beliefs and culture.

Stephen McNeff comments:

“We adopted the subtitle opera-oratorio, conscious of this format being used by Stravinsky and Cocteau in their Oedipus Rex – a work which can be performed in either the opera house or concert hall. Like Oedipus Rex, our chorus is static and the action is represented by actors. In our work, however, the baritone and soprano soloists move between the various worlds, sometimes acting as narrators, at other times assuming characters or being the ‘voice’ of the actors who represent characters in mime.”

The Plot of The Chalk Legend

The Chalk Legend tells the story of a group of Vikings who, along with thousands of other Vikings, raided this country in the ninth and tenth centuries. While the raiders were generally feared by the indigenous Anglo-Saxon population because of their violence, from time to time the tables were turned, and the Anglo-Saxons successfully defended themselves.

The work is constructed in fourteen movements, divided into two parts. The first part tells the story of the Viking raiders in its historical context. The second part moves forward to the present day when many of the same themes that emerged twelve hundred years ago are re-discovered in a slightly different form – ambition, desire for glory, loyalty or lack of it, and the pursuit of wealth.

The story begins as the Vikings prepare for their sea voyage from Scandinavia. The boat is got ready and the chief gives his son, who is the leader of the raiding party, a sacred sceptre. Without this emblem, none of the warriors can enter Valhalla – the afterlife for those who have died in battle. The Vikings are protected by The Goddess of the North, who is portrayed by the soprano soloist.

In the same way, the Saxons have a Protector (sung by the baritone soloist) who oversees their fortunes. The Saxons are getting ready for a quiet night but their lookouts spot the arrival of the Vikings and they pile up their gold and other valuables. They know the Vikings won’t be able to resist the treasure and plan to snare the raiders by preying on their greed.

The ambush is successful and the Vikings are captured. The Saxons debate what to do with their prisoners. While they are imprisoned the Viking Chief’s son and the Saxon leader’s daughter fall in love and she engineers their escape. They start to get away but are seen and as soon as they are recaptured they are brought to execution with the sacred sceptre lost to them. They will not enter Valhalla.

The action jumps forward twelve hundred years to 2009 when archaeologists announced the discovery of skeletons on Ridgeway Hill, uncovered as the new Weymouth relief road was being built. There is huge interest in the skeletons. An ambitious TV reporter tries to outwit the local archaeologist and get the story and any treasure that might be about.

There is a scramble to get hold of the treasure which is suspected to be in the area – the promise of gold corrupts the modern people as much as it did those in the ninth century. In the chase the golden sceptre is uncovered and thrown into the air. It lands on the grave of the Vikings and they are resurrected and escape, at last, to Valhalla. 

Composer:  Stephen McNeff Title of Musical Work:  The Chalk Legend

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work: