Dreams of Peace & Freedom premiered at C South on the Edinburgh Fringe 2014. It would have returned this year, to launch a series of commemorative performances marking the anniversaries of the Nuremberg Trials and the signing of the European Convention. A week away from what would have been the first performance, composer Sue Casson reflects on why Scotland is the show’s natural home.
The performance of Under an English Heaven at the launch of Kilmuir
Papers in December 2013, with Robert reading the words of his great
grandfather, was really the birth of Dreams of Peace & Freedom. It was
so well received as a live performance, it seemed odd to leave it there, and
having regularly performed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the
obvious next step for us was to take it there the next summer. Being the
birthplace of David Maxwell Fyfe, it seemed right. Taking him home.
At the same time, the song cycle was moving beyond an English heaven to a Scottish one. It would be expanded and changed for the festival, so we began to look around for a new name.
Our research into the origin of the title he chose when he was ennobled, Viscount Kilmuir, had taken us to the very north of Scotland that
autumn, and during our trip we had stumbled across a CD of Celtic
women singing traditional folk songs, which seeped into our bones along
with the dreek mist as we drove through the Highlands. One of those
songs, Jim McLean’s evocative ‘Smile in your sleep’ included the
‘dreams o’ peace and o’ freedom’
The lyrics tell of the Highland Clearances, the time when crofters who
had spent generations on the land had been summarily evicted.
We discovered during those same travels how Maxwell Fyfe’s family was
directly affected by this.
‘The old tales were very close’ Fyfe writes in his autobiography, remembering not only how his great uncle took his own life under the threat of eviction from the family home in Creich during the late Clearances, but how his grandmother provided the blankets to construct a tent for the first service of the Free Church of Scotland in Sutherland.
These events related to him at his grandmother’s knee shaped his
lifelong hunger for justice. At the same time, the refrain resonated
with a life spent pursuing dreams of maintaining peace after the
Second World War and striving for fundamental freedoms.
At this stage we were committed to the song cycle remaining
original, so all we took of Jim MacClean’s song was the refrain, but
adopting a Scottish title was just the beginning of grounding our
extended story of Maxwell Fyfe into the land of his childhood. We
included Non Semper Imbres, by Scots dialect poet James Logie
Robertson in Under an English Heaven, as Fyfe had copied out
this poem about the cycle of renewal in nature, in a letter to Sylvia
from Nuremberg, saying that it ‘rather expresses our mood just now.’
With its implicit message of hope – ‘not always raining’ it looked
forward to better times to come. Now I extended the folk inspired
music to set further verses. Their language conjures Fyfe’s familiar
landscape; trees, mountains and lochs that dramatically reinforce
his Scottish heritage, as well as poetically expressing his belief in
For our Scottish performances the sound changed subtly as well. With a three week performance commitment, the choir we had
hoped to assemble proved tricky to pin down. So the singing, by default but perhaps appropriately, took on a Celtic feel, sparse, misty, minimalist, as it the spirit of Maxwell Fyfe’s forefathers breathed through the settings.
This virtue born out of necessity created a balance in the developing piece. The very formal English sonnets of Rupert Brooke had been the point of inspiration for music. Informal folk inspired settings, expressing Maxwell Fyfe’s personal history seemed a perfect foil to round out a telling of the seminal early events his life. The more intimate, less choral, altogether dreamier atmosphere of the performance garnered some splendid reviews, but also influenced the further development of the show.
Listen to Dreams of Peace & Freedom on SoundCloud now at https://soundcloud.com/english-cabaret/sets/dreams-of-peace-and-freedom