Farewell Song to the Banks of Ayr
SATB div. and Piano
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Text: Robert Burns (1759-1796)
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Farewell Song to the Banks of Ayr was commissioned by the Charleston Civic Chorus (Dr. Dirk Johnson, artistic director), and premiered in spring 2017. The text, written in 1786, is from the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. Of the creation of this poem, he wrote, “I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock, where I was to embark in a few days for Jamaica; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland. I meant it as my farewell dirge to my native land.”
These kinds of texts have always had a strong impact on me, and I’ve composed a number of them. It’s a fascinating, yet harrowing thing to consider—leaving one’s homeland. The angst and worries of the unknown swirl together with the excitement and expectation of something new. It’s a haunting scene that Burns creates—walking along Scotland’s rocky shores, preparing to embark and leave behind the vivid images of towering rain clouds, rugged terrain, and beautiful gloom that one so easily imagines when reading Burns. My setting of the text takes inspiration from this scene—the invigorating, yet wistful moments before a journey.
However, it’s important to note that, although Burns was set to leave for Jamaica when he wrote this poem, his plans changed quickly. The manuscript of poetry he had submitted for publication to help pay for his journey to Jamaica had become very well known, and he quickly became highly sought after in his country. Moreover, in the days leading up to his departure he learned his once forbidden love and soon-to-be wife, Jean Armour, had delivered twins. He remained in Scotland for the rest of his life. Thus began a new adventure—the last ten years of his life in which he wrote and published prolifically along the way to becoming Scotland’s most celebrated poet, and a permanent cultural and national influence in the eyes of the world for centuries. And in course, Farewell Song to the Banks of Ayr became a farewell that never came to be!
Ayr is a city on the west coast of Scotland, the place from which Burns was going to embark on his journey. The name “Coila,” which is used in the last verse of the text, is Burns’ poetic muse, a name he also gave to the land in Ayrshire and other locations in Scotland in his poetry. Thus, when he writes, “Farewell, old Coila’s hills and dales,” one could interpret that phrase as his farewell to Scotland, his country, as well as to Scotland, his muse.
Text (Robert Burns)
The gloomy night is gath'ring fast,
Loud roars the wild, inconstant blast,
Yon murky cloud is foul with rain,
I see it driving o'er the plain;
The hunter now has left the moor.
The scatt'red coveys meet secure;
While here I wander, prest with care,
Along the lonely banks of Ayr.
The Autumn mourns her rip'ning corn
By early Winter's ravage torn;
Across her placid, azure sky,
She sees the scowling tempest fly:
Chill runs my blood to hear it rave;
I think upon the stormy wave,
Where many dangers I must dare,
Far from the bonnie banks of Ayr.
'Tis not the surging billow's roar,
'Tis not that fatal, deadly shore;
Tho' death in ev'ry shape appear,
The wretched have no more to fear:
But round my heart the ties are bound,
That heart transpierc'd with many wounds;
These bleed afresh, those ties I tear,
To leave the bonnie banks of Ayr.
Farewell, old Coila's hills and dales,
Her healthy moors and winding vales;
The scenes where wretched Fancy roves,
Pursuing past, unhappy loves!
Farewell, my friends! farewell, my foes!
My peace with these, my love with those:
The bursting tears my heart declare-
Farewell, the bonnie banks of Ayr!