THE new opera The Bruce, which will have its premiere on Saturday, begins with perhaps the earliest poem in the Scots language, from Andrew of Wyntoun’s Original Chronicle of Scotland:

Quhen Alysandyr oure kyng wes dede

That Scotland led in luive and le.

Away wes sonce of ale and brede,

Of wyne and wax, of gamyn and gle;

Oure gold wes changed into lede.

Cryst! Borne into Virgynyte,

Succour Scotland and remede,

That stad is in perplexyte.

Here’s my modern English translation: “When Alexander our King was dead / Who had led Scotland in love and peaceful loyalty, / Gone was all wealth of ale and bread, / Of wine and strength, of gamesomeness and merriment; /What was our gold was turned into lead. / Christ! Born into Virginity, / Help Scotland and cure / This stultified state of thwarted unknowing!”

A “stultified state of thwarted unknowing” seems like a pretty good description of where Scotland is right now. We might not all think that a prayer to Christ will get us the help we need – but neither did Barbour, or the Bruce’s contemporaries, some of whom were still alive in Barbour’s time.

He wrote the poem within living memory of many of the events it describes. They all knew we need more than a prayer – as we do. But an opera might help!

The National: Celebrating 
The Bruce

The drama of Rhakat-Bi Abdyssagin’s opera is set up by the situation. Alexander III, who died when he his horse stumbled over a cliff near Findhorn as he was riding away from the court to meet his beloved young wife on a stormy night, left Scotland leaderless and stifled, vulnerable to the predatory and rapacious expectations of her southern neighbour and the acquisitive English king. The next passage of the libretto comes straight from Barbour’s poem:

Quhen Alexander the king wes deid

That Scotland haid to steyr and leid,

The land sex yer and mayr perfay

Lay desolat eftyr hys day

Till that the barnage at the last

Assemblyt thaim and fayndyt fast

To cheys a king thar land to ster

That off auncestry cummyn wer

Off kingis that aucht that reawté

And mayst had rycht thair king to be.

Bot envy that is sa feloune

Maid amang thaim gret discencioun

Again, for clarity of meaning, here’s my English version: “When Alexander the King was dead / Whom Scotland had to guide and lead, / The country for six years, maybe more, / Lay desolate, after his day, / Until the Barons finally / Assembled themselves and firmly decided / To choose a King to steer their land, / Who had come from an ancestry / Of Kings that came from royalty / And had the greatest claim to sovereignty. / But envy, that is such a villain, / Made among them great dissension …”

Envy, back-stabbing, rivalry, jockeying for power in a small country: it sounds terribly familiar, north and south of the Border in the present-day United Kingdom.

The drama of the situation should be immediately apparent – and its enactment in the music of the opera, performed on solo organ, makes full use of all the acoustics of the great cathedral spaces in Scotland, starting at Glasgow Cathedral and going on to St Giles’ in Edinburgh, St Andrews and Dunfermline.

The story, told in music and voices, is intensely compelling. The scene is set for confrontation.

Storys to rede ar delitabill

Suppos that thai be nocht bot fabill,

Than suld storys that suthfast wer

And thai war said on gud maner

“Stories are delightful to read, / Even supposing that they are nothing but fables, / Then stories that are true should / Be even more enjoyable when they are told well.”

The story commences with the King’s coronation:

“The lord the Bruce rode to Glasgow / And sent messages to everyone around him / Until he had assembled a great many friends / And then he rode quickly to Scone / And was made king without further delay, / And was seated in the King’s throne / As was the custom at that time.”

But when we come to defending the Kingdom of the Scots, Bruce is called upon to address his army before they confront the enemy:

We haff thre gret avantagis

The fyrst is that we haf the rycht

And for the rycht ay God will fycht.

The tother is that they cummyn ar

For lyppynyng off that gret powar

To sek us in our awin land,

And has brocht her rycht till our hand

Ryches into sa gret quantité

That the pourest of you sall be

Bath rych and mychty tharwithall

Gif that we wyn, as weill may fall.

The thrid is that we for our lyvis

And for our childer and our wyvis

And for our fredome and for our land

Ar strenyeit in battaill for to stand,

And thai for thar mycht anerly

IN other words, “We have three great advantages / The first is, we are in the right / And God only ever fights for the right. / The other is that they are coming here, / Relying on their own great power, / To seek us in our own land / And they have brought here, right into our hands, / Riches in such great quantity /

That the poorest of you shall be / Both rich and powerful as well, / If we win, as well may befall. / The third is that we are fighting for our lives, / And for our children, and our wives, / And for our freedom, and for our land, / And therefore we are bound to stand to do battle, / And they fight only for their own power.”

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And he warns them to be brave, not to surrender, to fight with total commitment, and to remember that the only thing worse than fighting to the last man would be to fall into the hands of the enemy.

Several verses of libretto are repeated multiple times throughout the opera but the central theme of the whole work is summed up in the four lines that might be as needed and gainful a motto for Scotland now as ever it was:

A! Fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking.

Fredome all solace to man giffis,

He levys at es that frely levys.

“Ah! Freedom is a noble thing / Freedom allows humankind to have pleasure, / Freedom gives solace to everyone, / You live at ease, when you live free.”

This is something that the composer knows about. Abdyssagin Rakhat-Bi Tolegenuly was born in Kazakhstan on February 2, 1999. He’s widely known as a composer and pianist, Master of Art Sciences, winner of the State Youth Award “Daryn”, holder of the Honorary Badge “For Merits in the Development of Culture and Art” of the Interparliamentary Assembly of Member Nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and winner of first National Project “100 new faces of Kazakhstan”.

He has composed more than 150 works, including large-scale symphonic works “Kazakh Rhapsody”, “Forward into the Sunlight”, “Beyond the Darkness”, “Time Run”, “The Sacred Universe of Particles”, “Ghosts of Immortality” and more.

HIS works have been performed in the famous concert halls of Europe, Asia and America, in Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, the Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the Unesco headquarters in Paris and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Three of his piano CDs have been released in Germany.

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He’s been described as the Kazakh Mozart. Aged 13 he became an undergraduate student of Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory; at 17, a graduate student of Kazakh National University of Arts, completing an internship at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

At 20 he completed postgraduate studies at three universities in Italy and since 2020 has been senior lecturer at Kazakh National University of Arts.

At the age of 12 he published his first collection “Facets of Harmony” and at 14 “Mathematics and Contemporary Music”. He is the author of many scholarly articles and books and speaks Kazakh, Russian, English and Italian. He has been the founder, artistic director and chairman of the jury of the international composer competition New Music Generation since 2019.

When I met Rakhat-Bi, I asked him about the central theme of “The Bruce”. He told me that in his country, the meanings of words like “nation”, “liberty” and “freedom” are held in high regard, so that when, in John Barbour’s epic poem, we read “Freedom is a noble thing”, this is something intrinsic to the ideals of the society in which he grew up. How does that manifest itself?

Rakhat-Bi: Indeed, for me, as for Kazakhs in general, “freedom” is one of the most sacred and holy concepts. That partly accounts for my interest in the historic epic poem “The Bruce”. It is a manifestation of the idea of freedom, which can resonate not only in Scotland but with wider international audiences.

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My first opera “The Path Lit by the Sun” (2019) was an epic historical opera, with eight acts, 27 characters, for symphony orchestra, chorus and ballet. It’s about the dissolution of the USSR and the emergence of new independent states. My second opera “The Mysterious Lady” (also 2019) was a chamber opera, based on the work of the poet Alexander Blok. This will be my third opera, “The Bruce”, composed in 2023.

Alan: Are there any aspects of distinctively Scottish music, whether choral, classical, or traditional, that appeal to you?

Rakhat-Bi: During the work on “The Bruce”, I was interested in traditional Scottish ballads, bagpipe music and poems.

Alan: How did you first come to “The Bruce”? What attracted you to it first as the subject of this major composition?

Rakhat-Bi: While thinking about possible subjects for a new opera, I researched medieval Scottish literature and found Barbour’s “Bruce” especially suitable as a basis for a libretto because it had not only the narrative aspect but also reports the direct speech of Robert Bruce. Apart from that, this (almost) 700-year-old poem is a great piece of history and, as historians told me, that’s as close as we can get to the era of Bruce, so this poem is almost a first-hand source.

Alan: What exactly is this form, a “Cathedral Opera”? To go back to that idea of freedom being associated with nobility – and that’s nobility as in human dignity, not just the so-called “nobility” of aristocrats, lords and ladies, but the essential nobility of human beings – is that sense of freedom and nobility something that might be best expressed in the acoustics of a cathedral?

Rakhat-Bi: “The Bruce” is an epic Cathedral Opera about freedom, independence, nobleness, courage and virtue. Given that it is a medieval story, it naturally (and historically) happens in cathedral buildings.

So even in a conventional opera theatre for production it would have been necessary to seek “cathedral” decorations and scenery. Hence it became natural choice to stage this opera in real cathedrals.

This opera is written as a major part of my doctoral research (PhD) at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the University of St Andrews, and my PhD researches “timbre-texture co-ordinate” (two other major works are a chamber symphony and an orchestral symphony).

Research into timbral-textural dimensions in correlation with cathedral acoustics and complex polyphonic structures/systems is another advantage of this approach. Therefore, opera production in real cathedral buildings is a major point of connection between the historical aspects of the opera and my PhD research in music composition.

And the selected venues of performance have a significant symbolic element. The first performance will be in Glasgow Cathedral, where Robert Bruce was first recognised as a King of Scots and supported by Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow.

Then on February 21 we go to St Giles’ in Edinburgh, one of the foremost churches in Scottish history. On February 24 we’re at the University of St Andrews, where William de Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, was one of the powerful supporters of Robert Bruce. And Robert Bruce was present during the consecration at St Andrews Cathedral.

On March 3 we’re in Dunfermline Abbey, an iconic place where Robert Bruce is buried. It is hard to overestimate the importance of these venues.

Alan: You’ve had some great support not only from the cathedrals where the opera will be premiered and from the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow but also from the clan and descendants of Robert the Bruce himself. How did that came about?

Rakhat-Bi: Indeed, I am happy the foreword to the premieres was written by Andrew Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine KT, 37th Chief of the Name of Bruce. Lord Andrew Bruce will turn 100 years on February 17, which – by divine coincidence – is the day of the first performance. This premiere marks the 750th anniversary of the birth of King Robert Bruce.

Alan: And it is his commemoration, in poetry, music and voices. We have so much to enjoy in it – and in Scotland, we have even more to learn from his example!

Further information about Abdyssagin is available online at