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Bisearta (Bizerte) - music by John N MacNeill for George Campbell Hay's poem Bisearta.

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Bisearta - "a monument to all civilian casualties of war"

In World War Two, George Campbell Hay served in the North Africa campaign in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. The last significant German and Italian resistance was at Tunis and at the Tunisian town known as Bizerte (French), Bizerta (English) or Bisearta (Gaelic). That was unsurprising since Bizerte, the most northerly town in Africa, was also in the most strategically vital location on the North African coast between Suez and Gibraltar, because of its position and deep-water harbour. And it is a very ancient settlement, pre-dating even Carthage. The town suffered shelling and bombing. One night on watch, Hay saw on the horizon the distant evidence of that destruction, spectacular in the night sky but to him inaudible. Later, Hay wrote Bisearta about what he saw that night and what it would mean. His empathy with the ordinary North African is more than evident, as it is in other Hay works such as his Gaelic poem Atman.

Bisearta is about just one night, but the bombing of Bizerte lasted for seven months, the town having no running water for three of those months. According to one account, not a single building was left habitable. The distinguished US journalist & war correspondent Ernie Pyle said, "Bizerte was the most completely wrecked place I had ever seen." This aerial photograph was taken shortly after US forces entered Bizerte; other photographs of Bizerte, May 1943.

The North Africa campaign ended in May 1943. When Hay's unit was moved to Italy in June 1944, a very creative period started for Hay, during which he wrote poems relating to his North African experiences. It was then too that Hay read the poems of Savonarola, a fifteenth century Italian Dominican friar and larger-than-life extremist of his time. The metre of one of those Italian poems, Pro Itinerantibus, with its short and long lines, Hay used for Bisearta.

Translations of Bisearta into English and French are linked to below, but regrettably there is no translation into Tunisian Arabic.

MacNeill's setting of Bisearta takes more learning than his other song-tunes, as it is about six minutes long and is not in verses; until near the end of the song, there are very few musical elements that recur.

The sheet music offered for Bisearta is on three staves, one for the sung part, and two piano-style staves for the accompaniment, but that is not meant to specify a piano for the accompaniment. The demo audio file, though, does use an electric piano for the accompaniment.

No note of the music offered here is an accidental. So the accompaniment may suit traditional instruments.

Music amended 25 February 2017.

Words: Bisearta.

Words: Bisearta (English translation).

Mots: Bizerte (traduction franšaise).

Audio: Bisearta with a fiddle playing the vocal part / avec un violon jouant la partie vocale.

PDF sheet music: vocal & accompaniment.

A "wonderfully clear" reading of Bisearta by Kenneth MacDonald is on the CD of Hay poems from Scotstoun Audio.
MacNeill is most grateful to an expert on Gaelic for technical information regarding the poem.

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