Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Miners’ Hymns exquisitely captured the dignity and despair of the ill-fated mining community of the northeast of England. Written to accompany American director Bill Morrison’s powerful film paying homage to the miners of County Durham, it was initially released in 2011. The music still stands today as a monument remembering the life and death of the great coal mines, and the people they once sustained.
Deutsche Grammophon has now reissued the celebrated double LP. Each of the album’s six original tracks bears a title taken from the Marxist and labour slogans proudly displayed on the trade union banners carried at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala. Jóhannsson’s compositions, recorded in the vast space of Durham Cathedral, combine echoes of the brass bands that still accompany the Gala procession today with organ sounds, percussion and ghostly traces of electronics. They are complemented by the addition of a previously unissued bonus track, ‘Centennial’, a piece Jóhannsson created to celebrate the 100th birthday of his grandmother in 2004 and which is played here on a crank organ by his father, Jóhann Gunnarsson.
The reissue of The Miners’ Hymns includes additional material in the form of a specially commissioned essay, in which Bill Morrison recalls his long friendship with the composer. “As the last chords echoed through the Cathedral [at the work’s live premiere in Durham, in 2010], we glanced around to see grown men openly weeping in the back. And we both looked at each other and exhaled a bit knowing we had passed some test.” The album artwork also now contains photos of the two men taken at the beginning of their collaboration in 2009 and at their last meeting, shortly before Jóhannsson’s tragic death in February 2018.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music and Bill Morrison’s compilation of monochrome archive footage and colour aerial shots of the closed mines of County Durham speak volumes about the disappearance of a culture and the brutal manner in which the national miners’ strike of 1984 was handled by the government of the day. The album embraces melancholy as well as the spirit of celebration to create what the BBC’s reviewer described following its first release as “a brooding, dark tribute focused on the appalling hardships of pit labour and the undeniable salience of the trade union movement in times of political cataclysm”.
The Miners’ Hymns unfolds slowly and leaves plenty of space for reverent silences. It opens with “They Being Dead Yet Speaketh” – in which mournful chords from the organ are gradually taken up by the brass ensemble, with occasional percussive punctuation – and grows in stature and sound in numbers such as “Industrial and Provident, We Unite to Assist Each Other”. The brass chorale that emerges in the album’s final track, “The Cause of Labour Is the Hope of the World”, heralds what “feels like an epiphany, a generous flooding of light that casts a backward glow on all the gloom and pallor that preceded it … It’s a quietly exhilarating ‘hallelujah’ that depends entirely on the previous 45 minutes of buildup for its weight” (Pitchfork.com).