Upcoming concert – St Patrick’s Day, March 17th 2018, 8.00pm National Concert Hall, Dublin
Iarla Ó Lionáird, Stephen Rea, David Brophy, RTÉ Concert Orchestra
The world premiere of Sweeney, an orchestral song cycle based on Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray, featuring singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and narrator Stephen Rea. Also on the programme is Ossa, a choral symphony I wrote a decade ago to mark the 400th anniversary of The Flight of the Earls.
It’s not often that a composer gets to have an entire evening devoted to his or her own orchestral compositions. I’m very honoured. To have it in the country’s national concert hall on the feast day of the nation’s patron saint and the programme to feature the world premiere of a setting of Seamus Heaney’s writing is beyond my greatest expectations.
Sweeney Programme Notes
With so many elements funnelled into it, setting Sweeney to music – specifically writing a macaronic song cycle for solo traditional voice and orchestra – was never going to be a straightforward thing. The lore and saga and history of a multi-layered story dating back to the 7th century, a story at one level about the outsider, about something of the unsettled (and incapable-of-being-settled) poet tormented in his quest for peace; a story about the tussle of yearning for a truth via the imaginative versus the restrictive; a story about the changing landscape of Ireland from pre-Christian to Christian – all these aspects threw up challenges enough. Then there was the matter of thinking in and around and between two languages and two texts, the Irish being that of JG O’Keeffe’s 1913 edition and the English, Seamus Heaney’s sublime translation from 1983, Sweeney Astray. For me, composing a crotchet was just not possible until I knew what text I was setting, and so began the task of editing Sweeney Astray. (As I write, hearing myself now say those last three words makes me quake).
Generally, singing a sentence takes longer than saying one, so I felt from the outset that in order to tell a version of this epic that retained its flavour and arc, the role of narrator would be essential. Fairly immediately, working now primarily off Heaney’s text, the division of the story-telling between singer and narrator became clear – the singer would sing the quatrain verses of Sweeney and the narrator would narrate the prose, Greek chorus-like. But editing a work of such transcendent artistry, meddling with his words, caused me many’s the sleepless night from last August. That Seamus had been a friend of more than twenty-five years only added to the weight of responsibility.
Even as I was working solely on the text however, hooks and bites and bits of melody and harmony were arriving in – the sheer, solid rhythm and hypnotic pulse of the quatrain verse offering up ideas, the cadence of Heaney’s lines, ever-respectful of the Irish, nudging me towards their latent songs. Once into this world, it became all-consuming. Day and night, night and day, eating, breathing, living (rarely sleeping) and at the most difficult times, cursing Sweeney. I wrote a great deal of the piece in the appropriately sylvan surroundings of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, in County Monaghan, where on late afternoon walks through the grounds in search of much-needed inspiration, I found myself on more than one occ
asion addressing an innocent bird as it flitted between trees as “Sweeney”, swearing at it and begging for help in finding elusive notes.
During these trying times, I was comforted in knowing that those performing would bring a whole other dimension to the work, lift it off the page and take it out to an other side. I knew without reservation that the singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird, his own life steeped in Gaelic poetry and song, would, with his unique and beguiling timbre, empower the melodies to soar and caress like few others can even dream about. A life-long admirer of the work, it was Iarla’s suggestion in the first place that I consider setting Sweeney. The narrator, Stephen Rea, a collaborator of three decades, has an incomparable empathy with music – we together made a version of Seamus’s Aeneid Book VI in 2016, essentially a conversation between voice and cello, where once again the pitch and fall of Heaney’s lines made setting them to music seem a most natural thing. (I had chartered some of these waters before, as back in 2012 I set part of the chorus of Seamus’s The Cure at Troy for choir and orchestra and so knew something of marrying his generous lines with music). At various tight corners along the way with Sweeney, I took succour in reminding myself how Seamus often encouraged my own endeavours – lauds after performances, words of reassurance on the phone, over lunch, drinks. You listened to Seamus. You believed his words – they fortified. I remember yet with a crystal clarity that life-changing moment when I first shared a stage with Seamus and Stephen, inter alia, at a Field Day event in the Guildhall in Derry in 1988. My whole perspective shifted after that.
I began working on Sweeney in full earnest in August 2017 and finished the composition at the end of January 2018 – six months of an unpredictable and intense pursuit. Equally challenging and rewarding in extremis, this has also been a warm and spiritual journey, engaging not alone with his otherworldly text but also with something of the essence of Seamus himself – bouncing ideas off him, seeking direction, hoping and praying that he approves of it all. It has been a privilege beyond the wildest dreams.
To the Heaney family, to whom the work is dedicated, for their trust in me, I owe a great deal. I’m indebted to Imelda Dervin and John O’Kane of RTÉ for their faith in commissioning the piece and I thank those at Seamus’s publisher, Faber & Faber, for their help. I know under the sure and caring baton of David Brophy, a trusted ally and sounding board of many years, that the musicians of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra will pour their hearts and souls into Sweeney tonight. And thinking beyond the now, to get to reimagine a version of a story that has been around for almost 1400 years, and very possibly longer, is a humbling honour that also serves to remind me of how small a grain of sand one is in the grand scheme of things.
OSSA Programme Notes
In 2006, to mark the upcoming 400th anniversary, I was commissioned to write an orchestral work based on The Flight of the Earls. My writing of the piece was the subject of a BBC tv documentary, and part of the documentary (and my research) was to retrace the path the earls took through Europe, travelling overland from France through Belgium and Switzerland to Rome. The result of it all was OSSA, a symphony for treble solo, chorus and orchestra, a personal musical interpretation of some of the keys events of that epic journey.
In 1607, after many years of battles opposing the Elizabethan conquest, Hugh O’Neill, The Earl of Tyrone, and his entourage set sail from Rathmullan in Donegal with the intention of landing in Spain where they hoped to muster Spanish forces and return to Ireland reinvigorated. Inclement weather however blew them ashore into northern France, where they encountered various international political manoeuvrings and obstacles which prevented them from travelling through France to Spain. The only option open to them was to travel overland to Rome from where they planned to sail onwards to Spain. Used a something of a political pawn however, O’Neill never got to Spain, dying in Rome in 1616. Beyond his name, the only thing written on his gravestone in the beautiful baroque church of San Pietro di Montorio on the Janiculum, one of the hills above Rome, is the word “ossa” – Latin for bones. The cold, sharp shock of seeing that solitary word on his tomb became an appropriate metaphor and title for my own odyssey, and in keeping faith with that sparse and concise language, I have given each of the four movements a Latin title.
I fuga: moderato
The first movement (fuga – flight) represents the initial stage of the journey – that punishing voyage from Rathmullan in Donegal to Quillebeuf in northern France. Solo trumpet offers up the lonely opening subject, before bassoons initiate the first fugal theme that in turn rises and falls through strings and wind. A second, robust fugal motif combines with a jagged and tempestuous treatment of the opening subject, recapitulating in a slower and more solemn statement of the primary material.
II viaticum: recitativo – vivace
Viaticum was sustenance given before a journey to see the traveller through. In my meanderings, I imagined our disenchanted travellers taking sustenance from their memories of Irish music as they traversed Europe. Essentially this second movement is an air segueing into a jig. Solo horn, trumpet and clarinet share the slow theme before marimba establishes the cross-rhythmic pulse that leads to the jig. This figure is frequently interrupted by a stabbing counter-rhythm that eventually leads to an undulating and frenetic semiquaver section that draws the movement to a close.
III laudate: andante
After seven months’ arduous travel, O’Neill’s entourage eventually arrived in Rome. One of the first things he did on reaching the city was to go to mass to give thanks for their safe arrival – hence the setting of Psalm 150, a praise poem to God. Over a bed of strings, the treble solo gives the first statement of the theme. Here I’ve allowed myself the licence of anachronism – a year or so after O’Neill’s arrival in Rome, one of his sons died. I have used the boy treble as the analogous spirit of that dead son, and also as a reflection on another younger son, Con, who was left behind in Rathmullan and who died in suspicious circumstances in the Tower of London in 1622.
IV terminus: allegro agitato – lamentoso
The final movement begins with an uneasy canonic figure over which sopranos introduce the opening theme. The libretto here is something of a composite – some I have written, some I have adapted. The text deals with O’Neill’s frustration over political events, his death and how things have changed. The agitated choral introduction gives way to an a cappella section, punctuated by strings that in turn leads to a sonorous orchestral passage. The closing refrain, reminiscent of chant, is intoned over a 4-bar harmonic block. The treble reappears and has the last say –
ossa principis in hoc sepulcro sunt; hic finis ac terminus omnium
the chieftain’s bones lie in this grave; this is the end of things as we know them
The work is dedicated to my wife, Siobhan, who heroically tolerated my frequent absences over the course of the year whilst OSSA was being written. And by association, I acknowledge with thanks the key supporting role played by our four children – Maebh, Sarah, Molly and Neil Óg.