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
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.