8 DUETTI for Cello and Piano
It is in the Annals of the Four Masters that the entry for the year 1498 records the death of a distant ancestor, Floirint Ó Corcorain a saoi cruitire (master harper). How many of these eight melodies were already in his repertoire? I wrote the 8 miniatures for cello and piano in 2015 and 2016. These traditional sean nós (old style) melodies have been haunting me since my rural childhood in Tipperary. I had long been appalled by the settings of old Irish melodies attempted by Beethoven, Haydn, Britten , Harty and too many other well-meaning composers: their often saccharine harmonies, their rhythmic iron corsets or indeed the foursquare form too often adopted.
In these eight settings I have had to respect the fundamentally monodic nature of each song, taking great care of its modal intentions and linear ornamentations and its architectural form, normally an arched A B B A structure. Their rhythm is normally that of the Old Spanish sarabande, a heavy three in the bar. How the sarabande came so strongly to impregnate the Irish harpers and the music they played since the 16th century is anybody’s guess. In my settings of these traditional Irish airs, the cello has to sing its plaintive song while the piano remains orchestral with its myriad colours, phrases, echoes and motifs. These settings of eight great traditional Irish melodies, indeed almost chants, are of course also historical miniatures of my vanished Ireland.
Im Aonar Seal (Once as I was alone)
A tune where the erotic is fused with a political dream. In this vision of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, the great Kerry poet of a dying Irish language in the mid 1750s, appears Venus – an allegory for Ireland – and promises political liberation for the poor enfeebled country. Again the four melodic phrases, the arched form, the confident ascent and plaintive descent strive to articulate a country’s struggles for freedom from colonialism.
Seán Ó Duibhir An Ghleanna (John O’Dwyer of the Glen)
I learned this at six years of age in my rural Borrisokane school. It is a Jacobite lament by John O’Dwyer from Aherlow who, with the downfall of the Catholic King James at the hands of the Protestant William of Orange, lost his home, his lands, his everything. This sense of an unrecoverable past greater that his own personal loss is lyrically evoked:
On my rising in the golden morning with its resurgent sun I heard the sounds of the hunting horn, the distant guns and an old peasant woman lamenting the loss of her geese.
Príosún Chluain Meala (The Prison of Clonmel)
Clonmel is the county town and largest settlement of County Tipperary. Dating its expansion to medieval times, the town is noted for its resistance to the Cromwellian army which sacked both Drogheda and Wexford. Priosún Chluain Meala dates from the revolution year 1798, although the air is certainly much older. Again, the words of its lament with their Mahlerian/Des Knabenwunderhorn quality are very fine. This young prisoner will be hanged next Friday:
My Kerry friends, pray for me, your voices are soft to my ear. I did not think that I would never return to ye. Our three heads they’ll place upon spikes to make a grand spectacle. The snows of the night and all harsh weather will bleach us…”
A Úna Bháin I&II (Fair Una)
There are at least two versions of this great Co. Roscommon love song. Tomás Mac Coisdealbha was drowned night-swimming across lovely Lough Key to visit fair Una McDermott: ‘…you were a candelabra on the festive table for a queen.’ Still today on Trinity Island you can visit the two intertwined trees growing from their two graves. In the first version, piano harmonics echo the cello’s wild high line. In the second version, it is the cello’s primitive pizzicati on the open strings which punctuate the piano’s vain attempt to imitate the ululations of a Connemara traditional singer, the legendary Joe Heaney, heard in my distant childhood in the 1950s.
A Mháirín de Barra is love-song based on a myxolydian mode, essentially the diatonic scale with its roots in medieval forms. In the song the singer curses his lover, Mary Barry, who has come between him and God.
Róisín Dubh (Dark Roisin)
Ever since the film music of Irish composer, Seán Ó Riada, achieved iconic status in the 1960s, fiery Róisín Dubh used by him in Míse Eire has become for many the Song of Revolution, indeed almost an Irish Finlandia. Its huge melodic ascent and incandescent leaps strain to express the folk-poet’s vision: ‘The ships are on the ocean deep. There will be wine from the royal Pope for my Dark Rosaleen,’ a symbol of a little nation’s political rising.