It-s in the Annals Of the Four Masters – the entry for the year 1498 records the death of a distant ancestor of mine, Floirint O
Corcorain, ” saoi cruitire ” , a master harper. How many of these eight melodies, or their melodic prototypes, were already in his repertoire ?
I wrote these 8 miniatures for cello and piano in 2016 and 2015. These traditional “sean nos ” 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, by their often saccharine harmonies, the rhythmic iron corset or indeed the four-square form too often adopted….
In these 8 settings I have to respect the fundamentally monodic nature of each song, to take great care of its modal intentions and linear ornamentations – and its rock/solid 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 / but how the sarabande came so strongly to impregnate the Irish harpers and the music they played or recited since the 16th. century is anybody’s guess. So I “set” a traditional Irish air and the cello has to sing its plaintive song while the piano remains orchestral with its myriad colours and short phrases and echoes and motivs.
SEAN O DUIBHIR AN GHLEANNA I learned with six years in my rural Borrisokane school, this Jacobite lament by John O-Dwyer from Aherlow who with the downfall of Catholic King James at the hands of Protestant William of Orange has lost his lands, his everything. Fine nature lyricism in its text >
” 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. ”
PRIOSUN CLUAIN MEALA, “The Prison Of Clonmel” , another Tipperary tune, dating from the revolution year 1798, is certainly 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 heads they’ll place upon spikes to make a grand spectacle. The snows of the night and all harsh weather will bleach us…. ”
In the myxolydic love/song A MHAIRIN DE BARRA the singer curses his lover, his Mary Barry who has got between him and God.
There are at least two versions of that great Romeo/and/Juliet Co. Roscommon song ” A UNA BHAIN “. Tomas Mac Coisdealbha was drowned in his nightly swimming across lovely Lough Key to visit
his fair Una ” you were a candlabra on the festive table for a queen…. ”
and still today on Trinity Island in lovely Lough Key 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 punctates the piano’s vain attempt to imitate the ululations of Connamara folksinger, legendary Joe Heaney, from those distant fifties of my childhood.
Ever since the film/music of Irish composer, Sean O Riada, in the sixties achieved iconic status, fiery ROISIN DUBH has become for many the Song of Revolution , indeed almost an Irish “Finlandia” . Its huge melodic ascent and its incandescent leaps strain to express the folk/ poet-s inexpressible vision:
” The ships are on the ocean deep. There will be wine from the royal Pope for my Dark Rosaleen,” symbol of a little nation,s political Rising.
These eight settings of eight traditional Irish melodies are of course also eight historical pictures of my vanished Ireland .