Composer Portrait FRANK CORCORAN
MUSIC Corcoran ” Mad Sweeney ”
“With bed or board, drinking cold water out of rivers, hunted in the autumnal wood ,hurt by sharp stones or surrounded by wolf packs, surprised by the red deer, flecked by blood, chased up to highest mountain-peak, cowering in the hedges, damned to loneliness. Son of God, have mercy on us !” A
broken and crazed king wandering in the loneliest places of ancient Ireland, Mad Sweeney, a little kind in N. Ireland, fleeing in terror from mankind and from himself .Crazed bird-man, hunted and hunting, pagan and Christian, cursed by a cleric, at the Battle of Maigh Rath in 637 he lost his mind.
Sweeney’s fate , mentioned in Middle Irish ca. 1200 and translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney in the early eighties, has long fascinated the Irish composer Frank Corcoran. Sweeney’s madness, visions, his yellings at the lonely cliffs of Skellig Rock are all encountered in a series of Corcoran works,
beginning with his “Buile Suibhne / Mad Sweeney ” , proceeding – up to now – to “Sweeney’s Wind Cries ” ( a commission of the Sligo Contemporary Music Festival in the little town of Sligo on the Irish Atlantic Coast ; 2000 Frank Corcoran was its artistic director ).
In this recording we heard the Hamburg Ensemble for New Music under the baton of Dieter Cichewiecz sings and recites the composer the psychic pain of Sweeney. His inner monologue is the voice of the artist, despairing of any place in the world , fleeing into art. Is Corcoran – Frank or Francis ? – ( since 1980 living in Germany ) the composer of Mad Sweeney’s insanity ?
Born 1944 in County Tipperary, this Irish composer ( he says ! ) finds himself alienated from his homeland. But he is also on one level also an alien in Germany. In one of his essays ” How an Irish composer forges new sounds in his German exile ” , Corcoran describes an exile’s feelings as composer and teacher.
( After his DAAD Scholarship in Berlin 1980 to 1981 he has taught Composition and Theory since 1983 at the Hamburg Music Hochschule. In his artist’s retreat he nourishes the images of his childhood.
” My Ireland is a dream-landscape in my mind. My deepest images spring from Early Ireland. ”
Interesting how , as over 20 years ago Sender Freies Berlin gave him a commission, Corcoran did not set any German poet, but rather verses by his friend , the renowned Irish poet, Gabriel Rosenstock. Rosenstock’s terse , Haiku-like miniatures in Irish, as part of a tradition of nearly 2000 years of Celtic nature-poetry, triggered off in Corcoran 5 aphoristic miniatures for High Voice and Piano Trio , the
“Cuig Liric De Chuid Ghabriel Rosenstock” ( ” Fuenf Rosenstock Lieder ” ) .
Here are three of these Rosenstock Lieder, sung by Sabine Sommerfeld accompanied by the Hamburg Piano Trio. The first Lied , ” The Sun”, is Corcoran’s answer to the metaphor of its last line : “Buailim bob ar bhas” i.e ” I trick death !” The composer uses a bright palette of string-colours ,
pizzicato, sul ponticello, col legno etc.
The second Lied , “JESUS”, oscillates between a church – hymn and a Valse Triste. In the final Lied , “STORM” we hear the rattling of the stormy wind at doors and windows before all disappears into silence….
( To make the text dramatically clear, the composer recites each text in Irish and in German before we hear the music . )
MUSIC : Frank Corcoran : ROSENSTOCK LIEDER 1., 2. and 5 .
Ireland as dream-landscape in the composer’s head, in his ” deep-freeze “, as he says, describes this creative psychology exactly. ” If I had stayed in Ireland, I’d not have created the 3. Symphony – or composed MAD SWEENEY !”
Sound-memories from a Tipperary childhood , noises and smells from the land , the pigs’ philharmonic and the skirling bagpipes are transformed into rough work, sound-sculptures. Like a sculptor his counterpoint doesn’t have note against note but rather line against line, layer over layer. He uses the term “macrocounterpoint”.
Frank Corcoran describes his childhood sounds, his musical obsessions: ” I find it hugely difficult to capture these sounds and noises of my childhood, greyhounds’ hoarsely barking as they tear the unfortunate hare into bits, the smells of market-day with cows and sheep and animals driven up our village Main Street, the rare vision of a lonely airoplane droning towards Shannon. Yes, I have very deep sounding impressions, the skirl of the bagpipes accompanying the Bishop’s limousine as he visited us on Confirmation Day , the mad symphony of ninety free-running pigs on my mother’s farm as we appeared with the buckets at feeding-time. I still hear the brittle blows of the village blacksmith hammering his anvil ; there was our ballad singer, Paddy Reddan, bawling out his ballads on Borrisokane fair-day. The Irish folk-music which I sang or played on the accordeon or the tin-whistle wasn’t top vintage, of course; it was monodic, ornamented, anti-harmony actually. I found it a bit schizophrenic, the clash between the Continental Music of the sonatinas which my little fingers had to play on the piano and the bare linearity of our folk-melodies. ”
Firmly earthed in Irish country life, fascinated by over two thousand years of Irish myth and literature, a love for the Irish language ( up until Ireland became independent it was forbidden and frowned upon…. ) , the early mystic texts of the Druids, the dried blood of Cromwell’s massacres under ruined churches, the sound-world and word-music of James Joyce , all this sharpened the inner ear of the young composer. These are all elements of his youthful Catholicism- 1964 to 67 he studied ( theology ) at the Lateran University in Rome and ( Renaissance music and Gregorian Chant ) at the Papal Institute for Sacred Music . After this he returned to more musical studies at home . 1969 to 71 he attended the master-class in composition of Boris Blacher in ( then West ) Berlin. His reading of Thomas Mann’s musical-theological-philosophical masterpiece, DR. FAUSTUS , directed his musical studies towards the Germany and Austro-German music tradition.
Frank Corcoran was now an allround educated composrt, theorist, theologian and literary professor. 1989 he was awarded a Fulbright Professorship in the USA. The University of Wisconsin commissioned from him a new work to celebrate its UWM Library’s presentation of a Facsimile Edition of the Book of Kells, one of the oldest medieval cultural treasures of Ireland. The composer chose an unusual combination of 5 Percussion and Piano in order to compose his auratic sound-world to correspond to this Early Celtic masterpiece of Insular Art.
Corcoran’s MUSIC FOR THE BOOK OF KELLS uses as motto a Medieval Irish two-liner poem:
” Have ye seen Caunnaght’s King, Hugh, on the battle-field ?
All that we saw was his shadow under his shield. ”
In the blows and strokes and beats for drums and timpani and gongs and cymbals, tam-tams and wood-blocks and temple-blocks you hear a long-lost world of Homeric heroes and Christian saints, monastic ascesis and worldly glory.
MUSIC F. Corcoran MUSIC FOR THE BOOK OF KELLS. Hamburg Percussion Ensemble Modern. Piano; Frank Corcoran
Frank Corcoran’s list of works is not over-long. This has three reasons- he developed relatively late; he has always been self-critical and loves his wastepaper basket ( like his self-critical models, Witold Lutoslawsky , and Gyoergy Ligeti ) ; his various ouvres belong to different biographical chapters of his life. His chamber music list ( for various instrumental combinations , including 3 wind-quintets, the orchestral music including 4 symphonies ) is
longer than that of his vocal works. He composed various electronic collages , including SWEENEY’S VISION of 1997 and QUASI UNA MISSA of 1999 –
this WDR Cologne commission saw him also encouraged to define his relationship to John Cage AND Johnny Cash…. and at the same time to a
2000 years old tradition of Godspeak on the Irish island.
In the late 8o s Frank Corcoran discovered the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. This 5000 years old poem became for him the earliest cultural documentation of mankind’s alienation and flight from inner emptiness . His evening-long opera GILGAMESH ( a cyclical work of two acts with seven , then six short scenes ) is still unperformed today.
During his Berlin stay in 1981 Corcoran composed his two-part SECOND SYMPHONY; its model was clearly Lutoslawsky’s 2. Symphony ( 1967 ) with its dual movements, ” Hesitant” and “Direct” . Corcoran remembers hearing a Warsaw radio-tape of this masterpiece in Dublin in 1971 : ” the shock waves were running down my spine. He is deeply impressed by Lutoslawsky’s high ethics of composing ( for him the Polish master saw deeply into the danger of any compromise with the exterior world ) and he took over his “limited aleatory” , traces of which are to be heard in Corcoran’s 3. SYMPHONY . Here is wild sonorous energy with great instrumental highpoints and yells and orchestral crises , giving the music the character of archaic ritual.
Thus at the opening the composer enfolds his 11 tones, leaving the 12.th as yet excluded till – in the middle of the symphony , on low flutes with tambourine beats, – he enacts ” the Sacred Birth ” of the last tone!”.
Here now is the full 3. Symphony in one movement, played here by the National Symphony of Ireland, conducted by Colman Pearce.
MUSIC 6. Corcoran SYMPHONY NR. 3.
When it comes to composing music for winds ( after all the composer comes from the windiest corner of West Europe…. ) , Frank Corcoran inevitably thinks of , well, wind. But not only metreological, also metaphysical…. Referring to his 2. Wind Quintet of 1979 he writes : ” it’s wind and us, us as wind, music and life and breath. ”
In this work he use his technique of polyphonic and polymetrical layering ( already tried in his Piano Trio of some years before ) which – perhaps as a contrast to Ligeti’s micropolyphony of the sixties – he calls his ” macrocounterpoint” . With this he achieves a high degree of rhythmic and plasticity in the winds. New also is his discovery of colouring , his ” bright / dark sheen ” . People living near coasts will also hear in his writing for winds not only the whine of the wind and the storm-tossed ocean but also seagull cries and seals’ barking.
Here now is Frank Corcoran’s 2. Wind Quintet, played by the Stuttgart Wind Quintet.
MUSIC 7. Corcoran QUINTET NR. TWO.