Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland | Published: 31 October, 2017
ISSUE 12.2 | Pages: 47-61 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-7568
For more than three hundred years, Irish composers have engaged with tales from early Irish saga-literature which comprises four main series: Mythological, Ulster and Fenian cycles as well as the Cycle of Kings. This literary corpus dates from 600–1200 CE and is amongst the oldest in Europe. The fragmented history of the literature reveals a continuity of tradition in that the ancient sagas evolved from the oral Irish tradition, were gradually recorded in Irish, and kept alive in modern times through translation into the English language. The timelessness and social impact of these sagas, centuries after they were documented, resonate with Irish composers through the identification of local features and/or universal themes of redemption, triumph or tragedy depicted in the literature. The focus here is on sagas from the Ulster Cycle as they have been most celebrated by Irish composers; the majority of which have been composed since Thomas Kinsella’s successful translation of the Táin Bó Cuailnge in 1969. How the composers chose to embrace the Irish past lies in each composer’s execution of the peculiar local and universal themes exhibited in the sagas. The aim of this article is to initiate an interdisciplinary discussion of the cultural significance of this literary corpus for Irish composers by exploring an area of Irish musicological discourse that has not been hitherto documented. A brief literary background to the Ulster Cycle leads to a discussion of what prompted the composers to engage with Ulster Cycle themes at a particular time in their respective careers. An exploration of the various stylistic features employed in selected works sheds light on the cultural ideologies that prevailed in Ireland at the time of their respective composition.
Desde hace más de trescientos años los compositores irlandeses han buscado inspiración en los cuentos de las antiguas sagas irlandesas, las cuales se dividen principalmente en cuatro grupos: mitológicas, del Ulster, Fenianas y el Ciclo de los Reyes. Este corpus, entre los más antiguos de Europa, se remonta a los años 600-1200 de nuestra era. La historia fragmentada de la literatura revela no obstante una continuidad en la tradición, en el sentido de que las antiguas sagas evolucionaron desde la tradición oral, se recogieron en documentos escritos en irlandés y se mantuvieron vivas en la época actual por medio de la traducción al inglés. El impacto de estas sagas, así como su atemporalidad, siglos después de haber sido domumentadas, se demuestra por el eco que encontraron en los compositores irlandeses a través de la identificación de características locales y de temas universales, tales como la redención, el triunfo y la tragedia, tal y como se mostraban en la literatura. Este artículo se centra en las sagas del Ciclo del Ulster, las que más han sido tratadas por los compositores irlandeses. La mayoría se compusieron a raíz de la famosa traducción de Táin Bó Cualilnge en 1969 por parte de Thomas Kinsella. La ejecución por parte de los distintos compositores de los temas locales y las preocupaciones universales que contienen las sagas, muestra el enfoque con el que cada uno de ellos se acercó al pasado irlandés. Este artículo prentende iniciar una discusión interdisciplinar sobre el significado cultural de este corpus literario para los compositores irlandeses, explorando un área de la musicología irlandesa que hasta ahora no ha sido lo suficientemente investigada. Tras una breve exposición de los textos que contienen el Ciclo del Ulster, se examinrán las razones que llevaron a los distintos compositores a interesarse por este ciclo en determinados momentos de sus carreras. Un estudio de las características de las obras seleccionadas puede desvelar la ideología predominante en Irlanda en el momento de su composición.
Musicología; literatura irlandesa; historia de Irlanda; estudios celtas; estudios culturales
For more than three hundred years, Irish composers have engaged with tales from early Irish saga-literature which comprises four main series: Mythological, Ulster and Fenian cycles as well as the Cycle of Kings. This literary corpus dates from 600–1200 CE and is amongst the oldest in Europe. The fragmented history of the literature reveals a continuity of tradition in that the ancient sagas evolved from the oral Irish tradition, were gradually recorded in Irish, and kept alive in modern times through translation into the English language. The timelessness and social impact of these sagas, centuries after they were documented, resonate with Irish composers through the identification of local features and/or universal themes of redemption, triumph or tragedy depicted in the literature. Sagas from the Ulster Cycle have been most celebrated by Irish composers; the majority of which have been composed since Thomas Kinsella’s successful translation of the Táin Bó Cuailnge in 1969. Although the Táin is the centrepiece of the Cycle, the compositions that reference the Ulster Cycle highlight the characters of Déirdre and Cú Chulainn as being most inspiring to musical interpretation; all of which are Listed in Table 1.1 How the composers chose to embrace the Irish past lies in each composer’s execution of the peculiar local and universal themes exhibited in the sagas. The aim of this study is to initiate an interdisciplinary discussion of the cultural significance of this literary corpus for Irish composers by exploring an area of Irish musicological discourse that has not been hitherto documented.2 A brief literary background to the Ulster Cycle leads to a discussion of the works listed in Table 1: what prompted the composers to engage with the past by employing Ulster Cycle themes at a particular time in their respective careers precedes an exploration of the various stylistic features employed in a selection of the works in order to shed light on the cultural ideologies that prevailed in Ireland at the time of their respective composition.
Literary Contextualisation of the Compositions
This brief literary background to the Ulster Cycle serves to contextualise the origins of the subject-matter which has inspired Irish composers. The Ulster Cycle comprises a large body of tales which exhibit rich lives of bravery and love that relate to the heroic adventures of the Ulaid – a pre-historic people who lived in the north-east of Ireland and from whom the modern name Ulster originates. Tales from the Ulster Cycle are thought to be set in the first century before the birth of Christ and pre-Christian divinities, such as sun worship and the veneration of natural objects prevail in the stories. The heroic exploits of Cú Chulainn feature in several of the interrelated tales that make up the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle-Raid of Cooley), which is the centrepiece of the Ulster Cycle. The epic content of the Táin for example tells of how Queen Medb of Connacht’s jealous greed to surpass her husband’s wealth results in her waging war against the people of Ulster in order to steal the valuable Brown Bull of Cooley. The defence of the province is left to the seventeen-year-old Cú Chulainn who kills all who dare to challenge him, including his foster brother, Fer Diad. Medb eventually succumbs to defeat. The epic content of the Táin can be considered to be a tragic, or romantic, narrative. The catastrophic results that emerge from Medb’s greed reveal a tragic mythos whereas Cú Chulainn’s god-like status typically features a romantic idealisation of the mythical hero.
The dissemination of the sagas from the Ulster Cycle has evolved from the vibrant oral tradition from which they were recorded from the eighth to the eleventh centuries and written sources are found in vellum manuscripts dating from the end of the eleventh century. These include: the earliest extant Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na hUidre, LU), believed to have been written before 1106 (Dillon xvii) and is preserved in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; the twelfth-century Book of Leinster (Lebor Núachongbála, LL) and the fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL), both of which are housed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
These ancient manuscripts are still being mined for information and, as the Irish historian Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin states, “the study of early Irish sagas and related texts as literature is really in its infancy and dates from the late 1940s”. She explains that previous research focused “on the linguistic aspect of the texts with very little attention to the content” and that a more “holistic view of the literature and its relationship with history and archaeology in particular” is slowly evolving (151-2). In reference to the Ulster Cycle, linguistic research provides evidence that much of the embedded literature in the surviving manuscripts pre-dates the composition of the texts. From the time of their initial transcription into the ancient manuscripts, the sagas have been translated and interpolated, resulting in several versions of each. For instance, there are many arguments as to the origins of the Táin; the eminent scholar of Celtic languages, Cecile O’Rahilly, claims that it exists in three recensions (“Introduction” vii) whereas, almost thirty years later, the poet and translator Ciaran Carson asserts that it has been composed from two main recensions (xiii). Since the Book of Leinster contains the most complete version of the saga, it has naturally become the most consulted manuscript on the subject.
Approbation for tales from the Ulster Cycle in the English language occurred during the late nineteenth century when cultural nationalists explored the ancient manuscripts in search of heroic Irish figures to replace those imposed on local children by English-run schools. The heroic deeds of the Ulster King, Conor (Conchobhar) mac Nessa, and particularly the Red Branch warriors began to feature in the poetry of Thomas Moore (1779-1852), such as the poem “Let Erin Remember” which was published in 1808. At the turn of the twentieth century, other prominent characters from the Cycle such as Conchobhar’s most famous warrior, Cú Chulainn, and the tragic heroine Déirdre, emerged in works by John Millington Synge (1871-1909), Lady Gregory (1852-1932) and William Butler Yeats (1865-1939); several of which have been employed by Irish composers. Despite German and French excerpts of the saga being published in 1905 and 1907 respectively, and L. Winifred Faraday’s, The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (1904) being the first partial English translation from the earliest source of the Táin, it was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that translations from the various recensions were documented by O’Rahilly (1961, 1967 and 1976). However, the first complete and readable version of the saga, from its earliest form, was translated into the English language by Thomas Kinsella (1969).3 Almost forty years later, Ciaran Carson translated the Táin and admits that the 2007 publication “would not have been possible without Kinsella’s ground-breaking text” (xxiv), thus highlighting the importance of Kinsella’s work. While numerous characters feature in this literary corpus, the focus of Irish composers has been on: Cú Chulainn (also known by his boyhood name, Sétanta); the tragic heroine, Déirdre; the war goddesses Morrígan and Macha; Fand, wife of the sea god Manannán mac Lir; and the story of the Táin. What prompted the composers to engage with these characters and the depth of association applied to the literature determines how cultural influences affected the compositions.
Cultural Significance of Ulster Cycle themes for Irish composers
The earliest known work based on a saga from this literary corpus was composed during the Celtic Revival by an Italian immigrant who had recently settled in Ireland and immersed himself in the Dublin music scene. Michele Esposito’s cantata entitled Déirdre (1897), based on an English language text by T. W. Rolleston, depicts the story of the tragic heroine who takes her own life as her true love Naoise, the son of Usnach, has been killed by King Conchobhar of Ulster who had been promised her hand in marriage. The work won a prize at the inaugural Feis Ceoil, which was a competition founded in 1897 to promote music in Irish cultural life.4 Having settled in Ireland (1882–1928), Esposito embraced the cultural revival of Irish music and folklore, hence the romantic tonal language of the opera is penetrated with Irish folk song and traditional dance influences. At the turn of the twentieth century Ireland was under British rule and this style of music was in keeping with the spirit of the revivalist movement which sought to protect Irish distinctiveness, as opposed to embracing any form of modernism such as the new concepts of tonality that were emerging in European composition. Since Irish traditional music was the music of the people, composers, particularly at the turn of the twentieth century, strove to create an Irish identity and incorporated airs from the ethnic idiom into their music.
It is worth noting that at the end of the nineteenth century, and well into the latter decades of the twentieth century, the Irish music scene comprised a lack of patronage, a poor music education system and impoverished infrastructures. In his paper “Nationalism and Irish Music”, the Irish musician and musicologist, Joseph Ryan, highlights the various social, cultural and political issues that were a hindrance to the development of a strong art music tradition in Ireland. He believes that it is too easy to blame these circumstances, especially as impressive achievements had occurred in literature. Ryan also states that “the negligible creative output” of composers for the greater part of the past two centuries is largely due to the “puissant influence of nationalism on creative endeavour” (103). Despite the intolerable circumstances and the frequent insular attitudes of those who subscribed to a purely nationalist and Gaelic tradition, Ryan’s claim that the output of Irish composers was “negligible” is easily refuted by a cursory glimpse at the listing of creative enterprise and musical activity discussed in the writings of Axel Klein and Aloys Fleischmann.5
The strength of Irish nationalism is further evidenced by the fact that the English composer, Arnold Bax (1883-1953), who had lived in Dublin in the years leading to World War I, became fascinated with the Cultural Revival and immersed himself in the Dublin literary scene, frequently writing under the pseudonym, Dermot O’Byrne. During his time in Ireland, he composed an orchestral overture entitled The Garden of Fand (1916, 1921), and an unfinished opera, or five-act drama, Déirdre (c. 1907) which was inspired by W.B. Yeats’s three-act play of the same name. Despite Déirdre being unfinished, perhaps due to Bax believing he was not a gifted opera composer, the music is significant in that several of the themes were used as a basis for his other works; The Gathering of the Chiefs march for example features in the tone poem Into the Twilight (1908). The march was later orchestrated for Roscatha (Battle Hymn, 1910) which has become the third part of the orchestral Éire trilogy.6
During the twentieth century, Irish composition gradually progressed from insular to more cosmopolitan practices which reflect the various responses to the cultural and political ideologies of the time. The tendency towards cultural insularity is evident in the composition of several operas at the turn of the twentieth century which were inspired by early Irish saga-literature, such as Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer’s opera entitled Deirdre of the Sorrows (1925), set to a text by William Mervyn Crofton.7 At the time, travelling opera companies such as the Carl Rosa and the O’Mara Company provided opportunities to stage these productions. Due to ill-health, Palmer never finished the opera and it has not been performed despite being completed by the Belgian composer Staf Gebruers (1902-1970) who, in 1924, had taken up the position of Carillonneur, Organist and Choirmaster of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, Co. Cork. Although little of Palmer’s work has survived, Deirdre of the Sorrows appears to be one of four operas based on Celtic themes that were written by the composer during the early twentieth century. Patriotism was very strong in Ireland throughout the opening decades of Ireland’s independence (1922-42) when the revival and preservation of Ireland’s culture was at the forefront of Irish cultural life. At that time, the dominating ideology of Irish tradition strove to create a self-sufficient country, without recourse to English or European developments. This may explain why Palmer includes a libretto written in the Irish language, by Thomas O’Kelly, in another opera based on the Children of Lir saga. Palmer’s opera, Srúth na Maoile (The Straits of Moyle, 1923), premiered at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, July 1923, and was re-staged the following year by the O’Mara Opera Company. The central melodic motif of the opera comprises the setting of a poem by Thomas Moore “Silent, O Moyle” to the air Arrah, My Dear Eveleen and reflects the essentialist protection of Irish distinctiveness which dominated everyday life at that time.
The renowned Irish musicologist, Harry White, suggests that this type of “‘classical music’ became emblematic of colonial mismanagement and self-indulgence, the corresponding reliance on the ethnic repertory as a symbol of dispossession and political aspiration ruinously displaced the cultivation of music other than as a marker of cultural separatism.” (The Progress 75). In seeking a separate Irish identity, composers gradually began to question and explore more progressive ways to employ the ethnic repertory, or not, in their music. This is evident in several works inspired by the Ulster Cycle where composers either rely on the Irish context of the saga, or transcend the setting of the text, in order to give their music meaning.
Despite Éamonn Ó Gallchobháir (1900-1982) being inspired by the ancient manuscripts of Ireland, his processional for dancers entitled Deirdre (1938) is his only work to reference a theme from the Ulster Cycle. However, in 1950 he composed a ballet entitled The Children of Lir which was based on a scenario by Patricia O’Reilly. In keeping with the cultural ideology of the time, Ó Gallchobháir was a strong advocate of Irish music nationalism. This concept was embraced by several other Irish composers, including Redmond Friel (1907-79), Thomas C. Kelly (1917-85) and Daniel McNulty (1920-96), who repudiated European developments in music in favour of the integration of Irish traditional melodies into classical forms.8 During the same time frame however, evidence of international contemporary techniques is apparent in works by Frederick May (191-85), Brian Boydell (1917-2000) and Aloys Fleischmann (1910-92) who were “outspoken opponents of narrow-minded musical nationalism” (Klein, “Roots” 176-177).9 In 1936 Fleischmann documented in the Ireland To-Day magazine, that achieving “new expression”, in Gaelic art music, may breathe “the spirit of the traditional music” and maintained that “continuity of fidelity of tradition is not best achieved by atavism, by a slavish use of the material of the past” (Fleischmann, “Ars Nova” 45). Ó Gallchobháir disputed Fleischmann’s reference to “atavism” and responded by stating that:
The sensitive mind in Ireland To-Day
- The orthography of Old, Middle and Early Modern Irish has no settled system of spelling however this study strives for consistency and therefore refers to those indicated in Bernhard Maier’s Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture (1998), unless otherwise stated. In all cases, the composer’s choice of spelling is used for the title of each work. [↩]
- An Irish composer is recognised as “anyone who was born or is permanently resident in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.” This is the official definition on the Contemporary Music Centre website (Ireland’s national archive and resource centre for new music), http://www.cmc.ie/composers. Unless otherwise stated, further information on all studied compositions is available at http://www.cmc.ie. [↩]
- The first German translation of “The Book of Leinster” text is by Ernst Windisch and the French translation is by Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville. [↩]
- The first Feis was held in Dublin, 18-22 May 1897, and was co-founded by Irish composer Annie Wilson Patterson. It is still in existence today. [↩]
- See Klein 1996, 2003 and 2004-5, and Aloys Fleischmann 1936, 1952 and 1996. [↩]
- Bax’s Éire trilogy is made up of three parts: Into the Twilight (1908), In the Faery Hills (An Sluagh Sidhe, 1909) and Roscatha (1910). The eminent Irish musicologist, Harry White, discusses Bax’s musical and literary relationship with Ireland, particularly focusing on how the composer’s creative imagination was imbued with the spirit of Dublin, and the cultural revival, during this time (White, The Keeper’s 118-24). [↩]
- For further reading on “Celtic Legends in Irish Opera, 1900–1930” see Klein, “Celtic Legends” 40-53. Klein provides an introduction to his on-going study of Irish operas that were inspired by Celtic legends during a time when patriotism was very strong (1900–30) and also highlights the earliest saga-based works by Irish composers. For a list of saga-inspired works by Irish composers see Horgan Goff, “Cultural Constructs” 205-16. [↩]
- In 1950, Friel composed a ballet also entitled The Children of Lir. [↩]
- See also Graydon 56-79, for an informative account of how these composers embraced contemporary European techniques. [↩]
- For further reading on this exchange of opinion see de Barra 54-5. [↩]
- Examples of these reputable journals include the Irish Statesman (1919-30), Ireland To-Day (1936-8), The Bell (1940-54), and Envoy (1949-51). [↩]
- O’Connor’s play Deirdre was premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1979 and was later performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, March 1986. [↩]
- For further reading on Sweeney’s Níamh of the Golden Hair, see Horgan Goff , “Musical Interpretations” 83-98. [↩]
- Clare’s Dragoons was commissioned by Raidió Éireann to celebrate the centenary of Thomas Davis’s death. In order to honour the cultural nationalist, the work is imbued with patriotic sentiment. [↩]
- For further reading see Horgan Goff , “Cultural Constructs” 67-72 and 100-133. [↩]
- For further reading on this work see Cox 95; 100-3. [↩]
- Kinsella’s translation of the Táin includes this story as a pre-tale “The Pangs of Ulster” (6-8). [↩]
- Interview with Fergus Johnston; email to Horgan Goff, 22 March 2016. [↩]
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