• 2vn, va, vc; tp
  • 25 min

Programme Note

I. Is Léan Liom (I grieve)
II. Tomás Bán (White Thomas)
III. Céad Slán Dhuit (A Hundred Goodbyes to You)

Composer note:
In 1926, the fledgling Irish government, four years after independence, hired a man called Dr. Wilhelm Doegen to travel the Irish countryside to make recordings of traditional songs and Gaelic speech that were part of a dying folklore. Doegen, then director of the so-called “Sound Department” at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, had achieved a degree of fame for his detailed work as a field recorder, linguist, and phoneticist. Given his background, his main interest was in the speaking voice, and this material forms the bulk of what he recorded with his assistant, Karl Tempel, in his travels around Ireland from 1928 to 1931. Nevertheless, he also made some remarkable recordings of sean nós (“old style”) song, an unaccompanied vocal music that has been fascinating to me for some time now. These recordings are the earliest made of this oral tradition and capture many songs that nowadays have been forgotten.

Céad Slán (“One Hundred Goodbyes”) is built around a number of samples from Doegen’s recordings of sean nós songs, which I weave in and out of the musical fabric. On a deeper level, the melodic and semantic make-up of these songs influences the musical processes that develop in the string quartet. This influence is not traditional, but rather reflected by my own postcolonial upbringing, as it were, as a suburban Dubliner engrossed in contemporary music. All the same, both on an intuitive level (my entire family comes from rural Kerry in the south) and because of my strong interest in the way history shapes our present in ways that we are not completely conscious of, I am compulsively attracted to exploring and exploding this source material that speaks to me both familiarly and unfamiliarly.

Although Doegen did manage to record a number of well-known sean nós singers on his travels, the bulk of his recordings are of unknown country folk. I concentrate on these unknowns in this piece, as in fact the deeply human and alive aspect of their voices (after all these years) spoke most viscerally to me. The piece ultimately is in three movements, connected attacca, and each takes one sean nós song as its principal point of departure.

The first movement samples a song called “A Dhonncha is Léan Liom” (“Donnacha do not grieve for me”), which is essentially a stiff warning from a priest, Fr. Dáithí O’Brien, to a certain Donnacha O’Suilleabháin (Denis O’Sullivan) to reverse his decision to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism, a choice often made on financial grounds because of the stiff so-called Penal Laws against Catholics in the 18th and early-19th centuries. Samples from this song are intercut occasionally with rather fearsome-sounding recitations of the “Our Father” prayer in Irish. (Doegen made a huge amount of recordings of Irish prayers for some reason!)

The second movement makes use of the beautiful “Tomás Bán” (“White Thomas”) as its primary basis. “Tomás Bán” is still sung in the west of Ireland, and it concerns itself with the story of a man sentenced to death for marrying above his station. Although sung by a man here, the song is a plea for clemency from the woman (of the higher class) who loves him.

The final movement is created around “Céad Slán A Abhainn Mór” (“One Hundred Goodbyes to the Big River”), as sung in a very distinctive glottal fashion by a woman from the north of the country. It feels like a fitting tribute to the voices living on through these recordings, though their bodies are long dead.

— Donnacha Dennehy