• Nicola LeFanu
  • The Old Woman of Beare (1981)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Macnaghten Concerts

  • 1111/1110/2perc/hp/str(
  • soprano
  • 18 min

Programme Note

The Old Woman of Beare is an Irish poem of the ninth or tenth century. Bui, the old woman, is from the wild country of the coast and islands of the West of Ireland: she has spent her life as a courtesan and is now ending it in a convent.

The old woman of Beare am I
Who once was beautiful
Now all I know is how to die
I'll do it well

Time was the sea
Brought Kings as slaves to me
Now I hear the face of God
And the crab crawls through my blood

Imagery of the sea runs through the poem: the high tides of her turbulent life are followed inexorably by the slow ebbing of old age:

The sea crawls from the shore
Leaving there
The despicable weed
A corpse's hair
In me
The desolate withdrawing sea

However decrepit she has become the old Bui still has the passion and spirit of the younger woman. She rails against old age and her failing body, but she also has an amused affection for herself that will lead her to meeting death with some detachment.

As we get to know the many aspects of Bui the old woman, we discover through her, Bui as she was in her prime. Bui has neither past nor future: only the now in which we meet her. Thus is seemed to me, when I first met her poem, that her medium must be music.

My work might be described as a dramatic narrative or monodrama. It is scored for soprano with an ensemble of thirteen instruments, and lasts about twenty minutes. The 'talking drum' played by the first percussionist acts as an essential foil for the soprano (akin to the use of drummer and voice in Korean P'anori).

There are a number of sources for the original text, and many modern translations. I have made my own libretto; I am indebted to Gerard Murphy's 'Early Irish Lyrics' (Gaelic text and literal translation), and James Carney's 'Early Lyric Poetry', and I have drawn on both. I am particularly indebted to Brendan Kennelly's poetic translation in the Penguin Book of Irish Verse. The verses quoted above are his, reprinted with his permission.

This piece was composed in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Macnaghten Concerts.

© Nicola LeFanu