Robinson McClellan ~ composer
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FLIGHT OF THE EARLS:
Commissioned and premiered by the Albany Symphony (David Alan Miller, conductor), with soloist Ivan Goff, with a cadenza created by Goff
About the piece:
In September 1607 a ship sailed from Ulster carrying Ireland’s last great Gaelic leaders. Under increasing pressure from England, the Earl of Tyrone and the Earl of Tyrconnell (the “Earls”) fled in secret and headed for Spain, their political ally, where they hoped to raise an army to throw the English out of Ireland for good. But rather than securing Ireland for the native Gaelic Irish as they hoped, their flight ended in misfortune and served only to pave the way for English domination.
Soon after their departure, their ship was blown off course and landed in France. As recognized leaders of a Catholic nation they were treated as equals by the nobility of the Catholic lands they passed through, but in England they were wanted as outlaws. Spain, despite its support for their cause, was hesitant to risk damaging its tenuous peace with the English by welcoming the Earls. After months of perilous travel and mixed messages from the king of Spain, they were sent to Rome, where they continued to plan their return. But the political climate never turned in their favor, and they lived out their days in exile.
The Flight of the Earls, as these events became known, marked a turning point in Irish history. With the most prominent Gaelic leaders out of the way, the English could populate their lands with British settlers: as the Earls languished in Rome, their people were forced from their ancestral homes (making way for the Plantation of Ulster, which took root in 1610). The remaining Gaelic leadership in Ireland never recovered from the loss of the Earls, and the Flight marked the beginning of the end of the ancient Gaelic order in Ireland. Like so many who departed after them, the Earls fled misfortune at home, and ever since their ill-fated journey they have been regarded as the archetypal Irish exiles.
This concerto for uilleann pipes (Irish bellows-blown bagpipes; uilleann is pronounced ‘ill-inn’) is a tone poem commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of the Flight of the Earls. The work is cast in two parts: The first half depicts several episodes from the Earls’ journey, book-ended with solemn string and wind passages and a sighing theme for the whole orchestra. The second half takes an episode from the Flight as its starting point — the unexpected appearance of a salmon during their journey, which to the Earls represented Ireland calling them home — but rather than treating the story narratively as in the first half, this ‘salmon music’ (which begins with a soft repeating pizzicato-and-winds figure) grows into a meditation on the emotions and meanings in the story, culminating in a renewal of hope and a joyful celebration of the Irish spirit.
Although most of the music is newly composed, this concerto draws on several pre-existing musical sources that relate the story of the Flight: a Gregorian chant the Earls may have heard in Rome, a Gaelic Ulster cavalry tune, and pibroch — an early Gaelic musical form which was once found in Ireland but has survived only in Scotland. In addition, the piece borrows elements from the classical concerto tradition, such as a cadenza created by pipe soloist Ivan Goff (rather than being written by the composer, as in Romantic-era practice) and the call and response patterns of the Baroque-era concerto grosso. With these diverse ingredients, the piece weaves a musical tapestry from the classical and Irish musical traditions, new and old. Through it all, the inimitable voice of uilleann pipes sets the tone.
After this peaceful interval, ominous string chords announce the “very bad weather [which] arose against them, together with fog and rain, so that they were driven from proximity to land. They traversed the sea far and wide.” Soon, however, the music lightens as “a cross of gold which Ó Néill [the Earl of Tyrone] had, and which contained a portion of the Cross of the Crucifixion and many other relics, being put by them in the sea trailing after the ship, gave them great relief.” This music leads to a processional march depicting the Earls’ arrival in Rome. The manner of their welcome shows the high esteem they commanded among Europe’s Catholic leaders: “The steward of each of a certain number of the cardinals came to them to welcome them and to receive them with honor in the cardinals’ name. Then they proceeded in coaches…they went through the principal streets of Rome in great splendor. They did not rest until they reached…a splendid palace which his Holiness the Pope had set apart for them in the Borgo Vecchio and in the Borgo Santo Spirito. They had fifteen coaches, all except a few drawn by six steeds, as they traversed the long, chief streets of the city that day.” Following this processional music, the Earls’ memories of the journey fuse with their present, and we hear them once again sitting in mass on Pentecost Sunday, 1608. The sorrowful music of the opening returns, this time with the pipes joining the orchestra.
After a low string duet that echoes the opening of the work, the music sinks into a profound somnolence and the second half of the piece begins with a mystical dream in which the Earls are visited by a vision of Ireland in the form of a salmon — an important symbol in Irish mythology. This ‘salmon music’ again draws on the eyewitness account, which describes a strange occurrence earlier in their journey: “On the river which comes to Louvain [a city in Spanish Flanders where they were staying] there was…an exceedingly small streamlet…flowing from a garden between the two palaces. A certain man of the Earl’s people… saw a very large salmon in a small hole in a plank on the stream. He drew a weapon at once and killed the salmon. He brought it to the Earl, and came then to Ó Néill’s presence. All the nobles of the city who were near them came to see the salmon. They were surprised at his size, and that he was got where he was found. They said they never saw during their lives, and never heard from those who lived before them, that a salmon was ever before got on the river of Louvain, or on that particular branch of it.” According to John McCavitt’s recent history of the Flight, “the salmon’s appearance at Louvain was interpreted as signifying a symbolic message from Ireland, from the great salmon rivers of the Bann and the Foyle which bisected the lands of the two Earls. By implication, Ó Cianáin [the writer of the eyewitness account] was suggesting that the Earls were being beckoned to return to their native lands.” Against a rocking background figure we hear an oboe, soon joined by a clarinet, and finally by the uilleann pipes (begin EXCERPT 2, above), giving voice to the swimming salmon and calling the Earls home. This is the same Gaelic melody which we heard earlier in the piccolo before the pipes first entered. Soon a fast jig emerges in the pipes, and the music builds to a height of joy as the spirit of the Earls moves from tragedy to hope (end EXCERPT 2, above).
Following a cadenza created by the soloist, the finale fuses sounds of home and exile in a celebration of the Irish spirit wherever it has taken root — jigs and reels from earlier in the piece return and the sighing ‘Roman mass’ theme now soars joyfully overhead in the strings. This fusion of ‘Irish’ and ‘Roman’ music — analogous to universal concepts of ‘home’ and ‘away’ — represents what could be called a ‘return of the spirit of the Earls’ in the twenty-first century: a sense that the irrevocable distance that separated so many exiles from their homeland has dissolved: it is now relatively easy to return to live or visit. By the same token, Ireland itself has become a global presence in a way that was not true for the Earls: today all those who identify with their Irish roots can experience and celebrate their heritage wherever they live. As the soaring finale fades, the lilting ‘salmon music’ returns to linger for few final moments, as if calling all of us home.
The work also draws on two other sources which, though not specifically Irish, relate closely to the Flight of the Earls. The first is a Gregorian chant that first appears in the string duet at the opening and then unfolds throughout the second half. This chant, the ‘Veni Sante Spiritus’, has been sung on Pentecost Sunday in Catholic churches for centuries, and the Earls probably heard this very melody the day they attended mass in Rome. In this way this concerto seeks to touch their experience directly.
The second source is pibroch, a unique musical form for the Highland bagpipes that is still played today. Pibroch comes from Gaelic Scotland but has strong links with the Gaelic Irish music of the Earls’ time (Gaelic Ireland and the Scottish Highlands share a common language and culture). Pibroch developed in the late sixteenth century — the period of the Earls — and scholars believe that it mimicked the music of the ancient Celtic harp — music that has since almost entirely disappeared but was then found throughout Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Pibroch thus preserves musical processes that have been lost in Ireland but which resembles what the Earls might have heard in their own Ulster courts. In this way, this uilleann pipes concerto also touches their experience.
The pibroch heard in this work, called Lament for Hugh, dates from the period of the Earls. Though no direct link is known with Hugh Ó Néill, the Earl of Tyrone, its title is tantalizing given his prominence in the story of the Flight. The original melody does not appear as such in this work, but its underlying musical outline—a simple, chant-like sequence—is the basis for all of the tunes played by the uilleann pipes in this piece. Its undulating shape also serves as a repeating pizzicato background for the ‘salmon music’ part of the work, evoking the ancient harp music of Ireland.
Melodically, the piece takes up a simple musical nugget I have often noticed in traditional Irish music: the descending figure ‘do-ti-sol’. This motive is heard in the oboe melody near the beginning of the piece (extended to mi-mi-re-do, ti-do-ti-sol), and these are the first three notes the pipes play (the figure also occurs in the Veni Sanctus chant, and, interestingly, in Haydn’s 104th Symphony, which closes tonight’s program: at the beginning of the fourth movement, Haydn briefly imitates a bagpipe sound, featuring this same motive in two transpositions: sol-fa-re, fa-mi-do, over a drone; one wonders whether he heard a bit of Irish music before he wrote his symphony!). At the very end of this pipes concerto, the figure appears in ascending form for the first time — a more hopeful ‘sol-ti-do’ — offering a kind of reversal of the sorrow in the story of the Flight.
The pipe melodies throughout the piece are all variants of one another (each based on the pibroch Lament for Hugh), giving the whole work a theme-and-variations feel. In different ways, this accords with both the classical tradition and Irish music: in the latter, musicians often create new tunes around a given underlying melodic contour, so that several tunes in different forms — a reel, a jig, a slow air — however different their surface features might be, can be variants of the same basic melody. In analogous fashion, classical composers often give coherence to large-scale works (such as symphonies) by choosing one or two simple musical fragments or pitch sequences and developing them in a piece through variation. Thus, through a single musical process, this concerto is inspired by the two traditions from which it draws its life.