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Music Text

'The Story of Deirdre', as translated by Kenneth Hurlstone-Jackson in 'A Celtic Miscellany' (E)



Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World premiere of version
Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Cristina Zavalloni, voice / Sentieri selvaggi
Composer's Notes

The Prophecy comes from The Story of Deirdriu, a 9th century Irish mythological adventure tale. The men of Ulster were drinking in the house of Feidhlimidh who was the story-teller of Conchobhar, the great king of Ulster. Feidhlimidh’s wife was pregnant and she was serving food and drink to the assembled hordes, who were becoming raucously drunk. Towards the end of the evening as the party was subsiding, the baby was heard to shriek in the woman’s womb. Everyone jumped up in terror at the sound. She ran to the seer, Cathbhadh, who put his hand on the woman’s belly and felt strange convulsions. Then he foretold the future:

"Truly there is a girl here
and Deirdriu shall be her name ...

Within the cradle of your womb
cries a woman of curling yellow golden hair,
with slow grey-pupilled eyes.
Like the foxglove are her purple cheeks,
to the colour of snow we compare
the spotless treasure of her teeth.
Bright are her lips of vermilion red.
A woman through whom there will be many slaughters
among the chariot-warriors of Ulster ...

Truly there is a girl here
and Deirdriu shall be her name,
and evil will come of her."

The music is written in an arch form ABCBA in which the middle section carries the text, juxtaposing a childlike simplicity in vocal line and tonality against an unsettling, swirling material in the ensemble.

The piece opens raucously, highlighting trombone and drums, and this is interrupted by a shriek on high clarinet which develops into a violently expressive section, before peeling away and leaving a static, open space where the choir start singing.

Towards the end of the "song" section, the high wailing clarinet appears again. The final section reintroduces the trombone, but this time in a subdued and sombre version of the opening material, punctuated by distant tickings and plucks on drums and cello and underlined by an ominous, brittle, rumbling in the lower register of the piano.

James MacMillan, August 1997

Reproduction Rights
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer

Repertoire Note

Choral level of difficulty: 2 for the voices (5 greatest)

The text is taken from The Story of Deirdriu, described by MacMillan as an Irish mythological adventure tale. Yet again, he proves his ability in writing for young people in a way that will stimulate their imaginations and yet be entirely within their grasp as performers. The instrumental ensemble should ideally be a professional group, and its strongly dramatic writing contrasts with the straightforward story telling of the vocal parts.

Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer


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