DREAMING OF THE BONES?

On Sunday, November 25, 2007, BBC Radio Ulster broadcast ” a new work by Neil Martin, ossa. The word means bones’ and refers to the words on the Roman reliquary of Hugh O’Neill, (Aodh Neill) the Earl of Tyrone’ (he was rather more than that), Neil Martin’s commentary to the effect that he was treated like a prince of European standing was at odds with the official’ Beeb line, but the oddity was let stand. ossa is a symphony, commissioned to commemorate the Flight of the Earls’ in 1607. Flight Of The Earls engravingThis was when the last powerful Gaelic lords (O’Neill and O’Donnell of Ulster who still had armies at their command) departed to mainland Europe presumably to lobby for military aid. They had had military aid from Spain, but it was not very effective.

This was the end of the old Gaelic order (but not culture) in Ireland, the Earls’ in question, O’Neill and O’Donnell were the last Norman-Gaelic princes to exercise untrammelled power in their own territories. They, or their immediate predecessors, had submitted’ and accepted earldoms’ for tactical reasons. The Tudor establishment in Ireland, whose favoured policies were chicanery and mass murder could never get the better of the Ulster Earls Tudor forces suffered smashing military defeats in Ulster. This disaster (the Flight of the Earls) might well have been the result of the Dublin Castle authorities luring them out of Ulster. The immediate cause of their Flight was a defeat at Kinsale in deepest Munster.

The above may seem a very roundabout introduction to a music review, but it is useful to know. The audience for the premiere performance, in Whitla Hall (part of the QUB – the Queens University, Belfast) viewed a television documentary of Neil Martin’s following the trail of O’Neill to his death in Rome, where he was struck by the inscription on his tomb, which included the word ossa’. There was a big build up to this first performance by the BBC, with a television documentary, and a long interview with Neil Martin by John Toal on his Sounds Classical Radio Ulster show, this Invitation Concert was broadcast in the Sounds Classical slot.

So, did the thing itself measure up? On first hearing I’d have said No’. But that has probably more to do with historical pedantry than with the evidence of my ears. The Flight of the Earls’ was a political cataclysm that ranks alongside the social cataclysm of ?ün Gorta M r (of the 1840s) I don’t quite know what I was expecting maybe Sch nberg on a bad day. Listening again, having emptied my mind (insert you own smart remark here) of the historical baggage (and the Beeb’s build-up) I found it an impressive, and genuinely symphonic piece of music making.

The first movement is fuga: moderato’, their being a play on the fact that fuga’ (as well as being a musical form) also means flight’. It was a very substantial movement (and the word movement’ was the operative word, I wondered if Neil Martin had Bart k’s excitingly-named Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in mind, it’Sean unusual way of starting a long piece. I’m afraid that the things I was supposed to hear in the music went over my head, it waSeand interesting thing to listen to. As was viaticum: recitativo vivace’; viaticum’ is sustenance ” before a journey to sustain a traveller (it is also what Roman Catholics call, or used to call, the Last Rites). Neil Martin imagined the travellers taking sustenance from music, so there are references to an air segueing into a jig, but don’t expect picture postcard’ or Ring of Kerry stuff. Mind you, it isn’t Stockhausen either.

We then get laudate: andante’ (these spellings are in the lower case in the BBC handout about the broadcast. It is a psalm setting for treble. (The treble was Declan Kennedy, who had a slight problem at the beginning of this quite long setting, and was miked-up’ for the occasion. I’d have preferred him to be drowned out occasionally possibly so would he during his very short mishap rather than the unreal sound which was produced. Neil Martin might have wanted an ethereal sound though as a Radio 3 announcer said about a Scottish boys’ choir in Mahler, they sounded more like street kids than a band of angels. An adult choir joins the treble in the course of this movement, which rhythmically and texturally crescendos to a sustained high B flat in the choral soprano voice. There’s something Mahlerian in that description, and in the music, but it is not anachronistic or imitative (there is nothing of Britten, despite the Brittenesque use of the male treble).

The last movement is terminus: allegro agitato – lementoso’ is a setting for choir mostly, of a mixed-bag of words in English and Latin. It does what the label claims: the first piece of writing is by the composer, it is about O’Neill’s travelSeand travails, this is followed by a choral setting of a James Clarence Mangan poem, O Woman of the Piercing Wail, lamenting over O’Neill (and the Gaelic order?). Finally there is the treble singing a fragment in Latin:

ossa principis in hoc sepulcro sunt

hic finis ac terminus omnium

Perhaps colloquially

the chieftain’s bones lie in this grave

this is the end of things as we know them.

My one problem with that is that principis’ translates as prince’, chief’ and chieftain’ were inflicted on the Irish (and on the Africans) to imply that they were at an inferior level to their conquerers. The programme notes were written by Neil Martin, but they are not at the same level of inspiration as the actual music.

ossa has not been, so far as I know, been broadcast by the Beeb on any of its all-UK networks, or heard outside of Ireland. (The border doesn’t mean much to radio waves bouncing about the ether). It might not be a bad idea to ask the BBC to issue a CD of ossa. The audience in the Whitla Hall clearly thought it was a knockout; even at BBC prices it has the potential to being a seller’. Possibly not quite as big as Shaun Davey’s Relief of Derry Symphony. Despite the fact that Neil Martin does not big-up the title symphony’ ossa is more symphonic.

Dee Flatt

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