the fenian cycle

mezzo-soprano, english horn, string quartet; 22 minutes

The text for The Fenian Cycle draws its inspiration from the large collection of verse and prose of the same name that describes the clan of Irish warriors headed by Finn Mac Cunhaill, called the Fianna (2nd Century AD). The collection contains many stories, however, I have selected those that deal with the topic of life’s end, and expectations of afterlife, as well as inserting other appropriate texts from similar sources.

The work is five movements, each between three and five minutes. The opening movement is an extension and variation on Palestrina’s latin motet, “Sicut cervus”. It describes the soul longing to be with God, and serves as a nice spiritual counterpoint to the more "earthly" Fenian texts. Musical quotations from Palestrina insert a more contemplative acceptance of a long-standing and traditional spiritualism surrounding death.

The poetry and music progress from more obscure references to death in the first movements, towards obvious death references in the last movement. This process parallels our psychological process; when life is new we think little about it, however when life is nearly over, it occupies our mind.

The mezzo-soprano melodies remain quasi-folk-like through out the work while it's tonality is disturbed by interjections and interuptions from the string quartet. In the final movement, the voice and English horn become their most pure in the folk idiom, while the quartet "departs" in a very dissonant quote from the first movement. When the Fenian text completes, the voice, English horn, and string quartet join together for a final ascension on the latin text, "When shall I come and appear before His presence," a line borrowed from Palestrina's motet.

The Fenian Cycle was awarded the 2004 Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian New Music.

Premiered June 2, 2004 at Trinity St, Paul's Church, 427 Bloor St. W., Toronto.

Vicki St. Pierre, mezzo soprano

The Talisker Players
Victoria Ellis Hathaway, English horn
Valerie Sylvester, violin
Kathryn Sugden, violin
Mary McGeer, viola
Mary Katherine Finch, cello
Recorded excerpts:
  • mvmnt 1
  • mvmnt 3
  • mvmnt 4
  • mvmnt 5

The commission was made possible through grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Laidlaw Foundation.
Laidlaw Foundation

I collected and adapted the poetry for The Fenian Cycle from many sources. I was fairly liberal in my editing and interpreting the final collection of five movements.

The Fenian Cycle

I. Sicut Cervus

I behold thee sitting on mist, dimly gleaming in all thine arms,
like a watery cloud when we see the stars behind it with their weeping eyes.
Thy shield is like the aged moon: thy sword a vapour half-kindled with fire.
Dim and feeble, the one who traveled in brightness before.

II. Berrathon: A Poem

My harp hangs on a blasted branch
The sound of it’s strings is mournful
Does the wind touch thee, O harp,
or is it some passing ghost!

Bring me the harp; another song shall rise.
My soul shall depart in sound;
my fathers shall hear it in their airy hall –
their dim faces shall hang, with joy, from their clouds;
and their hands receive their child.

Strike the harp and raise the song:
be near, with all your wings, ye winds.
Bear the mournful sound away to my father’s airy hall,
that he may hear the voice of his child;
the voice…that praised the almighty.

III. The Sleep-Song

Sleep a little, a little little, thou needst feel no fear or dread,   
Youth to whom my love is given, I am watching near thy head.   
Like the parting of two children, bred together in one home,   
Like the breaking of two spirits, if I did not see thee come.   

Sleep a little, a little little, this one night our fear hath fled,   
Youth to whom my love is given, see, I watch beside thy bed.

IV. Youth and Age

Once I was yellow-haired, and ringlets fell,
In clusters around my brow;
Grizzled and sparse tonight my short grey crop,
No luster in it now.

Better to me the shining locks of youth,
Or raven’s dusky hue,
Than drear old age, which chilly wisdom brings,
If what they say be true.

I only know that as I pass the road,
No man  looks my way;
They think my head and heart alike are cold –
Yet I have had my day.

V. Prayer

I am going home with thee, to thy home, to thy home
I am going home with thee, to thy home of winter.
I am going home with thee, to thy home, to thy home,
I am going home with thee, to thy home of autumn, of spring, and of summer.
I am going home with thee, thy child of my love,
To thy eternal bed, to thy perpetual sleep.

quando veniam et apparebo When shall I come and appear
ante faciem Dei mei? before His presence?

      -from Sicut Cervus

Reviewed in the Globe and Mail
Friday, June 4th, 2004
Robert Harris

"But the real hit of the evening, for me at least, was Galbraith's setting of old Fenian poems (with a nod to Palestrina) in The Fenian Cycle. Galbraith is a youngish Canadian composer with a real ear for vocal drama and the telling instrumental detail. His cycle was assured, confident, and both intellectually and musically interesting, a solid combination of all the elements that make a piece of music leap from the good to the great. The Talisker quartet was beautifully joined in the work by the mournful English horn of Victoria Ellis Hathaway, adding an immensely poignant obbligato to the string texture."

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