The opening is one of dramatic contrasts, soon focusing on a sensual dialogue of horn and oboe phrases of intense but dark beauty. Early and easily are we seduced, and the loveliness of the second subject launches itself into the work like warm air over halcyon seas and works up to a truly glorious climax of summer heat, shimmering with the physical passion that underlies the terrible story. It is not long before that terror makes itself felt in a mechanical inexorable rhythm, which occasional wistful thinking on the part of the more lyrical ideas cannot disguise. The melodrama of what follows is carried off splendidly. Between naked viciousness and the glory of its own triumph there is only the difference of musical pun in the harmony. The end is as terrible in its silence as in its devastating final chord. Indeed the dramatic pacing of these last bars is masterly. Everything in MacCunn is to the point.
‘O where hae ye been, my lang-lost lover,
This seven lang years and mair?’
‘O I’m come again to seek your love
An’ the vows that ye did swear.’
‘Now haud your tongue o’ my love and vows,
For they can breed but strife;
Now haud your tongue o’ my former vows,
For I am anither man’s wife.’
‘O fause are the vows o’ womankind,
But fair is their fause bodie;
I wad never hae trodden on Irish ground
Were it no for the love o’ thee!
‘Ye may leave you husband to himsel’,
And your little son also,
And sail wi’ me across the sea,
Sae fair the wind doth blow.
‘See ye not yon seven pretty ships—
The eighth brought me to land—
With merchandize and mariners,
And music on every hand?
‘There’s mantles warm to wrap my love,
O’ the silk and soft velvet,
And rich attires to deck her head,
And costly shoon for her feet.
She has drawn the slippers on her feet,
Well wrought wi’ threads of gold,
And he’s wrapt her round wi’ the soft velvet,
To haud her frae the cold.
‘O how do you like the ship?’ he said,
‘Or how do you like the sea?
And how do you like the bold mariners
That wait upon thee and me?’
‘O weel I like the ship,’ she said,
‘And weel I like the sea;
But where are a’ your mariners?
I see nane but thee and me.’
They hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league, but barely three,
When eerie grew the lift above,
And gurly grew the sea.
She hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league, but barely three;
When she espied his cloven hoof,
And wept right bitterlie.
‘O what hills are yon, yon pleasant hills,
That the sun shines sweetly on?’
‘O yon are hills of Heaven,’ he said,
‘Where you will never win.’
‘O whatna mountain is yon?’ she said,
‘Sae dreary wi’ frost and snow?’
‘O yon is mountain o’ Hell,’ he cried,
‘Where you and I maun go!’
The clouds grew black, and the wind grew loud,
And the levin filled her e’e;
And waesome wailed the snaw-white sprites
Out o’er the roaring sea.
He strack the mainmast wi’ his hand,
The foremast wi’ his knee:
He split the gallant ship in twain,
And sank her in the sea.
from notes by John Purser © 1995