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Reincarnations, Op 16

author of text
after Antoine Ó Raifteirí (1784-1835)

Barber’s maternal heritage, going back several generations, was Anglo-Scottish-Irish, and the composer connected early on with the Irish lyric tradition. Later, he would set a number of poems by Joyce and Yeats, together with the ancient, anonymous Irish texts of the Hermit Songs, Op 29, but an early influence was James Stephens (1880–1950). In turn, it was Stephens’ interest in the re-telling of Irish myths and fairy tales that brought Barber to the Gaelic poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (or Reachtabhra, or, more commonly in English, Raftery, 1784–1835), known as the last of the wandering bards. Raftery’s verse was given new life, through translation and elaboration, in James Stephens’ 1918 volume Reincarnations, and there is no better illustration of Barber’s masterful responsiveness to text than in his three Reincarnations settings from 1939–40.

In Mary Hynes, Barber perfectly captures the urgency and breathless excitement of passionate love (‘She is the sky of the sun, She is the dart Of love, She is the love of my heart’). With the sprung start, on the second beat of the bar, and the darting entries of different vocal lines within shifting metres, the poet’s admiration of Mary Hynes, said to be the most beautiful woman of the century, is eloquently proclaimed. With the words ‘Lovely and airy the view from the hill’, Barber’s imitative, più tranquillo transition smoothly reflects the shift of mood; still ecstatic, the breathlessness gone, and yet with a closing reference, at ‘The blossom of branches’, to the melodic contour of the opening.

Lovestruck warmth gives way to the stark anger and desperation of grief in the second Reincarnations setting, Anthony O’Daly. Intoning like a funeral bell throughout—or at least until the final page’s fortissimo climax—is the obsessive repetition of the name ‘Anthony’, first of all in the basses, later in all voice parts, always on the note E. Closely imitative writing attaches to this ‘Anthony’ pedal note, and becomes progressively more distressed until the tutti ‘Anthony’ climax. Anthony O’Daly, an activist in County Galway fighting the cause of oppressed tenant farmers, was caught and hanged in 1820 for unproven charges of attempted murder. Raftery may have witnessed the hanging himself.

James Stephens wrote of The coolin’ (which translates as ‘The fair-haired one’): ‘I sought to represent that state which is almost entirely a condition of dream, wherein the passion of love has almost overreached itself and is sinking into a motionless languor.’ Barber’s tender, lilting setting captures this (almost) ‘motionless languor’ with a delightful sense of timeless pastoral—simple lives and simple pleasures.

from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2015


American Polyphony
Studio Master: CDA67929Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


No 1: Mary Hynes  She is the sky of the sun
Track 3 on CDA67929 [2'23]
No 2: Anthony O'Daly  Since your limbs were laid out
Track 4 on CDA67929 [3'07]
No 3: The coolin'  Come with me, under my coat
Track 5 on CDA67929 [4'06]

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