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Irish Tenebrae

composer
1990; revised in 1992 and 2007

 
Irish folk song settings are one of those staples of choral music: I had thought of doing a set for some time, but it was never going to be a simple, nostalgic response to beautiful melodies. Irish folk music has a complex resonance for me: it reminds me of my mother’s family, the McGowans from Armagh, and especially of my grandparents whose terraced house in Nottingham I remembered and loved better than my own family home. And from when I arrived in London in 1970, my life, like everyone else’s, was coloured by the Irish ‘Troubles’; I was several times very close to bomb incidents—unforgettable experiences.

At some point I must have been singing in a Maundy Thursday service and made a mental note to set the Tenebrae when the opportunity arose, and in that mysterious way in which piecesdevelop in the peri-compositional stage, this idea and the idea of Irish folk song settings came together. The Tenebrae have powerful overtones of violent revenge, and their mood typified for me the cycle of blame that made the Irish situation (and so many others) so addictive to its protagonists. Gradually a drama unfolded, in which a solo female singer acts like a commentator, a witness to a violent event. I was really influenced by an old LP of Irish folk music sung by an anonymous woman, recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her singing, with its roulades of decoration, was somehow reminiscent of Indian music—the Celtic sailors’ link.

In the first song My Lagan Love, the words are by Yeats, summoning the listener to a strange, ancient, arcane place, on a starlit night. He asks ‘who can distinguish darkness from the soul?’. The folk song is divided between the soprano and the violin, playing in a gypsy-like way. This piece is very much about duality: sacred and profane (organ and violin), male and female (male choir and solo soprano), church and army (organ and percussion), their meeting places, their huge gulfs.

In the second movement The Road to Sligo, the unique sound of the bodhrans ushers in the men, talking of grievances: ‘Remember O Lord what is come upon us: our inheritance is turned to strangers’. The atmosphere is heightened, sinister. The men are unable to contemplate forgiveness (‘only the dead can be forgiven’) and the organ solo at the end of the movement seems to move the action into the church.

In The Crying of the Women at the Slaughter I set part of Seamus Heaney’s great poem Casualty. The solo soprano is a witness at the funeral of 13 men: the percussion, the constant drizzling rain, the Sanctus bell, the shots fired over the coffins. The voice keens in anguish.

The camera seems to pan away with the mourners to the pub, for in movement four, Round the House and Mind the Dresser, the men are plotting revenge drunkenly, the words of the Tenebrae mixed with words by Maurice Craig: ‘it’s to hell with the future and let’s live on the past’. The bodhrans and the wild violin are both pub music and a demonic edge.

In the little shanty movement I Have a Secret to Tell, the men are staggering home, some of them to the docks. The organ is a squeeze box, someone whistles the tune, a ship’s bell sounds. The soprano and tenor duet is the Irish voice of the sea, the ancient bard Cormac.

The 6th movement, I Know my Love, continues this theme of the sea, except that the soprano challenges Christ to mend his ravelled nets that cannot catch her shining soul. This beautiful poem by Mary Lavin, with its imagery of tiny shiny fishes evading the strictures of the fisherman offers a different way from the terrible dark world of the men, locked into their hatreds and vendettas.

In the final movement The Sailor Boy, we are back in that world, where the men are brooding on perceived injustice. Using the spaces of St Paul’s again, on this recording the men are at a distance. There are echoes of the church, and the bass drum is both an omen and a blustery rainy wind. In the middle, the soprano and violin hear in ‘an old dream’ an ancient and forgotten truth, an old peace that is ‘crying to come back again’. But the word ‘remember’ seems to hold a darker and more ambiguous meaning, maybe one that can never be fully relinquished.

from notes by Judith Bingham © 2009

Recordings

Bingham: Remoter worlds & other choral works
SIGCD144Download only

Details

Movement 1: My Lagan love  I summon to the winding ancient stair
Track 6 on SIGCD144 [4'15] Download only
Movement 2: The road to Sligo  Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us
Track 7 on SIGCD144 [3'34] Download only
Movement 3: The crying of the women at the slaughter  It was a day of cold
Track 8 on SIGCD144 [5'15] Download only
Movement 4: The wake: Round the house and Mind the dresser  The wicked merchant Judas
Track 9 on SIGCD144 [2'01] Download only
Movement 5: I have a secret to tell  Wilt thou steer my frail black bark
Track 10 on SIGCD144 [4'28] Download only
Movement 6: I know my love  Christ, if you wanted my shining soul
Track 11 on SIGCD144 [2'24] Download only
Movement 7: The sailor boy  I heard the sighing of the reeds
Track 12 on SIGCD144 [6'00] Download only

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