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The Death of Balder

composer
author of text

 
The stories of Norse mythology make up one of the most extraordinary narrative sequences in all literature. From the creation of the world in the chasm of Ginnungagap to the destruction of the gods at Ragnarök, the tales of Odin and the other gods have a resonance which rings across the centuries. The legend of the death of Balder comes from the Prose Edda of the great Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), whose accounts of the ancient tales were intended to preserve pre-Christian forms of Scandinavian story-telling.

The text of The Death of Balder was adapted by the composer from a modern telling of the myths by the poet and novelist Kevin Crossley-Holland. Probably the most famous of the Norse myths, The Death of Balder has been described by Crossley-Holland as ‘one of the world’s great tragic stories’. It is presented as a miniature ‘radio opera’: spoken narration linking solo arias and duets, against an ‘orchestral’—but entirely sung—accompaniment.

Act One tells how the gods are fearful for the safety of the beautiful Balder. His mother gets reassurance from every object throughout the nine worlds that he will not be harmed, but she overlooks a small mistletoe bush. The malign god Loki creates a dart from this bush, which kills Balder. Amid widespread mourning Odin’s son, Hermod, volunteers to journey to the world of the dead to negotiate with its ruler, Hel, for Balder’s return.

In an Interlude, the gods and goddesses keep vigil by Balder’s body through the endless night. In Act Two Balder is given a grand Norse funeral, put out to sea in his boat, Ringhorn. Meanwhile, Hermod gains entry to the world of the dead. Hel agrees to release Balder if everything in the nine worlds shows his worth by weeping for him. Messengers go out, and everything weeps for Balder. But on their return to Asgard, the messengers come across a giantess, Thokk, who stonily refuses to weep for Balder, thereby committing him to remain in the land of the dead. The other gods are convinced Thokk is really Loki in disguise.

The Death of Balder was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2008, and subsequent performances have included the City of London and Bath festivals. It was runner-up in the British Composer Awards in 2009 and is dedicated to the composer Param Vir.

from notes by Bernard Hughes © 2016

Recordings

Hughes: I am the song & other choral works
Studio Master: SIGCD451Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Part 1: Prologue  Hail to the speaker and to him who listens!
Track 7 on SIGCD451 [0'32] Download only
Part 2: Act 1  The gods and goddesses gathered
Track 8 on SIGCD451 [11'55] Download only
Part 3: Interlude  Breathe no more
Track 9 on SIGCD451 [3'08] Download only
Part 4: Act 2  Meanwhile, for nine nights Hermod rode
Track 10 on SIGCD451 [10'18] Download only

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