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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