Moore, when considering what incidental music was required for the play, recalled hearing Elgar’s choral cantata Caractacus at the Leeds Festival and felt that he would be the ideal composer to approach. In his initial correspondence with Elgar, Moore indicated that he wanted ‘music for the death of Diarmuid. A moment comes when words can go no further, and I should like music to take up the emotion and to carry it on.’ After Elgar agreed to write this Moore added further requests for some horn calls and a song for Laban, the druidess, at her spinning wheel, with words by Yeats.
Elgar’s music for the play was written for a small theatre pit orchestra; after the first rehearsal Moore was thrilled and wrote to him: ‘There is nothing in Wagner more beautiful.’ Feeling that Elgar had totally caught the atmosphere of the play, Moore started badgering him to write an opera on the subject, which the composer considered, although nothing came of it.
The collaboration between Yeats and Moore was less happy; there were frequently quarrels, but nevertheless the play was finally staged on 21 October 1901 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, performed by the Stratford company of the actor-manager Frank Benson. It played for a week, then sank without trace. When Elgar approached Yeats to ask if he would give permission for his words to be used for publication, the poet willingly assented and commented that the music was ‘wonderful in its heroic melancholy.’
‘Heroic melancholy’ is indeed an apt description for the Funeral March which Elgar described to Jaeger, his champion at his main publishers Novellos, as ‘big and weird’, as well as potentially ‘useful for commemorations’. Rescored for full orchestra (and with the title Anglicised and the lovers’ names in reverse order), Elgar dedicated the march to Henry Wood, who conducted the premiere at the Queen’s Hall, London, on 18 January 1902. Elgar also combined the miscellaneous fragments of music used in the play into a short movement of Incidental Music, which together with the Funeral March and the song were published as his Op 42.
The play revolves around a love triangle. The beautiful Grania, daughter of the High King of Ireland is betrothed to the aged warlord Finn; however, when she and Finn’s right-hand comrade in arms, the young, handsome Diarmid meet, it is love at first sight and they elope. For many years and with countless adventures, they are pursued by the revengeful Finn, until eventually a truce is declared. Finn organises a boar hunt to celebrate, Diarmid agrees to take part despite knowing that it has been prophesised that had would be killed by a boar. The prophecy proves true, Diarmid is mortally wounded; he is brought on stage where he begins to sway his hand as if to music. He has heard the harp of Aognhus, whose music accompanies the dying to the afterlife. Finn has the powers to save him, but consumed with jealousy, cannot bring himself to do so, until finally he changes his mind. It is too late, Diarmid falls back dead.
Moore later wrote of Elgar’s music that he ‘must have seen the primeval forest, as he wrote, and the tribe moving among the fallen leaves, oakleaves, hazel leaves …‘; undoubtedly the music captures the spirit of the play in an uncanny and distinctive way. The Incidental Music opens with horn and trumpet calls, close by and afar; then eerie swaying string chords lead to a lamenting clarinet theme with harp. The Funeral March takes up the horn-calls before its main melancholic, but noble, theme holds sway, being made all the more poignant by the twisting chromatic figure underlying it. Diarmid’s death is announced by a stoke on tam-tam. As the funereal tramp continues its way, how perfectly it underpins the emotional dénouement of the play as in Grania’s words:
‘There are birch trees upon the mountain that summer has made ready for the flame … they shall be heaped to a great height. Dairmuid shall be laid upon them and when they are lighted all people that are on the western shore shall see the blaze.’
The song ‘There are seven that pull the thread’ is sung by another of the play’s significant characters, Laban, whose spinning foretells the fate of men; when Laban’s threads break, death looms.
from notes by Andrew Burn © 2016