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The Conquest of Ireland

First line:
I seem to see how the reader
author of text
Expugnatio Hibernica
translator of text
translator of text

As much as listening to Barry’s music can sometimes feel an onslaught, there is an irrepressible thrill to it too. It is a thrill that Barry clearly feels himself, injecting a sense of danger into every score, tinkering with tradition and flirting with the very fringes of possibility. His vocal settings in particular, as he has acknowledged himself, are often enormously virtuosic. ‘There is a sense of the extreme in the music’, he admitted in an interview in 2000, ‘there is a danger there … the possibility of collapse almost.’ So it is with The Conquest of Ireland where, under the already rather absurd tempo marking (quaver=192), to which he adds the direction ‘frenetic’, Barry writes in bold capital letters, underlined: NOT SLOWER. Barry means to test us: to test the limits of the performers even as he tries the patience of the listeners, challenging us to remain fixed to our seats, willing the performers to stay afloat.

Formed around a text by the twelfth century Welsh writer and cleric, Giraldus Cambrensis, The Conquest of Ireland is—as with so much of Barry’s music—a clash between the solemn and the ridiculous. Cambrensis was part of the army that invaded Ireland in the twelfth century and his book recounts the events of the invasion with a dry and surprisingly keen focus on the soldiers themselves. For Barry, the text has a ‘strange detached quality’, something that he was keen to counter in his setting, which blisters with passion and conviction even as it recounts the mundane. The score is riddled with directions to play ‘exuberantly!’ while the text is anything but. ‘Richard had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes and a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other respects he was of a tall build’, Cambrensis writes meagrely, while Barry keeps the music alert and rhythmically charged.

Typically, we are introduced to the bass soloist without ceremony. The voice enters, as though in a blast of rapid gunfire, in strict unison with the bass clarinet, the words barely audible as the two jostle to ride the seemingly endless succession of semiquavers. Eventually, this softens into a section of long, chromatic lines for wind and marimba, but any tenderness is not part of the text: here the writer imagines the reader ‘despising’ the book and ‘wrinkling his nose in disgust’ at the page.

Having excerpted his text from a source that includes plenty of action, Barry deliberately targets the trivial. We are treated to an account that flits between the banal details of the soldiers’ appearances and Cambrensis’ attempts to justify his own writing. Coupled with the visceral and at times shocking nature of Barry’s score, it presents a rather compelling form of contrast. ‘I like the tension, or almost contradiction between that matter-of-factness and the rather violent, passionate interpretation that I applied to it’, Barry has said. This is not a grand, overblown depiction of a life lived and lost in glory on the battlefield, but instead a more human account of a group of soldiers who are just people after all, weak voiced and short of neck.

from notes by Jo Kirkbride © 2020


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4, 5 & 6
Studio Master: SIGCD639Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 6 on SIGCD639 CD2 [19'37] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD639 disc 2 track 6

Recording date
24 May 2018
Recording venue
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
James Mallinson
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4, 5 & 6 (SIGCD639)
    Disc 2 Track 6
    Release date: October 2020
    Download only
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