Taller than Roman Spears (1977)

Programme Note: John Buckley

Long, long ago, beyond the misty space
Of twice a thousand years,
In Erin old there dwelt a mighty race,
Taller than Roman Spears.

(from ‘The Celts’ – Thomas D’arcy McGee)

Taller than Roman Spears was composed in 1976-1977 and is dedicated to the conductor Colman Pearce. The work, which is in four movements, draws its inspiration from the four major Celtic ritual festival days. Though constructed as abstract musical structures, nevertheless the atmosphere of the rituals associated with the different festivals, is evoked in each movement.

1st movement: SAMHAIN
The Celtic year began at Samhain (November 1st). The rituals enabled man to communicate with freely with the Supernatural, and to propitiate the Gods for the coming year. Two ideas (a) the opening rhythm on woodwind and (b) the trumpet fanfare heard shortly after the opening string entry, dominate the movement.

2nd Movement: IMBOLG
Imbolg was the spring festival held on February 1st. It was a pastoral festival and the associated ritual seems to have been concerned with livestock and hopes for a rich milk yield. This movement is very placid in character. After a calm opening there appears a theme for strings. Having built towards a central climax, the theme gradually disintegrates to be finally reflected on by solo oboe before the movement concludes.

3rd Movement: BEALTAINE
Bealtaine was celebrated on May 1st. Rituals in relation to the fertility of both livestock and soil were predominant at this time. Fires, which may have been symbolic of the increasing power of the summer sun, were lit. Livestock were driven through these fires and the people danced around them in a sunwise direction. This movement is dominated by a central aleatoric section. The orchestra is subdivided into eight sections, which are superimposed in such a manner as to build from music of a very sparse nature towards a block of feverish activity for percussion, after which the movement gradually grinds to a halt.

4th Movement: LUGHNASADH
The festival of Lugh was held on August 1st. Lugh possessed all the arts and all the sciences and so was the overseer of all the Celts’ activities. Very little new material is introduces in this final movement. Many themes from the previous movements are recalled, the most important being the fanfare from Samhain, the string theme from Imbolg and the cor anglais theme from Bealtaine.