THE RUIN

(1976-9)

 

Instrumentation: Soprano, countertenor, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussionists, 2 keyboardists: piano, celesta; harpsichord; organ, string quartet

The Ruin is an Anglo-Saxon poem from around 700 AD, probably describing the deserted Roman Aquae Sulis – our Bath. I have used Michael Alexander's modern English transcription found in the Penguin 'Earliest English Poems'. For the Celt and Anglo-Saxons the poet occupied a special place amongst his fellows – language and the naming of things held a magic and potency. The poet was "the voice and memory of the tribe, when called upon everyone listened; through him the tradition was made new" (Alexander). The Ruin, like much Anglo-Saxon poetry, is an elegy – as Alexander puts it, the first of many English meditations on old stones, on mortality and change, not in the least morbid but accenting with a sense of wonder.

So far, I have used only the opening section of the poem, describing the destruction and decay of the stonework. In later passages the poet summons people – imaging they who once lived among the ruins he can see. (I like the time element in this – my thinking about this poet, long dead, who in his turn is reflecting upon people long before him.) These later passages, I hope, will lead to another piece, so in this sense the music heard is incomplete, concerned only with the inanimate stone.

Even with the words I have used I did not try to set them in any dramatic way. Most of the piece is instrumental, and the drama and the force of the words find their expression in these instrumental passages. This, I hoped, would leave the poetry, when sung, more detached with a transparency and simplicity, in some way to catch this sense of time and change, but accepting and wondering. Aside from the vocal section very early on, the main vocal passage is the centre of the piece, surrounded on either side by instrumental music.

The instrumental music up to the central section is concerned with a breaking down of a very rigidly structured music (simple cantus, isorhythmic cycles) – to a more fluid, and at times fragmented, music (nine cycles of 32 crotchets where the intervals and tempo of the original cantus expands through 9 proportions from 1:1 to 4:1. This also causes a filtering out of pitches, so towards the end there are passages using only the notes of a diminished chord and finally an augmented triad). This section ends abruptly with the trumpet and trombone left hanging in 'mid-air' before being cut off. The long instrumental section following the vocal centre is a very gradual unwinding and dispersing of density and activity. (If you like, a movement through time away from those days to our own, a progressive distancing.) Here the wood wind (first entering during the vocal section) are the 'continuation' of the voice. There are many stages in this 'settling' of the ripples, but finally the piano, very gently, leads to a peaceful ending.

Although the poem may seem very distant at times, for me it is always present, informing all. I have tried to create a mood, a sensing, a tapestry of sound around this source.

Programme note © Paul Keenan