A Hazardous Melody of Being: Seóirse Bodley’s Song Cycles on the Poems of Micheal O’Siadhail

Carysfort Press, 2008

Seóirse Bodley is one of the best-known composers of contemporary music in Ireland. This book seeks to examine his engagement with the poetry of Michael O’Siadhail and the making of these song cycles. It assesses the joint contribution to Irish art song, and seeks to understand its roots and departure from European tradition.

This critical edition is the first publication of Bodley’s O’Siadhail song cycles and is the first book to explore the composer’s lyrical modernity from a number of perspectives. Lorraine Bodley’s insightful introduction describes in detail the development and essence of Bodley’s musical thinking, the European influences he absorbed which linger in these cycles, and the importance of his work as a composer of Irish art song. She asks an array of questions: Does song play a new role in twentieth-century music or was this the age, as many have insisted, that bears witness to the ‘death of song’? How does contemporary Irish art song inscribe individual concerns and mirror the influence of dominant social trends through its music and its texts? She demonstrates that the answers to such questions illuminate the context in which these cycles were created, and how they were valued and viewed. Through a blend of close analyses of Bodley’s songs and wide-ranging engagement with both poetry and music, this book sheds new light on Bodley’s integral part in fashioning Irish art song. It analyses the way Bodley’s song has been harnessed both to legitimate and to challenge national art song. And it identifies elements of Bodley’s musical style which are shaped by European tradition.

Beyond such musical and poetic analyses, Lorraine Byrne Bodley’s reading of the threefold roles of continuity, gradual change, and revolution opens up a braided history of Irish art song, where song is not an aesthetic given but a means to understanding the changing patterns of life. She argues convincingly, that an understanding of the way in which Irish society has perceived song in recent centuries is available through a consideration of song as social document, and in her appraisal of Bodley’s O’Siadhail settings she considers the importance of these song cycles as a reflection of Ireland’s rich cultural history.

“The two scores in this edition present with very little change the works written in 1987 and 2000. The main difference is that The Earlsfort Suite appears in this volume in a version for piano rather than in full score. In this published version Seóirse Bodley made minor alterations to the original particell to render in terms of the piano the essence of his original orchestral score.

When editing The Naked Flame, the copy of the manuscript I was working from was laden with performance directions from concerts given in former years. In these additional directions Bodley breaks through conventional limitations on expression – luminous, starry dance, desolate – his objective being to render a performance of great musical intensity. It reminded me of some of the performance indications suggestions by Mahler schreiend (screaming in the orchestral version ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’) and in his Kindertotenlieder: mit Erschütterung (convulsively) and mit ausbrechendem Schmerz (breaking out in pain) in the first and third songs respectively. For this reason, I decided to include in this edition Seóirse’s performance markings, the most remarkable aspect of which is their great refinement. Nuance is of paramount importance to Bodley; detailed indications and subtle distinctions abound in his songs and he calculates expression with meticulous precision. Although the composer continually explores changing dynamic colour, his dynamic signs are far from precise indications of volume and weight; the same sign may be interpreted differently in different songs. In actual practice, extreme dynamics serve principally a psychological function – to emphasize the human dimension of the music – rather than the practical purpose of indicating precise degrees of loudness. 

When discussing song it is important not to ignore the extramusical analysis: to do so is to ignore the aesthetic out of which song grows. In this edition I have sought to unveil the background to the poems and highlight their significance in their own right as well as their importance in this musical context. In discussing the songs, however, I have tended to focus on their interpretation in relation to the musical setting – an approach I feel entirely fitting to the introduction for a critical edition authorized by the composer. 

Bodley’s song cycles have long been central to the repertoire of contemporary Irish art song. The rich and varied textures of the work pose formidable challenges to the singer. Yet the songs are far from being mere technical challenges. Their musical quality is such that any serious Irish singer should enjoy studying and performing them. Apart from my discussion of the cultural context of the cycles, my introduction, ‘A Tradition Redefined’, is devoted to practical matters – structural analysis, motivic connections, textual relations – which demonstrate the importance of these cycles in the history of Irish art song. 

In an age in which the contemporary art song is granted a minor role in modern concert life, and in a century where many have insisted bore witness to ‘the death of song’, both artists’ sense of history reaffirms the quest of song to voice contemporary truths. The artistic traditions of both Dublin-born artists were cradled within that of European music and poetry as a whole. The broad emphasis of my introduction, therefore, has fallen upon one aspect of art song – its relation to private and public morality in the extreme circumstances of a century that has brought immense upheaval to European civilization. As the title of this volume suggests – A Hazardous Melody of Being – O’Siadhail’s poetry addresses not only the stable characteristics of human lives but also the historical flux of things; the poet is an intelligent perceiver and interpreter of that flux, never a mere chronicler. Beyond the fine aesthetic qualities of both poetry and music, it is this historical signification that makes Bodley’s O’Siadhail cycles important human and artistic documents. The main contention of this edition is, therefore, that song at its most responsible still has immense resources, still has the ability to speak very immediately to different audiences, and will not easily be deflected from pursuing and setting down indelibly its own form of truth.”

Extract from Prof. Lorraine Byrne Bodley, Preface

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