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Seamus Heaney’s seventieth birthday in April 2009 was widely celebrated. As part of the festivities, RTE commissioned three string quartets (See YouTube Interview about Heaney quartet and RTE Heaney at 70) Each of the quartets was preceded by Heaney reading the poem on which it was based. For ‘Where should this music be?’ I used the poem Fosterling from the 1991 collection Seeing Things. I was particularly thinking of the words:

Me waiting till I was nearly fifty

To credit marvels

Here the poet reflects on writing poetry of the earth. And Heaney’s early poetry, with its peat bogs and ditches and rivers, is certainly gravity-bound. Now he wants to take wing, to write about the ethereal and impalpable.

My use of this quotation from Fosterling says something about the way in which I like to use ideas from literature or other sources in my music. Much as the earth-heaven dichotomy in this poem interested me, there was nothing that I could do with it musically. For this I had to think of physical embodiments of the abstract ideas, and what better embodiments are there than Ariel and Caliban? When the survivors of shipwreck arrive on Prospero’s island, Ferdinand, hearing the sounds and sweet airs, asks:

Where should this music be, i’ th’ air or th’ earth?

Here was a physical image I could make use of in composing my quartet: Ariel could whistle while Caliban and his cronies cavorted. Heaney expressed no opinion about Shakespeare providing the title for his piece. In fact he had no time to express any opinion. Photos were quickly taken and he was hustled to the next event by enough handlers to manage a visiting American president.

My work is a Mendelssohnian scherzo which attempts to capture the heavenly and earthly moods. For the heavenly, there is much high whistling music and for the earthly, a kind of ad hoc folk idiom of drones, skirls and jigs. The scherzo is a real test for the composer, for it must give an impression of headlong energy, even when the tempo is not fast. My scherzo is woven from things I have valued: Shakespeare, Mendelssohn, the string quartet medium, and Seamus Heaney.

For details of the Dublin library tour of Kevin O’Connell’s ‘Where should this music be’, go to the news section.

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