1. A Voluntarie (Byrd)

2. Galiarda da dolorosa (Peter Philips)

3. Les lis naisans (F. Couperin)

4. Les barricades mysterieuses (F. Couperin)

5. The Earle of Essex Galiard (Dowland)

6. The Carman’s Whistle (Byrd)

This work grows out of a love-affair with so-called early music, by which is roughly meant music preceding Bach and Handel. It consists of my orchestral versions of six keyboard or lute works that I have long cherished. William Byrd is represented by two pieces, including as a finale his variations on ‘The Carman’s Whistle.’ These are unrestingly inventive keyboard variations that compare with those of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms from later ages. The deceptively white-note appearance of Byrd’s ‘A Voluntarie’ (my overture) conceals a fiendishly inventive skein of canons that I have tried to bring out in my scoring.

From the opposite end of the baroque, the great Francois Couperin is also twice represented. His surreal titles are almost as interesting as his music. ‘Les lis naisans’ are nascent lillies, and ‘barricades mysterieuses’ apparently refer to ladies’ eyelashes! The latter piece is a justly celebrated example of the keyboard style known as fortspinnung, the pouring forth of an unceasing flow of even notes. Yet the form of the piece is a strict rondo. Of the remaining two pieces, Philips’s ‘Galiarda da dolorosa’ has always struck me as irrespressibly cheerful despite its title, and Dowland’s celebrated Galiard is not only a great tune but a clever contrapuntal feat, again making use of canons.

I wish to share these masterworks with the music audience who get almost no chance to hear them. I am also repaying a debt: the trumpet and trombone flourishes that are everywhere in my own music owe much to the early baroque, from which most of these pieces come. And these composers’ way of thinking about harmony and counterpoint is a continuing source of fascination and inspiration to me.

My title is meant to provoke. It is a clear absurdity to describe music from Charlemagne to Couperin as ‘early music’, as absurd as referring to everything from Beowulf to Alexander Pope as ‘early literature.’ But this is exactly what we do, and the rubric is better designed to prevent us from listening than to encourage us. As so often in music, words get in the way of enjoyment and understanding. We may as well talk about ‘difficult modern music’ and expect people to flock to performances. A curse on labels.

I have necessarily done violence to the originals: the sonorous riches of the modern symphony orchestra were unknown to our pre-Bach ancestors. To smuggle these pieces into the modern concert hall, I have had to make them into modern concert hall pieces. All this is a way of saying that I cannot come innocently to this music. But passion is never innocent, and Early Music is less about showing knowledge than communicating love. Fashions in music come and go; beauty abides.


Early Music was commissioned by RTE. It will be premiered by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Wilson, in Galway on July 18th 2015.

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