The works of Ireland’s Shaun Davey remain oddly unknown in the United States. The U.S. is in general a friendly venue for Celtic-themed music, where musicians such as Alasdair McIntyre and Bonnie Rideout can fill moderate houses and such spectacles as “Riverdance” can draw as well as any major performer. Why, then, is the superb music of Davey never heard except in odd snippets on radio shows such as Thistle and Shamrock?
The main problem is that Davey does not fiddle away his talent, if the expression may be excused, on little pieces and folksy songs. His talents, well-known in Ireland and the United Kingdom, are usually devoted to massive, distinctive works that involve acres of musicians or large blocks of time. In other words, not the kind of music that crosses the Atlantic with a couple of flutes and a harp for a road show. To a great extent, Celtic music is perceived as coterminous with folk music, outliers such as H. H. Hardy excepted (and not often played, either). It is as though the whole notion of an Irish (or Scottish) composer (of anything but “folk songs”) is unnatural.
Consider Shaun Davey’s major works to date. The ones with which I am most familiar are the splendid song cycle “Granuaile,” (1985) about the unorthodox life of Irish seafarer Grace O'Malley, “The Relief of Derry Symphony,” (1990) the set of collated historical songs collectively know as “The Pilgrim” (1983, CD 1994) and the historical setting “The Brendan Voyage” (1980). He has also written extensively for television programs in Europe.
The Brendan Voyage can be thought of as a musical companion volume to Tim Severin’s remarkable 1978 book of the same name. The composer credits this book as inspiring him to write the piece, which is in essence a concerto for Uilleann pipes and orchestra. The book describes Severin’s efforts (ultimately successful) to build and sail a replica of Saint Brendan’s leather boat hypothesized to have sailed from Ireland to the New World around 500 A.D. Davey’s suite, my least favorite among his works, is nonetheless a lush, powerful musical translation of the storms and joys of a small-boat passage across the North Atlantic. Wilder than Debussy’s La Mer, it is full of the swirls and crashes of the northern ocean.
The Relief of Derry symphony represents another historic event, though one that can be authenticated with more precision: the siege of Derry in northern Ireland in 1689, in which the city, defended by the Protestant army of William of Orange against an attack by the Catholic army of James II, held out in the face of starvation until a fleet of ships finally broke throught and saved the city. Stated musically, it is a stunning achievement.
“Relief” begins with a clear trumpet solo and duet with light orchestral support, reminiscent of Tim Morrison’s pure ascendants in James Horner’s score for the movie “Apollo 13.” It then moves into what amounts to a musical recollection of the movement of two armies and the closure of the city, emphasized by the arrival literally from offstage of a pipe band. When the piece was premiered in Derry (it was commissioned by the city for the 300th anniversary of the siege), this band actually arrived from outside the building, and this “they are coming” effect is apparent and effective even on the recording. The closure of the city gates is followed by a period of orchestral blaring and rumbling to represent the ensuing bombardment and siege, which killed an estimated 15,000 people.
It is in the closing segments that “Relief” rises to the level of a masterpiece. First, there is a lovely song called “The White Horse,” sung on the recording by Rita Connolly, which represents the image said to be visible over the city at the height of the siege. This song is a blend of plea and lament for the city’s suffering people, as simple and perfectly imagined as possible. Rising even above this plane, the orchestra drifts into a period of quiet, then the wind changes, and with it, the city’s fortunes.
The arrival of the relief ships, which catch the rising wind and force their way through a boom to reach the city, is represented by steady, increasing surges in the rhythm of the piece, culminating in a glorious ascending theme topped by the ringing of the city’s bells. The piece closes with a quiet concluding air, said by the composer to represent the city’s thanks for deliverance and, at the same time, a wish for peace in modern times.
“Granuaile” is Davey’s song cycle built around the life of one person. The Pilgrim is built around the life of an idea: the early Christian missionaries, for lack of a better term, working within and emanating from the Celtic lands in the early centuries after Christ. It is a rather loose assemblage of twenty-two related pieces, some of which are a little too rambling but several of which are astonishing in their power and grace. Of the latter, I especially like the haunting “Iona,” the amiable roar of “Ymadawiad Arthur,” “Samson Peccator Episcopus” and the concluding sequence, which features the lush purity of Rita Connolly singing “The Deer’s Cry” (imagine a priest alone, sailing in a small ship to a faraway land) and finally the glorious sprawl of “A’Ghrian,” again featuring Connolly but including the entire musical force.
It is the sheer size of the forces required and the unique requirements of the music (The Pilgrim features songs in both modern and historical Celtic languages, and most singers are not trained in Old Cornish) that contribute to the lack of performances in the United States, yet I suspect that “Granuaile” and “Relief of Derry” would be relatively easy to stage, since they require no special forces other than pipes, which are not rare. “Pilgrim” is easily disassembled into a “selections from,” in fact the recordings involve only half of what was actually performed at the Lorient Festival in 1983. The same is true of “Brendan,” though it is less musically interesting.
I hope that the music of Shaun Davey finds and keeps a larger international audience, which it deserves.