Putting the past century into music

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Composer Michael Rooney spoke to Fiona O’Brien about his new work on the 1916 Easter Rising and its legacy

As part of the huge order of events dedicated to commemorate the passing of 100 years since the 1916 Rising, one of the episodes, touted by the government themselves as a highlight, is a revolutionary orchestral/trad fusion which will play at notable venues over the next few months.

Michael Rooney
Michael Rooney

This Friday, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann will play at London’s Barbican, and the UK debut of Ireland’s National Orchestra is even more fitting when the content of the show is revealed.

Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann commissioned composer Michael Rooney to write a suite of music reflecting Ireland’s journey over the past century.

It will be performed in London this week before going on tour in Ireland, culminating in an Easter Saturday performance at the RDS.

Macalla 1916 reflects both on the events of Easter 1916 and the history leading up to the rising, and celebrates the rich culture and traditions of Ireland today. Its composer, Monaghan native Rooney is widely regarded as one of the foremost traditional composers of our time.

First formed by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in the late 1980s, the National Folk Orchestra of Ireland has always attracted the most gifted young Irish musicians and singers.

The schoolteacher has worked with Comhaltas for many years, and has composed seven major suites over the past seven years, but found new pressures when taking on a task of this size.

“I’m a full-time schoolteacher, which has its own time commitments, but generally I find writing music comes naturally. But what dawned on me was the massive responsibility that this task had,” he says.

“Obviously 1916 events are very topical at the moment, but everyone has their own viewpoint on it. And, also, the suite had to be as relevant to be played in London for the Diaspora, but also at its next outing in Dublin, at a state event in front of the relatives of those involved in the Rising.”

It is an hour and a half show, with 50 trad musicians and 10-15 classical musicians, who will all play from memory. Only the ‘classical ensemble’ (violins, cellos, double bass, trumpet and French Horn) will read music whilst the ‘traditional orchestra’ (fiddles, flutes, banjos, concertinas, button accordions, uilleann pipes, harps and percussion) play by memory.

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“Yes, that is highly unusual for an orchestra, but not so much when trad musicians are involved. Most of these in that discipline are not fluent readers of music, they learned aurally to play by ear so it was an easy enough decision to play to their strengths and to make it as authentic as possible.”

The enormous task Rooney had was to create 21 pieces of music, 17 of which are brand new original material. The project was given to him over a year ago, and after 5-6 months on reading up on the history he began composing it in the summer and rehearsals have been ongoing since October.

Rooney is delighted at being a part of bringing what he calls the ‘creme da la creme’ of Ireland’s musicians to England for the first time.

“It is unusual for us because everyone has their own full-time jobs, or are students so it is a fantastic occasion, and social event, to allow us to showcase our work in one of the biggest venues I can think of.”

The months Michael spent researching the project, he hopes, means that the suite is historically accurate.

“I just hope that it touches the right emotions. The focus is so contentious, and everyone has so many different views. It was hard to focus at first on questioning whether you can get the ‘right music’ and still maintain an appropriate message in this centenary year.”

President Michael D Higgins is giving the opening message at the RDS event, in front of an invited audience of 4,500 people, but Michael is no stranger to high-profile audience members, himself performing in front of the Queen during her state visit of 2011.

“That was a great moment to represent the music of our country in front of the Queen. But I suppose generally I am a lot more selfish when composing, but the idea that this suite means so much to so many different people gave me a new area of responsibility in terms of the subject matter.

“But I have had great guidance, there has been serious dialogue with the organisers all the way through as opposed to the blank canvas I normally work with, and the consultation also allowed me to work with the visual aids and scripted parts that are to be incorporated into the show.”

“But you can’t write for experts.”

Although Michael has drafted in experts to help him with each of the musical motifs, which consist of:

  • The Famine in 1847 is seismic in Irish history – the music will take this as its starting point and how this influenced the periods of unrest for the next 50 years.
  • The Gaelic revival at the turn of the Century – reflecting on the language, dance, music and literature.
  • The formation of the Gaelic League, the GAA and other Cultural Institutions and the revolutionary movement.
  • The First World War and the dichotomy in Ireland.
  • Easter 1916 itself and the road to independence.
  • Ireland’s development through the ‘40’s and ‘50’s and our entry into the League of Nations.
  • The Northern Traditions and the dawn of reconciliation.
  • Ireland’s entry into the E.U. in the ‘70s and the influence Ireland has had on European and World Culture up to the present day.

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“The first part, with the 1850s aristocratic presence of England gives tension to this opening segment of the suite. There’s workman’s dance which is rhythmical and tense.

“The Gaelic revival is then a very trad-heavy piece. It reflect the imapct that World War One had on the north and south and the event that led to the rising. In this the music of Ulster and the south kind of compete.

“The 1916 piece has strong themes. It was a time of confision, and prior to the rising there were events that could help that were prevented from happening for one reason or another.

“The proclamation is read out at this point which is emotional, and then there is a more aggressive segment of music to reflect the fighting in the battle.

“There is a thematic execution piece and then a reflective segment of music as we look back, with hindsight, on what it was all about.

“It then fast forwards through the history that Ireland has shared since there, which is varied in its nature all the way up until the finale.”

Tickets can be bought for the shows Macalla 1916 tickets.

The full tour is as follows:

 

 

 

 

 

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