The ulster cycle: Cultural significance for Irish composers

Angela Goff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

For more than three hundred years, Irish composers have engaged with tales from early Irish saga-literature which comprises four main series: Mythological, Ulster and Fenian cycles as well as the Cycle of Kings. This literary corpus dates from 600-1200 CE and is amongst the oldest in Europe. The fragmented history of the literature reveals a continuity of tradition in that the ancient sagas evolved from the oral Irish tradition, were gradually recorded in Irish, and kept alive in modern times through translation into the English language. The timelessness and social impact of these sagas, centuries after they were documented, resonate with Irish composers through the identification of local features and/or universal themes of redemption, triumph or tragedy depicted in the literature. The focus here is on sagas from the Ulster Cycle as they have been most celebrated by Irish composers; the majority of which have been composed since Thomas Kinsella’s successful translation of the Táin Bó Cuailnge in 1969. How the composers chose to embrace the Irish past lies in each composer’s execution of the peculiar local and universal themes exhibited in the sagas. The aim of this article is to initiate an interdisciplinary discussion of the cultural significance of this literary corpus for Irish composers by exploring an area of Irish musicological discourse that has not been hitherto documented. A brief literary background to the Ulster Cycle leads to a discussion of what prompted the composers to engage with Ulster Cycle themes at a particular time in their respective careers. An exploration of the various stylistic features employed in selected works sheds light on the cultural ideologies that prevailed in Ireland at the time of their respective composition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-61
Number of pages15
JournalEstudios Irlandeses
Volume2017
Issue number12-2 Special Issue
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Keywords

  • Celtic studies
  • Cultural studies
  • Irish history
  • Irish literature
  • Musicology

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