Arthurian Legend in
The Birds of Rhiannon (2001)
MacMillan (born 1959)
In the Birds of Rhiannon, McMillan has composed an interesting work comprising four sections and lasting about 25
minutes. Performed and presented by the BBC, the piece is an abstract blend of musical themes, concerto and choir, inspired by a myth from the
Mabinogion. The Birds of Rhiannon are
which sing for the returning heroes and later sing on the death of Bran - a
warrior king that many associate with the Fisher King of Grail legend. Bran is
poisoned by a battle wound in a war with the Irish to rescue his sister. After a
sojourn of 80 years feasting and listening to the Birds of Rhiannon, he sacrifices his life
and his head is buried in the cliffs to magically ward away other invaders. One
legend states that the reason Arthur eventually lost to the Saxons was that in his arrogance,
he dug up Bran's head.
The first section moves from a delicate, almost wistful melody of
strings with a deeper percussion background into a darker theme that gradually
becomes a foot stomping reel dominated by the hammering of metal and the
anguished wails of the brass and strings.
From the abrupt quiet, the second section opens with bassoons and
cellos, a slower and more melancholic piece dominated by the strings section.
The section is overlaid by a sequence of movements that drive slowly to the
dramatic end- a children's song on harp, a folk theme on piccolo with the
ringing of the glockenspiel, rain and thunder that hints at the arrival of the
warriors with the brass horns and marching drums. The march sets the stage for
the next section.
The third section is more brassy and boisterous, following the
theme of the earlier sections with a rising modulation that sweeps from wistful
to tragic. The hammering of metal rings a sonorous melody to invoke the Birds of
Rhiannon as the music reaches it height.
In the final coda section, the choir begins to sing in a deep
harmony that changes to chant. The chant follows a simple melody, a cycle of
chords and poetry to sing Bran to the Otherworld.