Arthurian Legend in Music

The Birds of Rhiannon (2001)

James 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 mystical presences 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.