I am just completing a new work that is, for the present, a rarity for me: a commission. It is a small piece I was invited to write for Gloucester’s commemorations of the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great; an extraordinary woman, warrior and queen, who was laid to rest in Gloucester, where she had established the priory of St. Oswald, bringing that saint’s relics to the city.
It was a tricky brief to fulfil, and indeed much of the time I have spent on the project has been devoted to reading Anglo-Saxon poetry and texts, endeavouring to find something that might suitably commemorate this great queen of the kingdom of Mercia — the Myrcna hlaedige; Lady of Mercia. I sought references to Æthelflæd in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: the idea of the ancient method of reciting poetry made me wonder about telling her story in a sung narration, to which ends I extracted various passages about Æthelflæd from those Chronicles, but couldn’t quite give the text sufficient body or purpose. (There is a particularly touching passage that tells of Æthelflæd’s grief at the loss of four of her theigns, killed ‘within the gates’ of Derby during the offensive in which she successfully reclaimed from the invading Danes in 917AD). I almost set a couple of passages from the poem ‘Elene’, which seem to echo something of Æthelflæd’s founding of St. Oswald’s Priory, the poem telling of the finding of the True Cross and the building of a church to house that relic. In the end I found something that fitted what had been my initial thought on the project: to find a text suitable to form a Lament for Æthelflæd.
The text I found is from that great 10th century source of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book. It is the end of the 9th century poem telling of the deeds of the Mercian saint, St. Guthlac of Croyland. I selected various lines from the end of the second part of that poem, Guthlac B; lines relating the death of St. Guthlac. I couldn’t find a completely satisfactory translation, and so, with an 1842 translation of Codex Exoniensis by Benjamin Thorpe as my guide (see here, pp.183-4), and with the help of an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, I set about creating my own translation. I substituted references to ‘him’ with ‘her’, and added three words from the poem ‘Elene’ — words used to describe Elene: ‘Leader of Warriors’. (I have seen it suggested that Elene may have been based upon Æthelflæd, but cannot recall where in my readings this was.) The text I devised became:
Lament for Æthelflæd
Courage is best for those that oft must endure profound misery. Think deep on their torment. Their Lord’s death when it comes, woven by fate’s decree, they shall grieve with sorrowing soul, knowing their kind treasure giver is hidden in earth.
Our Lady, leader of warriors, the best of those between the seas, to God’s judgement, (staff of the weary), from worldly joy and loving kin, in glory has gone to seek that dwelling-place on high.
Now her portion of earth, a broken bone-house, is a house inhabited with death’s-rest, and that wondrous portion of body has in God’s light sought the glorious reward, to partake with the peaceful host of that well-spring of bliss.
It would have been good to have set the words in Anglo-Saxon Old English — indeed I would have preferred to in some ways, being more authentic in its voice. Perhaps, if there had been more time I would have done so. However, the difficulties in doing so in a reasonably short time-frame were several: knowing the pronunciation of the language would have been critical, so that it could be accented and properly nuanced in its setting; being able to relay that pronunciation to performers who, likely as not, would be similarly in the dark as to the verbal forming and aural interpretation of the text; and finally, the adjustments I was making to the text were readily done in modern English, but to make them in the original Anglo-Saxon would require an intimate grasp of the grammatical nuances of the language, adjusting masculine to feminine or neuter as required. Without my being able to take more time than I had trying to grasp the intimacies of the language, and without a tame but knowledgable scholar of Anglo-Saxon to consult, I would not dare risk setting the original Old English.
Musically, I am using a perhaps slightly unusual ensemble, but one that I thought might be quasi-authentic. To the accompaniment of a solo violin (a quasi-rebec, as would have been used in the 10th century) and tenor drum, three solo voices — soprano, alto and tenor — give their lament. (Thinking on it now, the drum is perhaps a nod to Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, although I didn’t think of this when I conceived the piece.) My mind’s eye saw a banquet being held in Æthelflæd’s honour, where the honoured bard, keeper of the Kingdom’s tales and lore, singer of poetry, gives voice to the kingdom’s grief. Whilst there are nods to the period, musically, the Lament is (I’m afraid!) very much a contemporary work. Beyond knowledge of instruments, we don’t really know what their music sounded like anyway, so it would be folly to try to write in pastiche.
The joy of this small commission is that, unlike the pieces I write to fulfil my own ideas, there is a performance of the piece already in place, and possibly even two performances! My Lament for Æthelflæd will be premiered next month by Vicki & Sebastian Field’s group, ‘Gaudeamus’. There is a concert performance in the Gloucester Music Festival on 26th June (the day before my lecture–recital on Gurney in that festival), and, depending on how the programme works out, it may be performed before then, on 8th June at St. Oswald’s Priory, in the opening event of Gloucester’s Æthelflæd Festival. Four other composers were commissioned also, so there is a collection of new works to be given in honour of the Lady of Mercia at these events. It will be fascinating to hear what those others have done. All being well, with permission of the performers, I may be able to post a recording of the thing (if I manage it) in due course.