Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Of life, and Death, and Music

I finally found a a YouTube video of this piece that I like. It is one of my favorite pieces of music, and I thought I would share it with you, and the story that goes along with it.

This one is going to get a bit esoteric, so if you have no interest, just listen to the pretty music.

Oh and all you folklore nuts, or gaelic nuts, I'm trying to render all these spellings, in english, and without using the extended character sets. Yes, they're going to be messed up, but I'm doing the best I can under those conditions, so don't nitpick.
Moving on...

"Sidhe Bheag an Sidhe Mhor", also rendered as "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór", or phonetically as Sheebeg Sheemore (Gaelic accenting and pronunciation doesn't work well with English spelling), is an Irish lament; originally composed for Harp, by the great Irish harper and composer, Turlogh O'Carolan.

The piece refers to a battle in an oak grove between two hills, between two groups of the folk who live underhill, or "sidhe".

This is where things get a little more complicated. Most folks just say "it's about elves" and leave it at that, but there are no "elves" in celtic legend. In fact, the whole concept of elves is originally a Norse/German/Scandanvian thing.

It was Tolkien (himself a great student of celtic legend) who conflated the sidhe, with the elves, in popular culture. Prior to Tolkien, the popular culture (what of it there was. Tolkien essentially created the modern concept of elves) would have referred to them as the Fae, the Faerie, (both of which mean "fated ones") or the "Fair Folk" (which itself was actually an english corruption of Fae, taken because it had a double meaning, in that the Fae were pretty).

You may have heard sidhe referred to as "fairy mounds", and often the folk are themselves referred to as Sidhe, because they live underhill.

Underhill is the world of the folk; fair, dark, and dusky; of celtic legend. It is the realm under the fairy mounds, where magic rules; and time, and the physical laws of the mortal world do not apply... or at least not in the same way.

Some refer to the sidhe as elves, but that is both inaccurate (as I said above), and incomplete; because the folk underhill comprise dozens of different types, not just the fair folk.

If you think that the phonetics of it are similar to "Banshee", you're right. A Banshee is more properly referred to as a "Bean Sidhe", which simply means "a woman who lives underhill"; but obviously has taken on a more sinister aspect in legend.

In this case, O'Carolan is specifically writing of what most people think of as elves, but who the legends call the Tuatha De' Danaan (or the "children of Danae"), the Aes Sidhe (meaning the "high people who live underhil") or the "daoine sidhe" (meaning the "fair folk who live underhill"); but also of their allies, the other sidhe (the dark and dusky).

The "fair" are the Tuatha de' Danaan, who resemble humans, but are not. The others (their allies), are the "dark" and the "dusky"; those who live underhill, but are not as attractive or as ... evolved perhaps... as the fair folk. Peoples like the goblins, brownies, pixies, trolls, bogarts, etc...

The Tuatha De' Danaan split themselves into two courts. The courts are further divided into high, which consists of the daoine sidhe; and low, which consists of all the other folk underhill who ally themselves with the courts; as well as those of the lesser Fae, who are too weak in magic to sustain themselves, and must be tied to others, or to a place or source of magic.

On one side, are the "court of light", the "summer court", the "court of life". In some stories they are called "the blessed" or "Seleigh" (in Scots Gaelic spelled "seelie").

On the other side are the "court of darkness",  the "winter court", or "court of death", "court of the moon" "the court of chaos". They are also called the "the forsaken" (or the un-blessed), or the "Unseleigh".

Just because they are called life and death, or light and dark however, don't presume that that means they are "good and bad".

In the legends, the fae breed and age very slowly. They cannot replace their numbers lost with new as we can. They have magic and we do not, but our cold iron destroys their magic, and they die at its touch.

As humans our numbers, and our cold iron, drove the fae underhill in the first place; and they are ALL resentful of it. The Sidhe of legend may look fair; but they are not humans, nor do they have our interests at heart. Both light and dark use and abuse us, as well as give us great gifts. Both light and dark trick us or treat us. We are apart from them. However, the light, in general, have more scruple about permanent damage, and undue suffering. They do not generally make war on humanity, while the dark see us as... fair game.

The song relies on multiple meanings in pronunciation, for its title and part of its meaning. Literally, the title as "Si' Beag, Si' Mhor", would mean "Little Hill, Big Hill"; but because of the multiple meanings, cultural context, and shadings of pronunciation it can also be rendered as "Sidhe Beathe and Sidhe Mhorgh".

Beathe means "life". Mhorgh or Mhoragh (and again, the spelling here is impossible to transliterate) can mean several things including: spirtual darkness, wickedness, chaos, or temptation; "mean woman", "evil woman"; or a "woman of strife" "woman of war" or "woman of chaos" (one side of the battle are ruled by an "evil" queen).
A revelatory aside: Morag is also a traditional womans name in Scotland; and yes, it retains the original meaning(s). Tells you a lot about the Scots eh?
In this case, the title refers to the two courts of the fae, at war with each other.

The courts are at war for many reasons; but this battle in particular is about the status of the world outside of underhill, in particular over an oak grove.

In legends, there are magical oak groves, that can act as a font of power, or a focal point for forming a new realm underhill, and a foucs and source of power for the lesser fae to sustain their magic.

In the legend, the light court want the grove to remain as it is, unused. The dark court wish to take it for themselves, and create a new stronghold and bind lesser fae to it, which would increase their power, and better their position in the war.

The courts gathered at moonrise, high and low, light and dark. Some say they fought for three days, some just one; the light court faltering in the moonlight, and the dark faltering in the sun.

At dawn on the third day (or perhaps just at dawn), the light court drove the dark court from the field; the grove spared, but scarred, unusable for centuries; many dead from both courts on the ground.

The song, is the lament of the Seliegh bard, as they gather up their dead and wounded. He knows the Sidhe are dying out, and cannot last forever; that in fact this battle killed many more of their number than would have otherwise died in centuries... but he cannot weep for it with great passion. He is so old, and has seen so much, that he can only feel a kind of gentle melancholy, as they die.

I don't know about you, but knowing whats behind the song, changes it completely. It has a different depth, and feeling for me than had I not known.

Oh, and if you notice the similarity between this piece, and "Ashokan Farewell" (the theme from Ken Burns "civil war"), that is deliberate.

Traditional American folk music is largely Scots and Irish folk music (mostly harp, fiddle, pipe, and whistle) transposed to the fiddle, banjo, and guitar.

The composer of "Ashokan Farewell", Jay Ungar, wanted to compose a traditional American folk song, in waltz meter, in the style of a traditional Scottish lament; and certainly could not help but have been influenced by O'Carolan (as several of his pieces have been).