Pagan Festivals, composed in 2004, takes us back to the days of the Celts in pre-Christian Europe and commemorates four of the major holidays of the Druidic religion of the time. The work is written for a community or level 4 to 5 school string ensemble and can be played almost entirely in first and third positions.
Lughnasadh (pronounced LOO-nuh-suth) celebrates the first harvest and generally was held on or around 31 July. The holiday’s name literally refers to the funeral games of Lugh, the Celtic sun god, and is something of a bittersweet celebration. On the one hand, there are celebratory dances to commemorate the harvest, but on the other sadness because of the shortening of the days — harbingers of the coming death of nature and onset of winter. The movement begins with the celebrants journeying to the fair through a dense morning fog before arriving at a clearing where the festivities will be enjoined. The music, in symmetrical A-B-A structure, evokes both the joy of the harvest and the dread of a cold, dark winter ahead.
Imbolc (pronounced IM-uhlg), commemorated on 21 March, is also referred to as the “Festival of Lactating Sheep” and the “Festival of the Maiden.” Imbolc was a festival that celebrated the rebirth of nature, and during the ceremony seeds and agricultural tools were blessed and consecrated. Modern-day celebrants of the festival traditionally make brideo’gas (dolls of wheat or corn stalks) which are placed in baskets with flower beddings. It is a time of feasting and joy, a time of traditional “spring cleaning” when all things old are swept from cottages to make room for the new. The movement is a theme and variations, utilizing as its motif “Pagan Celebration” by British violinist and composer Sue Aston.
Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) is perhaps the best known and most extensively celebrated pagan holiday in the modern world (known by most today as Halloween and celebrated on 31 October). In Celtic lore, Samhain marked the new year which began on 1 November, and it was believed that on Samhain eve (Halloween) a door was opened between the world of the living and that of the dead. Spirits of the dead on that evening could once again roam the earth, and the living relatives often would put out food to nourish their ancestors on their journey. The wee folk too were believed to become very active on this hallowed evening and frequently would work mischief against mortals. Before Rome outlawed the practice, huge bonfires would be built (often in the shape of a large wicker man) and humans would be sacrificed in them as they were set alight. (Hence the derivation of bonfires from the more literal “bone-fires.”) The music conjures up the dread of the evening on which the year comes to a close, the dead rise to roam the countryside, and pixies flit about to taunt those unaware.
Beltane (pronounced BELL-tain) was the most festive of all pagan holidays and later became our modern May Day. It commemorated the onset of summer and was a holiday full of ebullience. In ancient times it also was a festival of uninhibited sexual license to exemplify fertility. The dressing of the maypole — a conspicuous phallic symbol portraying fecundity — likewise was part of the celebration. During the festival, young maidens would weave flowers in their hair, and feasts and dancing were the common fare. The music of “Beltane” is designed to capture this festive mood and incorporates two ancient English folk songs, “Meri it is while sumer ilast” and “Sumer is icumen in,” which, like the flowers in a lovely maiden’s hair, are eventually woven together for a joyous finale.
Review scores are available on request by writing to the composer. Performance time is approximately 24 minutes. Computer-generated mp3s of the movements may be found below (copyright © 2004 by John Craton).
Imbolc (Variations on a Theme by Sue Aston) [mp3]
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