The Glory Tree
For Soprano and Ensemble
(2005) 15 minutes
Commissioned by Kreisler Ensemble and premiered by Natalie Raybould and the ensemble, conducted by Matilda Hofman at the Purcell Room in June 2005.
The Glory Tree is inspired by Shamanic rituals and practices, and uses Old English poems from the 6th-8thCenturies as its text.
I had done quite a bit of work on shamanism at University, and had always thought it would make a good subject for a dramatic song cycle – a Shaman is essentially a tribal witch doctor and a ‘master of the spirits’, whose powers protect the local people from hostile and evil presences around them, which could otherwise cause illness and other things such as a bad harvest.
If a person does fall ill, it is assumed that their body has been possessed by a hostile spirit, and the Shaman must perform rituals to exorcise it: this involves the Shaman going into a deep trance, letting his spirit escape from his body and travelling to either the heavens or the underworld to converse with the Gods and persuade them to let the sick person be freed of the intruding spirit. These trances can last from only a few minutes to as long as three days, and are characterised by an all-consuming and overwhelming ecstasy that is provoked by the ascension to the sky or by the descent to Hell. I found this very inspiring, along with the fact that in Shamanism, the Shaman is often thought to be an equal to the Gods, as his spirit is able to travel up to converse, influence and bargain with the them.
Before a person can become initiated as a shaman, their spirit must travel to the three most important destinations in the spirit world, namely up to the heavens, across the sea, and down to the underworld, and it is these three journeys that the main three movements of the piece are based on. When I was researching shamanism, I came across a book that suggested that shamanic elements could be found in some Anglo Saxon poetry, and although this is debatable it gave me the perfect excuse to use excerpts from poems such as The Dream of the Rood and Judith as my texts, as I loved the magical and otherworldly sound of the language.
The piece is in five continuous movements, with the 1st, 3rdand 5thbeing the journeys to heaven, across the sea, then down to Hell, and the 2ndand 4thsongs use the texts of Rune poems to link the three levels of the world – in the 2nd song, Icy Hail falls from the heavens and turns into water, and in the 4th, a boat travels across the water to reach the land, whereupon the last movement, the descent to hell, begins.
I am very grateful to Dr. Richard Dance of Cambridge University’s Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic Department for generously helping me with the selection, translation and pronunciation of the text.
© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2005
Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle,
Behold! I shall tell the choicest of visions,
hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte,
What I dreamt at midnight,
syðþan reordberend reste wunedon!
When speech-bearers dwelt in rest!
þuhte me þæt ic gesawe syllicre treow
It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree
on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden,
Lifted up aloft with light wound round,
A beacon of brightest wood.
Geseah ic wuldres treow,
I saw the glory tree,
wædum geweorðode, wynnum scinan,
Shine out gaily, sheathed in yellow
gegyred mid golde; gimmas hæfdon
Decorous gold; and gemstones made
bewrigene weorðlice weldes treow.
A bright mail-coat for the tree of the forest.
Hægl byþ hwitust corna;
Hail is the whitest of grains;
hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte,
It whirls down from heavest height,
wealcaþ hit windes scura;
and gusts of wind toss it about;
weorþeþ hit to wætere syððan.
Then it is transformed to water.
Ic werig oft in brimlade bidan sceolde.
I have often suffered on the weary seas.
Nap nihtscua, norþan sniwde,
Night shadows darkened, snow came from the north,
hrim hrusan bond, hægl feol on eorþan,
Frost bound the Earth and hail fell on the ground,
corna caldast. Forþon cnyssað nu
Coldest of corns. And yet the heart’s desires
heortan geþohtas, þæt ic hean streamas,
Incite me now that I myself should go
sealtyþa gelac sylf cunnige;
On towering seas among the salt waves play
Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
And now my spirit twists out of my heart,
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
Across the Whale’s domain, It soars widely,
eorþan sceatas, cymeð eft to me
across the surfaces of the world, and then comes back to me
gifre ond grædig, gielleð anfloga,
With greed and longing, The lone-flier screams,
ofer holma gelagu.
Across the wide expanses of the sea.
Sigel semannum symble biþ on hihte,
The sun is always a source of hope to seafarers,
ðonne hi hine feriaþ ofer fisces beþ,
When they row the sea-steed over the fish’s bath,
oþ hi brimhengest bringeþ to lande.
Until it brings them to land.
“Hwæt druge þu, dreorga?
“What have you done, bloodstained one?
Tohwon dreahtest þu me, eorþan fylnes?
Why did you afflict me, foulness of earth?
Wære þu þe wiste wlonc ond wines sæd;
You were proud of eating and sated with wine;
Þrymful þunedest on ic of þyrsted wæs
You boasted majestically and I craved
Godes lichoman, gæstes drinces.
The body of God, the drink of the spirit.
Gæst ellor hwearf
His spirit departed elsewhere
Under neowelne næs ond ðær genyðerad wæs,
Beneath the deep ground and was there prostrated,
Susle gesæled syððan æfre,
And chained in torment ever after,
Wyrmum bewunden, witum gebunden
Coiled about by snakes, trussed up in tortures
Hearde gehæfted in hellebryne
And cruelly prisoned in hellfire
Æfter hinsiðe. Ne ðearf he hopian no,
After his going hence. Never would he have cause to hope,
Ðystrum forðylmed, þæt he ðonan mote
Engulfed in darkness, that he might ever get out of
Of ðam wyrmsele, ac ðear wunian sceal
That snake infested prison, but there he shall remain
Awa to alder, butan ende forð
For ever to eternity, henceforth without end
In ðam heolstran ham, hyhtwynna leas.
In that murky abode, deprived the joys of hope.
Ac hwæt wilt þu þær on domdæge dryhtne secgan?”
But what will you say on Doomsday to the Lord?”
"It was another soprano, Natalie Raybould, who stole the show at Saturday lunchtime [at the 2007 St. Magnus Festival] performing with the Kreisler Ensemble under Matilda Hofman...The centrepiece was an astonishing tour de force written for her by Cheryl Frances-Hoad and sung entirely in Old English. The Glory Tree had remarkable scoring, stratospheric singing and was performed with shamanic authority, her final scream reverberating through the cloisters."
Keith Bruce, The Herald
Performance history (post-premiere)
June 2007 - The Kreisler Ensemble with Natalie Raybould (soprano) conducted by Matilda Hofman at St. Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, UK as part of the St. Magnus Festival