Dynamic Motion and the Five Encores

It Isn't It/ Scherzo


Sinister Resonance

Three Irish Legends

Three Irish Legends (1922)*

Three Irish Legends consists of The Tides of Manaunaun, Hero Sun and The Voice of LirThe Tides of Manaunaun was first written in 1917 as a musical prelude to the opera, The Building of Bamba.  Performed at the theosophist colony of Halcyon, the opera's mythological subject matter included various stories of Irish mythology.  Although only a prelude to the opera, Tides got favorable press, "Of this group, the most remarkable is the prelude, The Tides of Manaunaun, a tone picture of primeval chaos..." 1  In 1940, Cowell arranged The Tides of Manaunaun for piano and orchestra as part of a set called Four Irish Tales.  Cowell was in prison at the time, but Leopold Stokowski had taken an interest in him and asked him to arrange some pieces for a performance with the All-American Youth Orchestra.  Stokowski "toned down the Irish atmosphere" by changing some of the names.  Tides was renamed Deep Tides and the set was renamed, Tales of Our Countryside. 2

In November of 1920, Cowell wrote The Voice of Lir and dedicated it to Edna L. Smith, a woman Cowell was engaged to in 1920-21. 3   In April of 1922, Ms. Smith and her sister were in a tragic accident. While they had stopped their car over railroad tracks to pick wildflowers, a train sped by with no warning, and killed both of them. 4

The Hero Sun was finished in 1922 and dedicated to Samuel S. Seward, Jr., a professor of English at Stanford.  A close friend of Cowell's, Seward helped Cowell compile his book, New Musical Resources.

In Three Irish Legends, Cowell uses tone clusters to portray specific programmatic features.  Cowell retells these stories at the beginning of the score, providing fantastic imagery for the performer.  I have yet to find an audience that does not cite these pieces among their favorites, and special care must be taken to bring out all of the musical and programmatic elements in them.

The Tides of Manaunaun
"Manaunaun was the god of motion, and long before the creation, he sent forth tremendous tides, which swept to and fro through the universe, and rhythmically moved the particles and materials of which the gods were later to make the suns and worlds." 5

In Irish folklore, Manaunaun was one of the most powerful gods and a member of the group called the Tuatha Dé Danann, or the Irish divine race. 6 Lir is also a  member of this group, and often cited as Manaunaun’s father.  The name Manaunaun is sometimes written as “Manaunaun mac Lir” which denotes this lineage. Looking to other folklore traditions such as those of Welsh or British mythology, one may find different spellings of Manaunaun including “Manawyddan,” “Manawydan mac Llyr” and even “Bran ab Llyr,” among others. Also interesting is the fact that Angus Og, the subject of Cowell’s piece, The Trumpet of Angus Og, is a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann as well.

Performance Suggestions
The tempo reads, Largo, with rhythm.  In my humble opinion, a story about  “tremendous tides” meant “to create the suns and worlds” justifies a particularly slow tempo.  Aim for something almost painfully slow, such as one quarter of a quarter note triplet equal to 60.

The triplet rhythm starting in m. 7 can be difficult.  It is easiest to divide the opening half notes in sets of twos or fours, but because of the triplet figures entering in m. 7, try dividing the half notes into three: either quarter note triplets or groups of six. 

The opening clusters, marked pp, are best controlled with an open palm or by using both hands and switching to one hand when the upper voice enters.

The top chord in m. 18 is difficult to reach with the LH cluster.  Try leaving off the bottom F of the RH chord.

The arpeggiated clusters starting in m. 24 should be rolled slowly as notated.  However, there is little direction as to when the top of the chord should arrive.  I like to roll the chord before the beat and arrive with the attack of the RH chords. (AUDIO)  To hear the opposite (i.e., the LH chords arriving after the RH), listen to Sorrel Hays' 1977 recording of this piece.  See arpeggiated chords for more suggestions.

At such a slow tempo, it is not easy to maintain the gradual crescendo and diminuendo throughout the piece.  Although you will want to start as softly as possible, risk starting just a little louder so you can have control over the opening clusters.

The ffff in m. 24 is problematic.  It is much easier to play mm. 22-23 ffff with the ascending forearm clusters in the LH.  Remember that much of Cowell's cluster music is as much a visual experience as an audio experience.  Do your best to make m. 24 the dynamic high point,  but do not worry if it doesn't quite get there.  Perhaps bring the dynamic down just a little in m. 23 before you start the cresc. e rit and really drop into that RH chord in m. 24.

Although there is a dim. molto in m. 25, do not lose all of your volume.  You have a long way to go!  Also be sure to use the ritardandos to give the audience a sense of the tides descending back from where they came.  Be patient and practice with subdivisions so that the end is almost too much for the audience to bear.

The Hero Sun
"The Gods created all the suns and sent them out into space.  But these suns, instead of lighting the universe, congregated closely together, enjoying each other's society, and the universe was in darkness.  Then one of the gods told the suns of a place where people were living in misery on account of the lack of light, and a strong young sun rose and hurled himself out into the darkness, until he came to this place, which was our earth; and the Hero Sun who sacrificed the companionship of the other suns to light the earth is our Sun." 7

There are numerous mythological tales that deal with heroes and suns.  I found no story that matches Cowell’s “Hero Sun” precisely, but there is a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann named Lug, or Lugh,  who bears some similarities to Cowell’s “Hero Sun.”  Lug means “light” or “lightness” and is referenced as a “sun god” in many sources. 8 Another name given to him was “Lugh of the Long Hand,”  as he was able to hurl spears and swords a great distance.  This perhaps relates to Cowell’s line, “a strong young sun rose and hurled himself out into the darkness.” 9

Performance Suggestions
For this piece, measure numbers always refer to the LH.

The opening consists of disappearing chords.  Essentially, after you depress the chord in m. 1, you take away the notes of the chord one by one.  Sink into the chords, making them as resonant as possible so that the effect is clear. (AUDIO)

The rhythm of the "sun" sections, first heard in m. 4, is odd, but Cowell notates phrases clearly. Anything you can do to give the audience something to grasp will help.  Adhere to these phrases and arrive at downbeats. Also, take note of the differing dynamics for right and left hands in m. 10 and 18 (and also when they come back on the second page).  Give the LH a little accent in addition to its ff so the chord carries through the next measure and disappearing chord.

Be sure to check the "Explanation of Symbols" at the front of the edition to clarify what notes are needed in the clusters. Cowell states that,

This applies to all of the clusters in the Largo sections.  For the "sun" sections he writes, "A sharp or flat above or below such a symbol indicates that only the black keys between the outer limits are to be played...the symbol (pic) stands for (pic)."10

Cowell uses released clusters in mm. 21-2, 24-5, 39-40 and 42-44. Looking at m. 21, the performer plays every note between the octave D-sharp cluster (as notated on staves two and three) and then releases all but the octave notes; in a sense, clearing the darkness a little.

The last "sun" section requires a bit of choreography.  Allow yourself the liberty of Cowell's rit. e cresc in m. 51 (at the end of the penultimate line).  If you practice hands separately, lean your body into the keyboard as if you were playing the forearm clusters as well.  Playing octaves while half of your body is leaning to one side feels much different than sitting upright.  Help your muscle memory by mimicking this in hands-separate practice.

The Voice of Lir
"Lir of the half tongue was the father of the gods, and of the universe.  When he gave the orders for creation, the gods who executed his commands understood but half of what he said, owing to his having only half a tongue; with the result that for everything that has been created there is an unexpressed and concealed counterpart, which is the other half of Lir's plan of creation." 11

As mentioned above, Lir was a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish divine race, and the father of Manaunaun.  The most frequently cited story of Lir is that of “The Children of Lir.”  This is a morality tale discussing four children of Lir who are turned into swans by their jealous step-mother and cursed to remain swans for 900 years. 12

The tale Cowell tells in The Voice of Lir is less prominent in Irish folklore than the tales of Manaunaun for example.  However, there is a fair amount of mention of a half-tongued god, often spelled as Llyr, in sources dealing with the Tuatha, such as Charles Squire’s, The Mythology of Ancient Britain and Ireland.  Squire writes, “His wife is called Iwerydd (Ireland), and he himself is termed Lljrr Llediaith, i.e. ‘Llyr of the Half-Tongue,’ which is supposed to mean that his language could be but imperfectly understood.” 13 Most stories of Lir involve him in some sort of tragedy whether it be his half-tongue, his children, the deaths of various wives, or his outsider status among the Tuatha.  In particular, many stories of Lir relate him to the Leir of British mythology and in turn, Shakespeare’s King Lear, also a tragic figure. 14

Performance Suggestions
Many of the challenging features in Lir are also present in the previous two movements.  For example, similar tempo considerations are needed to tell the story of Lir as in The Tides of Manaunaun.  A performer should be patient with the Largo and subdivide as needed to keep the almost painfully slow tempo.

Also consult the "Explanation of Symbols" for the notation of the clusters. 

Just as in The Hero Sun, The Voice of Lir includes released clusters, in mm. 15-20. (AUDIO)  However, mm. 19-20 are more difficult as Cowell wants an octave cluster, plus a single note an octave above.  Practice playing the top notes positioned over the cluster, but without depressing them (and vice versa).  It is almost impossible to have 100% accuracy on the lower clusters, but you can get close.  The most important thing is to bring out the top pitches.

Give yourself the luxury of the ritardando and Meno mosso in mm. 20-1 so that you can execute the physical passage of alternating chords and full forearm clusters.

Again, be patient with the end.  Stay louder for longer so you have somewhere to go.  Be absolutely consistent with the tempo and don't forget the ritardando in the last two measures!

*There is some discrepancy as to when Cowell wrote these pieces (see chart below). 

  CD/Licht/Hicks a* AMP ed., 1982** Hicks b* Hicks c*
July 1917*** 1912 1912 1911-1912
1922 ----- 1915 -----
Nov 1920 ----- 1919 ca. 1919

*CD refers to Compository Dates that Cowell recorded in his notebook.  "Licht" refers to the detailed catalog of Cowell's works, William Lichtenwanger, The Music of Henry Cowell: A Descriptive Catalog, (Brooklyn, NY: Institute of Studies in American Music Monographs: Number 23).  Hicks a, b, and c, refers to the table listed in Michael Hicks, Henry Cowell, Bohemian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 80. 
**This refers to Henry Cowell, Piano Music: Volume Two (New York: Associated Music Publishers, 1982), 59-65.
***Whereas there is no Compository Date listed for The Tides of Manaunaun,
Lichtenwanger suggests July 1917 as a composition date.


         1. William Lichtenwanger, The Music of Henry Cowell: A Descriptive Catalog, (Brooklyn, NY: Institute of Studies in American Music Monographs: Number 23), 55.  For more information on Cowell's involvement with theosophy see the Bio or Steven Johnson's article, "Henry Cowell, John Varian, and Halcyon, American Music, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1993): 3.

         2. Lichtenwanger, 181-2.

         3. Lichtenwanger, 90.

         7. Cowell, 61.

         11. Cowell, 64.

         12. Lady Gregory, 103-113.

         13. Squire, 16.

         14. Squire, 16.