Wednesday 12 December 2018

Fionn Mac Cumhaill's musical connection

Accoustics: Mendelssohn, who was amazed by Fingal's Cave in the Inner Hebrides
Accoustics: Mendelssohn, who was amazed by Fingal's Cave in the Inner Hebrides

George Hamilton

The Giant's Causeway - that wonder of the Antrim coast - has an echo across the waters of Malin, the area of the north Atlantic familiar from the shipping forecast. Echo being the operative word, for beyond Islay in the Scottish Hebrides to the west of the Isle of Mull, lies Staffa, a rocky outcrop which boasts a sea cave with the acoustics of a concert hall.

It's known locally as an Uamh Binn, Scots Gaelic that describes the cavern as melodious. It appears an English ear picked up erroneously on the designation and took it that the place was named after Fionn mac Cumhaill, so it was Fingal's Cave.

Basalt columns matching the Giant's Causeway create the extraordinary soundscape that accompanies the ever-present swell.

In an account of an expedition well over 200 years ago, a French geologist noted the effect. Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond describes in A Journey Through England and Scotland to the Hebrides in 1784 (Cambridge University Press) how the volume of water rushing into the cave puts the air inside under tremendous pressure.

When the wave sinks and the air is released, it "rushes out and, in favourable chinks and passages, gives rise to musical sounds as when a trumpet is blown".

At the age of 20, Felix Mendelssohn left his home in Berlin to travel Europe, heading north to begin with. Guiding him on this trip was his close friend Karl Klingemann, a diplomatic representative of the House of Hanover in London.

They had more or less completed their tour of Scotland when they decided to take in the Western Isles. They set off in a small boat in choppy conditions. Klingemann wrote that the composer's relationship with the sea was better "as an artist than as a human being with a stomach"!

Despite his mal de mer, Mendelssohn was completely bowled over by what he saw and heard. He sent a musical snippet home to his older sister, Fanny, who was a pianist and composer too.

"In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my mind there."

This became the opening bars of a piece he called Die Einsame Insel ('The Lonely Island'), subsequently changed to the Hebrides Overture.

The swirl of the descending theme, repeated over and over, calls up an image of the rhythm of the waves, starker surges from the bass line that emerge, reinforcing the impression of a growing swell.

It's not all heavyweight pounding though. There's a calmer, more reflective section, suggesting a break in the weather, sounds evoking seagulls circling overhead.

But the conclusion brings us back to the power of the sea in the cave, the picture painted in the most vivid tones.

It wasn't an easy gestation, and there were several revisions. The composer didn't feel it did the subject justice, with hints "more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls and salted cod".

Some three years in the making, Mendelssohn's piece finally had its première in London in 1832.

The name Fingal's Cave followed, the title added by the publisher when the printed manuscript subsequently came out. Fionn Mac Cumhaill - Fingal - had found his place in music.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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