Beowulf is an Old English epic probably composed around 700 A.D., yet the story itself takes place earlier, perhaps as far back as 500 A.D. The poem relates events that occurred in what is now Denmark and Sweden. At the core of the tale are three confrontations where Beowulf (a hero of the Geats) battles three different monsters: first Grendel, who has been attacking a mead hall in Denmark called Heorot; then Grendel's mother; and later an unnamed dragon who ends up fatally wounding him. But there are also three funerals in the story. These funerals are paired with the three confrontations and become structurally significant points in the story. The text of tonight’s piece was taken from the first of these funerals, the burial of Scyld Scefing, king of Danes. Scyld was a great soldier and an even greater leader to his people. His glory and importance are shown by a grand funeral: a burial at sea with many weapons and treasures. In the poem, the poet introduces the concepts of a heroic society through Scyld. The possessions buried with him are elaborately described to emphasize the importance of the dead king. Some listeners may wonder at the less than funereal tone of the music. With the possible exception of Brahms' 'German Requiem,' in which one hears not only the dour severity of Luther but also, and perhaps even more so, the ancient echoes of the Germanic pagans, the tragic burial service is mostly a modern, Christian notion. The Vikings thought of life as a journey towards a heaven where warfare was constant, where heroes fought daily battles and then drank and ate themselves into a stupor (in Valhalla's mead hall) only to recommence the same cycle the next day: I believe it was the only warring paradise that history records. So the funeral of a great soldier, one that has fallen in battle, was never tragic or sad in the post-renaissance sense. I tried to tell the story from the point of view of a scop (a poet in Anglo-Saxon society) who is detached from the action but who nevertheless is "of" the scene. The imagery is quite moving: a long goodbye to a great hero. The people are sad, they mourn their loss but they also rejoice in his life and in the certainty that he is off to the land of his forefathers. The anvils at the beginning are meant to symbolize the warriors striking their blades against their shields; the sound world, metal for men, wood for women, seemed natural to me. And so the music is meant to illuminate one possible "vista", one window into the story. I didn't want to evoke a nineteen century sense of heightened tragedy, because even though there is longing in the text, I feel it is of a more bucolic nature.

Ezequiel Viñao

© 2009 TLØN EDITIONS Music Publishers.


Beowulf: Scyld’s Burial

for SATB and percussion quartet  (2009)