Ancient Roses

A Ballad

Available in two versions:
Soprano and Harp (or piano) [soprano range: c4 to a-flat 5]
Mezzo Soprano and Harp (or piano) [mezzo range: b-flat 3 to g-flat 5]


Duration: 14'30"

Poetry: William Butler Yeats

Publication: Available for purchase at Subito Music Distribution.

Composer Notes:

The Poetry

The ballad poem that is set to music in this work tells the story of a medieval woman who loves a man in secret. She cannot bear the thought of giving herself to her lover physically; so, in a effort to satisfy his physical desires she deceives him by sending her chambermaid to make love to him in darkness and silence. This arrangement leaves no one fully satisfied.

A year later the lover dies in a riding accident, and the lady drops dead of grief. The chambermaid has them buried side by side, tends their graves, and plants a rose bush on each grave. Many years later, when the chambermaid is dying, she confesses everything to an priest, and he (“a good man”) places her grave next to the lover’s, and plants a rose bush on it. Eventually these three rose bushes intertwine into what appears to be a single bush.

Yeats distanced himself from this story with a parenthetical preface that implies that the story comes from a medieval manuscript, Historia mei Temporis, by Abbé Michel de Bourdeille. However, Yeats’s letters reveal that he fabricated this framing device—no such manuscript exists. Pretending that the story has medieval roots made using a ballad form seem natural—particularly since many traditional ballads tell tragic tales.

The Music

In setting Yeats’s poetry to music, I echoed his medieval framing. The melodies and harmonies use the Dorian mode, and the sonorities use many open fifths, as does much late medieval music.

Yeats also wrote a few poems expressing the feelings of the characters in his story, and I set two of these and inserted them in appropriate places.

Each stanza of the main ballad uses a variation of the same melody. However, I departed from the ballad tradition by freely changing meters and by changing the textures of the harp accompaniment as the ballad progresses. Traditional ballad singing often maintains a relatively neutral emotional tone, but I chose instead to substantially vary the emotional character of the music as the ballad unfolds.