The imaginary musical trill of the blackbird filled the Harty Room on Sunday. Not the bird itself but rather the beautiful sound of the flute played so well by Sabrina Hu, accompanied by her husband Cathal Breslin on piano. They were performing a new work by Belfast composer Philip Hammond, entitled ‘An Londubh’, the Irish word for blackbird. It was part of the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and was staged by the Belfast Music Society as part of their Northern Lights Mini-Fest.
Cathal had the score stored on his iPad and using it with wifi technology was able to flick effortlessly from one page to the next. There was an interesting contrast with a similarly named piece (‘Le Merle Noir’ by Messiaen) which Cathal and Sabrina played first. Philip Hammond explained that his composition was intended as a companion piece for the 20thC Frenchman’s work. But his starting point was very different.
Hammond explained to the audience that rather than the real birdsong, he created a fanciful play between flute and piano , with what he thought a blackbird might sing, if it was so inclined. The main origin of the piece is an ancient Irish air, arranged by Edward Bunting. It was published in the third volume of such arrangements in 1840. He has included it note for note at the end of the work, a fusion that works well. By coincidence I am watching an interview on BBC1 Northern Ireland in which the composer and cellist Neil Martin (who wrote music for Carlo Gébler’s Belfast by Moonlight) explained to Marie Louise Muir how he also had been influenced by Bunting.
The other influencing factor for Hammond comes in the shape of a poem, written by Dr William Drennan, the United Irishman and friend of Bunting. Drennan wrote it in the grounds of Cabin Hill, near Stormont, when his sister lived there. There is a spot in the grounds called the Drennan stone where he is believed to have rested to seek inspiration. Hammond is also a former music teacher at Cabin Hill, when the house was the preparatory department for Campbell College.