composer's notes

During 2023 I thought about writing a piece of music based on the story of St Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. My interest centered on the idea of such a figure, a being miraculously capable of banishing evil from the world.  

Preparation;  in September 2023, as an artist in residence at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, I had opportunities to improvise on the Alexandre Pere et Fils pedal organ in the Chapel. While there I also heard the great organs played – far more expertly - in the churches of St Sulpice, St Eustache and St Etienne.  The decision to include the NCH organ in the overture is a direct result.  

St Patrick’s Overture begins with an evocation of the bronze-age horns of the Boyne coupled with a salty theme on strings which heralds Patrick’s arrival as a child slave from the sea. Solo cello and clarinet represent his time as a shepherd. The return of the horns signals Patrick’s second arrival in Ireland, but this time to become bishop-prince and miracle-worker. A new semitone motif initiates a climactic theme which is explored through the rest of the piece.

As Patrick disembarks he hears a nesting bird high above the dunes. He blesses the bird, and is then addressed by a creature of a different hue; the snake, depicted by cor anglais, joined after a while by the bass notes of the orchestra and organ. A discordant confrontation between the Saint and the Snake culminates in a lyrical flowering of Patrick’s theme, before turbulence returns with an extended rhythmic passage representing the exodus of the snakes Patrick is said to have banished. The end of the music contains a suggestion of cathedral bells, although it fades unresolved, leaving fragments of melody hanging in the air.

I am grateful to the National Symphony Orchestra for commissioning the work.

Shaun Davey,

March 2024