The Relief of Derry Symphony

Composer Shaun Davey on the 'dramatic' closing concert of the City of Culture 2013 year

It's the season of nostalgia and remembrance, of looking back at good times and bad, of not forgetting.

Unforgettable memories come in various forms, of course. And as Derry~Londonderry's tenure as the inaugural UK City of Culture draws to a close, one of the remaining headline events recalls a thrilling experience from 23 years ago.

In 1989, the city commissioned a spectacular composition to commemorate the tercentenary of the Siege of Derry. The 1990 premiere in the Guildhall of Shaun Davey's The Relief of Derry Symphony sent through the hushed audience a visceral ripple of fear and excitement not normally associated with an orchestral concert.

But this was no ordinary concert, rather a huge, dramatic musical narrative experience, involving the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Gearóid Grant, the singer Rita Connolly, uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn, saxophonist Gerard McChrystal, St Mary's Concert Band, the Brittania Brass and Reed Band and members of pipe bands from Derry, Ballymena and Glasgow.

Now, Davey's symphony is to be revived for only the seventh time – or the eighth, if one includes the arrangement for flute bands by Mel Oriss, which was performed in St Columb's Cathedral in August 2013.

This time around, this epic piece – complete with 120-strong massed choir – will be staged in the vastness of the Venue at Ebrington, a space and occasion which have motivated Davey to make some intriguing revisions to his score.

''I gave myself a three-month lead-in,' he explains, 'which has allowed me to write an extra 100 bars and fix the part that never worked in the Second Movement. I thought at the time that it was an exciting idea to place a drummer in the audience, having a dual with the drummers in the orchestra, but the distance between them meant that they could not always keep in time.

'The sequence was not telling the story I wanted to tell. I wanted the music to suggest the truce that was called during the fighting to enable the burial of the dead. This time around, the drummer will come out of the audience and will arrange the truce. Then the pipe band will play a lament for the dead.'

Born and educated in Belfast, Davey studied history of art at Trinity College Dublin and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. A self-taught composer, in the late 1970s he made his first recording, Davey and Morris, with Donal Lunny and other like-minded friends. His first compositions were advertising jingles.

Gradually, he began to develop a style that followed in the footsteps of the great Seán Ó Riada, combining Irish traditional music with the orchestral tradition, often narrative-based and conceived on a large scale. The phenomenally popular The Brendan Voyage followed, in which the uilleann pipes represented the little leather boat of St Brendan as it battled with the towering waves of the Atlantic on his historic voyage to America.

Davey's musical vision reached its peak in the suite he composed for the 11th Special Olympics at Croke Park, Dublin in 2003, performed before an audience of 80,000. An exacting perfectionist when it comes to his own work, he has clearly relished this opportunity to make what he considers necessary improvements to the orchestration of his Derry symphony.

'The rest of the piece will be mainly untouched, just a case of refocusing the lights,' he says. 'Everyone who was there at the time [of the premiere] seems to remember the arrival of the pipers into the Guildhall. The Venue is so generous that we will be able to allow the pipers to enter and progress down the auditorium, without being seen. It should be a dramatic moment.'

Davey is correct in his recollection of that winter night in 1990. Nobody who was seated in the cockpit of the Guildhall chamber will forget the hair-raising sound of the pipe band entering the building, advancing up the stairs and bursting in through the stout wooden doors.

Musically, they represented the Catholic troops of the Earl of Antrim, known as the Redshanks, whose attempts to storm the city walls were defied by the Apprentice Boys. Many of those present recall a claustrophobic, white-knuckle experience, as the skirl of the pipes and the echo of encroaching footsteps grew louder and louder.

'That was exactly the effect I intended,' grins Davey. 'I wanted to suggest encirclement, a feeling of being trapped and surrounded, to create some sense of how people would have felt at the time of the Siege. After 1990, I started doing a large amount of music for theatre, film and television and I now understand much better the need to deliver the story in a narrative work.'

The evening of the performance – December 20 – will divide into two halves, the second of which will be The Relief of Derry Symphony in its entirety and including the song 'The White Horse'. It features the sublime singing of Davey's wife Rita Connolly and resurrects the vision that is said to have hovered over the city during the darkest days of the siege. 

Davey insists that the first half of the concert will be as important as the second, containing what he describes as 'all the best pieces of music I have written in the last 15 years, performed by some of my closest collaborators. They are my Crown Jewels and Derry should have them.

'We'll be starting with 'Newfoundland', which is the finale of The Brendan Voyage. I'd never thought of starting a concert with that piece, but here it will represent the end of an important journey for Derry. It will be followed by a huge anthem, 'May We Never Have to Say Goodbye' from the Special Olympics, the biggest song I ever wrote.

'It and Noel Eccles's massive percussion piece, composed for the Parade of the Nations around Croke Park, are all about international fellowship and fond partings, and the wish that this memory will never end. Then Gerry McChrystal will play some Christmas carols and Liam Ó Maonlaí will sing 'The Parting Glass'. The last piece before the interval will be 'The Deer's Cry', which is one of the most requested of all my compositions.'

The concert will close with a composition from a recent musical adventure in Romania, using the words and thoughts of Romania's national poet Mihai Emenescu. 'It's one of a series of songs written for Rita and reflecting on how precious life is and how beautiful the world is,' adds Davey. 'For me, music is an adventure, particularly if you are working away from your own home place.'

Now in his mid-60s, Davey is becoming increasingly preoccupied with the longevity of his work and his need for it to performed more frequently, both at home and abroad. He explains that The Relief of Derry was composed in the days when music had to be handwritten, whereas in recent years, it is customary for scores to be typeset, which can be a costly process.

'But,' he adds, 'during the past three months, I have organised the typesetting of this score so that it can exist in a more permanently archived state. I have done likewise with other compositions and have also made a new choral arrangement of 'The White Horse', which means it can be performed independently as a stand-alone piece, giving it additional life and relevance. It's all very well composing music, but it has to be performed. It has to be useful.'

And what of The Relief of Derry Symphony? Does he consider it to be useful? 'Back in 1989, Derry asked me for a piece that would not only commemorate the Siege but would involve the whole community. I don't know how successful we were in that respect,' he admits.

'It's easy to pay lip service to the concept, to talk in glib terms about how good we are. But I worked with some very nice local people, like the Brittania Band, for whom I've written a kind of thank you for coming on board 23 years ago, and again now. I try to be a "useful" composer, which means trying to be a composer of music that has relevance to a community, describes a community and is of use to that community.'

And what of himself, Shaun Davey the composer? Does he feel that he has matured since that white-knuckle premiere? Does he go towards this latest production – nothing less than the closing concert of one of the most magical years in Derry's proud history – with his head held high?

'I sometimes think of myself like the Great Gonzo,' Davey jokes. 'The daredevil in The Muppets who wears a crash helmet and is fired from a cannon. He's always doing incredibly dangerous and stupid things. This is a problematic, potentially uncomfortable gig, but there's not a shadow of doubt in my mind that the lightning will strike and it will be amazing.'

The Relief of Derry Symphony takes place in The Venue at Ebrington, Derry~Londonderry on December 20.