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The Dream of the Rood (2018)

Instrumentation: SATB with divisi
Duration: ca. 12'
Text: Anonymous Middle English
Premiere Date: March 30, 2018, Baltimore, MD

Program Note

The epic poem The Dream of the Rood is the earliest extant instance of Old English, appearing in a 10th- century manuscript now located in Vercelli, Italy. An earlier instance of the text, however appears on the Ruthwell cross, a stone cross from the 8th century located in Ruthwell, Scotland. Upon the cross is carved four runic passages which are excerpts from this narrative, written in an epic style similar to Beowulf and other Old English narrative poems. The four movements of the present work correspond to these four passages carved into the Ruthwell cross. The passages relate portions of the Biblical Passion narrative, taking the point of view of the cross itself, and utilizing metaphors which reveal the unique perspective of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture from which the poem emerged.

The first movement, centered on the pitch E, begins each of its gestures with an accented rest, referencing the rhetorical imperative of the Old English word hwæt, a non-translatable word that served as an “upbeat” to the beginning of an epic narrative (and which begins the epic narrative of the dream in its full version). The second movement tells of the raising of the Rood, featuring rising lines which ultimately collapse into a G-minor triad. The third, and longest, movement, Crist wæs on rode, tells of Jesus’ suffering upon the cross. It features soprano lines that “hang” over the barline, providing symbolism as well as metric impetus. This syncopation continues until it infects all the parts, gradually building into various canons and points of imitations, until it settles, ill at ease, into octave B-flats. The final movement is a lament, as for a warrior fallen in battle, centered around C-sharp, and finally echoing the first movement’s gestures as the last inscription ends.

The Dream of the Rood was premiered by the Choir of St. David’s on March 30, Good Friday, 2018.

— Douglas Buchanan


The Dream of the Rood - Movement 1


The Dream of the Rood - Movement 2


The Dream of the Rood - Movement 3


The Dream of the Rood - Movement 4



The Dream of the Rood
The Choir of St. David's, under the direction of the composer, performs Douglas Buchanan's setting of the Old English poem "The Dream of the Rood," March 30, 2018, Baltimore, Maryland.


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