New Donnacha Dennehy Song Cycle Premieres to Acclaim in Minnesota

New Donnacha Dennehy Song Cycle Premieres to Acclaim in Minnesota

Donnacha Dennehy's song cycle If He Died, What Then is based on a first hand account of the Irish famine of the 1840s, and features Dawn Upshaw as soloist.

Donnacha Dennehy’s new song cycle, If He Died, What Then, was given its premiere earlier this month by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and soprano Dawn Upshaw, led by Stefan Asbury. The cycle uses text drawn from the memoir Annals of the Famine in Ireland by American observer Asenath Nicholson.

Upshaw and Dennehy collaborated previously on the cycle That the Night Come, a setting of poetry by W.B. Yeats. That piece was released alongside Grá agas Bás on a Nonesuch disc last year which was hugely well-received by critics in America and Europe.

Similar warmth has greeted the premiere of Dennehy’s new song cycle. Writing in the Star Tribune, William Randall Beard suggested that ‘The minimalist-inspired orchestral accompaniment was…a profoundly evocative element in the musical storytelling’. Rob Hubbard on described the piece as ‘a work of discomfiting darkness… yet it’s set upon echoing orchestral pulses that keep an emotional distance from the harrowing tale being told. The disconnect seems part of the point of the piece, lending it a complexity that makes it well worth hearing.’

Susannan Schouweiler in Knight Arts stated that ‘The instrumentation is percussive, propulsive, discordant — but never sentimental. Rather, the sounds carry the listener forward, in sympathy with the halting but dogged progress of the man at the story’s center, who walks a seven mile stretch from his home to reach the aid worker and ask for food…the work as a whole is marked by its restraint, by an emotional reserve which, given the stark, human details of its terrible narrative, actually underscores the horror at its center — like the detached, impotent anguish of a fever dream.’

Dennehy’s new piece for Kronos Quartet, One Hundred Goodbyes, will premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York on 28 February.

Published on 28 February 2012

Stephen Graham is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at

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