Deor is a setting of the Old English poem of the same name, which survives in a single manuscript, the Exeter Book from the late 10th century. The first five stanzas of the poem recount scenes from Germanic history and mythology, all involving misfortunes of one kind or another, and all end with the refrain ‘Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg’, translated by Seamus Heaney as ‘That passed over, this can too.’ The sixth stanza reflects on the first five and suggests that, when in the midst of suffering, ‘A man…may think then that throughout this world the Lord in his wisdom often works change – meting out honour, ongoing fame to many, to others their distress’, and that by seeing his suffering in a wider context he may alleviate it. The seventh and final stanza, however, sheds new and surprising light on the preceding six, and reveals the present suffering of the narrator to be no more than his loss of his job as a court minstrel. In this context the references to mythology come to seem ironic in their grandiosity, and are revealed to be no more than the narrator showing off his repertoire in the hope of finding a new job.
The musical structure follows the poetic structure, and consists of a highly contrasted stanzas followed by repeated (if varied) refrains. The music attempts above all to evoke the archaic nature of the poem, most explicitly in the white-note music of the opening stanza and in the plainsong-like quality of the refrain. At the arrival of the bathetic seventh stanza, a solemn melody played by the bass clarinet is undermined by unpredictable scherzando material on clarinets and violas in an attempt to re-create the irony of the text; this atmosphere of mock-seriousness continues until the music returns to the archaic atmosphere with which it began.
Instrumentation: Baritone, Ensemble (3cl(=3bcl) – hp – 4vla.2db)