Three Songs From The Unicorns

Soprano and piano (1967/86)

Text: John Heath-Stubbs
1. Lullaby
2. Interrupted Love Song
3. The Ballad of St Brendan

In 1967 Peter Dickinson commissioned an opera libretto from the distinguished poet John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006). The opera was never completed but, in 1980, when he was commissioned to write a work for Elisabeth Söderström and Solna Brass of Sweden, he turned back to the sketches and developed a six-movement suite which was premiered in Stockholm on 31 October 1982 and recorded shortly afterwards. The three vocal movements use songs from the opera and Dickinson made the piano arrangement in 1986, recorded by Marilyn Hill Smith. The story tells of two unicorns discovered in a remote part of Africa. The two countries, Eastland and Westland, want to obtain specimens because of the magical properties of their horns, so they mount rival expeditions. The teams capture one animal each. The Westland technique was to charm a unicorn to sleep through the sound of a young girl singing – this is the Lullaby. Eastland used a dancer who tricked a unicorn into impaling itself on a tree trunk. The Westland singer and the Eastland boy dancer manage to fall in love but they cannot continue to meet because of their separated countries and ideologies – the Interrupted Love Song. But they plan to escape along with the exploited unicorns to an earthly paradise, the legendary Island of St. Brendan - described in The Ballad of St. Brendan.

I. Lullaby

Lullaby, sing lullaby,
Lullaby for a Unicorn.
Come gentle beast with limpid eyes,
Here your peace and pleasure lies.
Lullaby, sing lullaby,
Lullaby for a Unicorn.
Lay your wrathful rage aside,
Mitigate your burning pride.
Lay your dangerous horn to rest,
On the ivory of my breast.
Lullaby, sing lullaby,
Lullaby for a Unicorn.

II. Interrupted love-song

Gladly would I wander
In these woods with you.
Never need we sunder
If wild dreams were true.
Not for us such choice is:
Dreams must fade with day –
I hear other voices
Calling me away.
Dreams are quickly broken
In the light of morn:
I by that same token
Hear the summoning horn.
Farewell. Perhaps we meet again.
Perhaps we meet again. Farewell.

III The Ballad of St Brendan

A thousand years ago and more,
Holy Brendan sailed away,
Launched his boat from the Irish shore,
Through the mist and driving spray.
He sailed far off on the wavering wind,
Where the mackerel and the dolphins play,
Leaving the world of man behind,
By the gannet’s bath and the whale’s way.
At last he came to an unknown land,
Far apart in the distant west,
Where the waves lap gently on the yellow strand
And the crimson sun goes down to his rest.
And there ‘til time runs on to its end
Keeping watch he still remains
The beasts’ friend and the birds’ friend
Guarding them on those happy plains.

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson