Vaughan Williams set Synge's text essentially intact, with only a small number of changes. Whilst the vocal score had been in print since 1936, the full orchestral score was not published until 1973. The work is generally regarded as Vaughan Williams's most successful opera, although the composer Edmund Rubbra has characterized this work as less an opera than a "spoken drama raised in emotional power and expressiveness to the nth degree". Hugh Ottaway and Michael Kennedy have each commented on musical connections between the opera and Vaughan Williams' later Symphony No. 6. Caireann Shannon has noted that Vaughan Williams deliberately avoided use of folksong in the music, and instead relied on the rhythms inherent in Synge's text for the composition.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast,|
1 December 1937
(Conductor: - )
At the start of the opera, her daughters Nora and Cathleen receive word that a body that may be their brother Michael, Maurya's fifth son, has washed up on shore in Donegal, far to the north. The sixth and last son, Bartley, is planning to go to Galway fair to sell horses. Maurya is fearful of the sea winds and pleas with Bartley to stay. But Bartley insists on going and will ride "on the red mare with the grey pony behind him". Maurya predicts that by nightfall she will have no living sons, and her daughters chide her for sending Bartley off with an ill word. Maurya goes after Bartley to bless his voyage. Nora and Cathleen receive clothing from the drowned corpse that confirms it as their brother. Maurya returns home, claiming to have seen the ghost of Michael riding behind Bartley and begins lamenting the loss of the men in her family to the sea. Nora then sees villagers carrying a load, which turns out to be the corpse of Bartley, who has fallen off his horse into the sea and drowned. The opera closes with Maurya's lament:
They are all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me.