The Visions of Merlin

for Orchestra

Dan Welcher

Performing Ensemble: Orchestra
Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

The figure of Merlin, mystical enchanter and teacher of King Arthur (and the two kings of 5th century Britain who preceded him), is well known in legend. As to the actual historical facts about his life, Medieval historians have romanticized him (and Arthur, for that matter) to such an extent that the man we know as Merlin has become a supernatural figure, one who even appears in 20th century science fiction novels by such authors as C.S. Lewis and H. Warner Munn. The contemporary English novelist Mary Stewart, however, has rendered both historical and mythical Merlin into a believable person in her splendid trilogy about his life ("The Crystal Cave"; "The Hollow Hills"; and "The Last Enchantment"), managing to bind the prince, prophet, poet and engineer into one man. It is primarily her work that inspired this piece, although homage must also be paid to the more fanciful works of T.H. White ("The Once and Future King"; and "The Book of Merlin") which add a touch of warm humanity to this sometimes inhuman character.
The work is scored in the form of three ?scenes? drawn from Merlin?s life, connected in a leitmotive fashion: the result is somewhat like an operatic suite, and indeed, this music forms the basis of a projected opera. There are several themes that could thus be ?named,? in the manner that Wagnerian motives represent specific objects, characters or ideals. Merlin himself is the owner of three of these: the four-note rising figure that opens the work (and in expanded forms, creates new themes ? Merlin, remember, was a creative enchanter); a scattering sort of motive of five notes jumping to a sixth represents his ?conjuring? nature; and a theme found in several places in the score at dramatic points where Merlin actually causes things to happen, which I call the ?commanding? theme, found first in muted piano and later in the oboe. Without becoming overly systematic, I might also mention that there is a ?Merlin chord? formed by three pairs of major sixths that is the basis of much of the harmony and linear make-up of the music.

The piece begins with a Prologue, subtitled ?Merlin, the enchanter? which introduces us to Merlin and his world. Trills and excited little flourishes take us through time and reality to a time when enchanting was quite accepted, and enchanters commanded as much fear and respect as kings. We meet also King Ambrosius (in a noble theme played in octaves by trumpets and horns), the first Briton king to attempt uniting the island (King Arthur is usually credited with being the first king of ?United Britain?). The music is fragmentary and undeveloped, and leads to a transitory passage called ?The Sight? in which Merlin?s prophetic powers are displayed in a clarinet cadenza. The first vision thus conjured is ?the Red and White Dragons,? described by several sources of Merlin?s first documented prophecy. It seems that the Saxon king Vortigern had been unsuccessful in constructing his new fortress: the battlements fell as soon as they were erected. His priests told him a ?boy with no father? must be sacrificed to the gods of the place, and found young Merlin in a nearby town. The boy told the King of a pool of water under the place of construction, and led the engineers and priests to it through a cleft in the rock. Astonished to find the boy?s vision true, they were even more amazed when he began the prophecy in a loud voice that there were two dragons at the bottom of the pool, which he commanded them to drain. Struck by his boldness and total lack of fear, they abandoned their plan of sacrifice and did as he told them. The prophecy proved true, and the ensuing battle between the White Dragon (Vortigern?s crest) and the Red Dragon (Ambrosius, half brother to Vortigern) left Vortigern vanquished and the Red Dragon established as ruler. The morning after Merlin?s prophecy, Ambrosius? army landed from France, and in a matter of weeks had destroyed the White Dragon. The music shows the pool of water beneath the battlements, rippling as Merlin throws a stone into it now and then, and ghostly chords of muted brass rise and subside representing Vortigern?s doomed fortress walls. Suddenly Merlin appears (oboe), commanding the draining of the pool. As this is being done, the two dragons become gradually visible beneath the surface, in lower strings, horns and bassoons. Vortigern?s theme is the inversion of Ambrosius? to show their relationship. The dragons become increasingly fierce until a furious battle march takes us out of the prophecy and into reality, and Ambrosius? army quickly wins the battle. A dirge march mourns the dead, and Vortigern?s battlements finally stand firm under the banner of the Red Dragon.

A quick, sunny transition leads to another clarinet cadenza, as Merlin?s fire-gazing induces the second vision: Stonehenge, subtitled ?the giants? dance.? Legend has it that the original monument was in Ireland, and that Merlin moved it to its present location near Salisbury as a monument to Ambrosius. The music depicts the great immovable stones with three unchanging chords, overlapping and touching each other. A trumpet intones a sadly noble theme, and Merlin appears. Commanding the stones to disassemble (oboe again), he watches their fantastic flight. The music reaches a state of frenzy, then is suddenly silent momentarily. All at once, the monument stands again in its new location, catching the glint of the sun, as the trumpet them mourns the death of Ambrosius.

Without ?the Sight? this time, the third vision appears without transition. It is ?the Crystal Cave,? accepted by most Arthurians as Merlin?s final abode. It is a place lined with crystals, dazzling to behold and inducing in the beholder a state of wonder and reverie. This hypnotic place had been Merlin?s introduction to sorcery, as the aged wizard Galapas had instructed him there, and hie knew from the beginning that it would also be his end. A stately theme in three octaves rises in the strings, while the remainder of the orchestra catches the flickering torchlight in the myriad prisms and mirrors of the crystals. The theme, again derived from Merlin?s four-note motive, is that of a wise and warm human, content to rest through history until that time when, so the legend goes, he and Arthur are called to rise again in the hour of his country?s need.

Available on Rental

Scores & Parts

The Visions Of Merlin - Full Score - Study

Additional Information

Composition Date 1980
Duration 21:00
Orchestration 2 2 2 2 - 3 2 0 0; Timp. Perc. Pno.(Cel.) Str.
Premiere 23rd August 1980. Sunriver Music Festival, Lawrence Smith, Music Director.


Prologue: Merlin the Enchanter
Stonehenge: The Giants' Dance
The Red and White Dragons
The Sight, I
The Sight, II
Epilogue: The Crystal Cave