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Above the Clouds
Yr Hanes Swynol
A History of Charms

Duration: 12 minutes
Opus: 42
Date: 2003



Yr Hanes Swynol (A History of Charms) is based upon characters and tales from the Mabinogion, the collection of prose stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts. They draw on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, international folktale motifs, and on early medieval historical traditions. And while some details may hark back to older Iron Age traditions, each of these tales is the product of a highly developed Welsh narrative tradition, both oral and written.


The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi) are the most mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection.


Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed) tells of Pryderi's parents and his birth, loss and recovery.


Branwen Ferch Llŷr (Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr) is mostly about Branwen's marriage to the King of Ireland. Pryderi appears but does not play a major part.

Manawydan Fab Llŷr (Manawyddan, son of Llŷr) has Pryderi return home with Manawydan, brother of Branwen. The misfortunes that follow them there.

Math Fab Mathonwy (Math, son of Mathonwy) is mostly about Math and Gwydion, who come into conflict with Pryderi.


In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwydion helps his brother Gilfaethwy rape Goewin, Math's footholder.

To this end he steals Pryderi of Dyfed's pigs, thus forcing Math away to fight a war (Math only
took his feet from his foot-holder's lap to go to battle). Gwydion and Gilfaethwy sneak back to Math's court where Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. When Math hears of this, he turns his nephews into a series of mated pairs of animals; Gwydion becomes a stag for a year, then a sow and finally a wolf. Gilfaethwy becomes a hind deer, a boar and a she-wolf. Each year they produce an offspring which is sent to Math: Hyddwn, Hychddwn and Bleiddwn; after three years Math releases his nephews from their punishment.

In the search for a new foot-holder, who must be a virgin, Math tests Gwydion's sister Arianrhod. The test reveals that Arianrhod is not a virgin, however, when she immediately gives birth to two children after stepping over Math's wand: Dylan Ail Don and an unformed blob.

Dylan is a sea creature who immediately moved into the ocean, but on the other child Arianrhod places three tynged (curses) upon him: the child will never have a name unless she herself names him, he cannot carry weapons unless she arms him (neither of these things does she intend to do), and he cannot marry any human woman. In effect she denies her child three major aspects of humanity, but Gwydion puts his nephew in a box and raises him. When the boy is old enough Gwydion takes him incognito to see Arianrhod, who declares he is a "bright one with a sure hand" or in some versions "fair-haired skillful hand" when she sees him drop a wren with a single stone. Gwydion reveals the child is her son and that she has unknowingly supplied him with a name; from then on he goes by Lleu Llaw Gyffes, "bright one with a sure hand". Arianrhod is similarly tricked into supplying her son with weapons. The third curse proves harder to overcome, so Gwydion and Math use magic to create a wife for Lleu out of flowers, named Blodeuwedd (flower face). Blodeuwedd proves unfaithful and with her lover, Goronwy, attempts to slay Lleu. Lleu does not die but transforms into a wounded eagle, and Gwydion tracks him with the help of a pig and finds him perched on an oak. He calls Lleu down from the tree by singing an englyn known as englyn Gwydion, returns Lleu back to his human form and with the help of Math heals him.

They return to Lleu's estate where Gwydion turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, and Lleu himself kills
Goronwy. Gwydion also appears in the 6th century poem Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees), found in the Book of Taliesin. There he wins a battle against Bendigeidfran by animating an army of trees and guessing Bendigeidfran's name.


Adar Rhiannon is based on a tale from ‘Branwen, Daughter of Llyr’ which tells of the seven men who returned from Ireland carrying the head of Benedigeid Vran which was to be buried under the White Mount (within the Tower of London) in London. The company stopped to rest in Harlech where they were given meat and drink. Shortly there appeared the three Birds of Rhiannon who began to sing their song. The song of the birds heals the sick and wounded and charms the listener into losing all track of time. Furthermore, the birds can at once appear to be a great distance away over the sea whilst still seeming to be close by.

The ‘Company of the Head’ lay in their reverie for a total of seven years and whilst in this semiconscious state they feasted and slept whilst the birds sang. The work is constructed in the style of a nocturne although this is not a romantic but a deeply troubled one. Fragments of dreams come and go whilst the “creatures of the night” drift and scurry by. The birds hover around at all times and come in and out of focus.

Adar Rhiannon was commissioned by Miss Alice Bliss of Atlanta, Georgia, USA in memory of her mother, Evelyn Lee Witherspoon and was first performed by the PM Ensemble at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama on 6th November 2003.


Cad Goddeu is based on a tale from the Book of Taliesin which tells of the “Battle of The Trees” when the sorcerer Gwydion turned a forest into soldiers to fight the forces of Annwn, king of the Underworld, who was pursuing Gwydion’s sister Arianrhod because she had stolen the secret of agriculture and given it to mankind. The battle gives rise to the fortress of Dinas Emrys, the city of higher meaning, where sleep the dragons that protect the Welsh nation.

The fabric of the work is constructed from both melodic and rhythmic cells which are manipulated and juxtaposed to build up an arch structure. Whilst not strictly serial, the work is constructed from note groups which set up patterns of shifting tonalities.

Cad Goddeu was originally commissioned by Ensemble Cymru and was first performed at the National Assembly for Wales on the 11th February 2003.

Yr Hanes Swynol (A History of Charms) was awarded the Tlws y Cerddor (Musicians’ Medal), the premier composition award in Wales, at the 2005 National Eisteddfod “Eryri a’r Cyffiniau”


Flute; Clarinet; Violin; Cello; Piano

Commissioned by

Adar Rhiannon - Miss Alice Bliss
Cad Goddeu - Ensemble Cymru

First performance

Gwydion - unperformed
Adar Rhianon - PM Ensemble, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama - 6th November 2003
Cad Goddeu - Ensemble Cymru, National Assembly for Wales - 11th February 2003

Score & Audio
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