Irish Tune from County Derry – Percy Grainger

I know St. Patty’s Day has come and gone, but I wanted to talk about this piece anyway. Most people know this tune as “Danny Boy” (or even “Londonderry Air”). While there are certainly some wretched versions out there that make people swear they never want to hear this song again, give this one a chance. I believe it is far and away the most gorgeous rendition of the tune.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961), an Australian composer and pianist, was quite an odd duck – he actually made a list that ranked composers, and put himself at number 9. He had some… interesting… tastes in his personal life, and tried out many new musical ideas. But behind the eccentricity was some great music. He had a love for folk music and traveled around with a phonograph in order to record ordinary people singing the music of their heritage. He focused on English folk songs.

One quirk of Grainger’s that entertains me is that he didn’t bother with using traditional Italian terminology in his music. So instead of crescendo, he used “louden” (or even “louden hugely”). My husband, the French horn player, gets to play “as violently and roughly as possible” in one piece we’re playing for band! (Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away)

Enough chatter – let’s listen to some music!

The piece begins in the low brass and woodwinds, with the melody in the baritone, trombone, French horn 4 (there are usually four separate-but-related horn parts in band music) and alto clarinet.  What’s interesting is that the melody is not the highest voice you hear. Grainger puts the melody in the middle and has harmonic material above it (which happens to sound quite melodic). That’s part of what makes this piece challenging to play – you have to make sure those middle voices don’t get buried during this first section. The cornets join in at 0:23 with more harmonic material, but the melody is still down in the lower voices. I do love the rising line at 0:43.

At 0:51, the melody is still in the middle, but we’ve given it to the entire horn section and most of the trombones. Listen for some juicy harmony from 1:12 to 1:15. We arrive at the climax of this first section at 1:18, then begin to quiet down through the end of the first time through the theme.

We begin the second time through with a flute solo, backed by the clarinets. The oboe joins in at 1:56, another make-it-or-break-it part, as that has a tendency to come out way too powerfully in this delicate section. The oboe in this recording has a nice, smooth entrance. The top clarinet part gets its own tricky line at 2:08-2:09. It’s a soft, but big, leap into the upper register of the instrument – it takes practice to do that without blaring the top note (I’ve spent some time on that myself recently as I’m playing that part for an upcoming concert). The French horn takes over the melody as a solo at 2:11, giving the piece a bit of a woodwind quintet feel. Grainger keeps adding more instruments into the mix as we near 2:36.

Everyone enters again for the final quarter of the piece. Here we’re treated to some wonderfully lush harmonies and a full, rich sound from the band. Listen for the French horns (and maybe even trombone at 2:59) throughout this last section, as they have beautiful countermelodic material. Like that rising line back at 0:43, I absolutely love the high horn line that starts at 3:25. It’s only a few notes, but it helps give the piece a satisfying ending.

Grainger uses close harmonies and suspensions liberally in this piece. I think that’s part of what makes it so gorgeous. When the piece is played well, it gives me goosebumps. The notes generally aren’t all that hard and there’s nothing tricky about the rhythm. Grainger doesn’t even change the key during the piece. But the piece is difficult to play well. Sometimes the “easy” pieces are actually the hardest ones to play.

That’s it for this installment. There won’t be a “bonus features” post for this tune; I plan to go right to the next piece I want to discuss. Those folks who have played Irish Tune in band may be able to guess which piece that is!

Bonus Features – Overture to Candide

This will be a fun bonus post for me!  I get to share more fantastic music from Candide.  One type of musical theater and opera overtures includes snippets of music from the full songs you’ll hear later in the show.  Bernstein employed this technique in the overture to Candide, although he also adds a theme that, to my knowledge, does not appear again in the show. That theme is the initial rippling string and woodwind melody.

It may be beneficial to read a synopsis of the plot of Candide.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  I have popcorn.

1) Here is “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, from the Chicago production I saw a couple years back.  Can you hear what made it into the overture?  It’s very brief, but it’s there.  This song is at the beginning of the show.  It sets up the optimistic philosophical views of Pangloss the tutor.

2) Next up is the music from the “Battle Scene”.  You won’t hear the familiar part right away, but keep listening.  At 1:23, you’ll hear a theme that does double duty in the show.  Pay attention to that horn melody!

3) After that is “Oh, Happy We”.  This one should be fairly obvious, as Bernstein kept this theme intact and it’s featured prominently in the overture.  Remember the horn melody I told to you pay attention to? That’s the first part of this theme, although that setting sounds much harsher due to it being a battle scene. This song entertains me – the disparity between Candide and Cunegonde’s thoughts of what marriage will be like is just too funny!

4)  This might be my favorite song in the whole show (it’s hard to choose!) – “Glitter and Be Gay”.  Cunegonde has agreed to marry Don Fernando, the governor of Buenos Aires.  Of course, this is after she’s been violated by two other men earlier in the show, who then were slain by Candide.  So Cunegonde decides to marry this other dude, and is trying to reconcile her actions with how she had been raised.  Which leads to my favorite line of the song: “If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!”  Listen for the laughter I hinted at in my previous post.

I’m giving you two versions for this song.  First up is by Kristin Chenoweth.  I feel she really embodies the essence of Cunegonde in this performance – remember Cunegonde’s lyrics during “Oh, Happy We”?  If you like this performance, there’s a DVD available of the entire show.

I’m so glad I stumbled upon this next one, and I would love to see the visuals of this performance.  Alas, all we get it audio, but I’m sure it will still entertain.  So how many of you knew that Madeline Kahn could sing?  I also wanted to add this one as her cause of death, ovarian cancer, is very personal to me, having lost both my mother and grandmother to it.  So here’s to all those wonderful ladies!

Before I close, I wanted to share this cool chart I found as I was researching this post.  It provides a nice visual of the themes of the overture and where they appear.  My only quibble is that the Fanfare is also part of “The Best of All Possible Worlds”.

Here’s one more piece from Candide, even though its melody is not present in the overture.  But it’s such a gorgeous piece that I had to include it.  Besides, it’s the last song of the show so it seemed fitting to put it here.  Enjoy “Make Our Garden Grow”:

Salvation Is Created – Pavel Tschesnokoff

We’re back visiting the Russians, this time with Pavel Tschesnokoff (or Chesnokov).  He was a bit older than Shostakovich, living from 1877 to 1944.  You may remember from my post on Festive Overture that there were restrictions on what artists and musicians could do during that time in Russia.  Tschesnokoff also faced those limitations. Sadly, he never heard Salvation Is Created (Spaseniye Sodelal) performed, but it lives on as a staple of the choral (and band) repertoire.  Kansas State University has a teaching unit on this piece that has more information.

The lyrics are simple and short.  The English translation is as follows: “Salvation is created, in midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia.” (source: CPDL.org).

For this piece, I want you to just close your eyes and listen. Don’t even think.  Absorb the sound.  We can talk about theory after you’ve listened to it once.

This piece is not complicated.  But it illustrates that simple can be amazingly beautiful.  There are no “weird” chords, no crazy clashes like in Three Shanties, no funky time signatures.  It was written for a six-part choir, with four male parts and two female parts (soprano, alto, tenor 1, tenor 2, bass 1, bass 2, commonly referred to as SATTBB).

The form of the piece is also straightforward.  A song’s form is like a blueprint or road map.  We map out those sections using letters (A,B,C, etc.) and additional symbols (A’, B”, C’ etc.)  The symbols give information as to whether something has changed.  Salvation Is Created is A-B-coda-A-B-coda’ (a coda is basically a musical “tag” at the end of a piece or section).  Here are the landmarks:

A: Beginning
B: 0:55
coda: 1:34
A: 1:53
B: 2:32
coda’: 3:11

Tschesnokoff has the A sections in B minor, with the B sections in D major.  The first coda ends in B minor, leading us easily back to the A section.  The second coda finishes on a satisfying D major chord.  These two keys are relative keys, meaning that they share a key signature – in this case, two sharps (F sharp and C sharp).

What makes this piece so beautiful?  It’s hard to say.  The long melodic lines certainly play a part, as do the chord progressions.  The change between the end of the A section and the beginning of the B section gives me chills.  When good sopranos sing that D up to the high A, it just soars.

My first introduction to this piece was in band – college, I think.  There are a few minor changes for the band version (i.e. key is in C minor and E-flat major).  However, it’s just as effective with instruments as it is with voices.

Bonus Features – Festive Overture

I had a couple more things to talk about with Festive Overture, but the last post was getting a bit long.  So here’s another “bonus features” post.

First off is our piece as played by a concert band.  Bands frequently play pieces that were originally for orchestra.  An arranger takes the parts and rewrites them for the instruments in the band.  So the violin parts get redistributed to flutes, clarinets and oboes; saxes, bassoons and bass clarinets get the viola and cello parts.  The low brass get more of the string bass parts, etc.

So why do all that?  Because we can 🙂  Why should the orchestras have all the fun?  You could liken it to when rock bands do cover songs.  It’s another way of expressing and hearing the music.  Some arrangements try to be as faithful to the original work as possible.  These arrangements are considered to be “transcriptions”.  The arranger doesn’t add his own voice to the piece outside of some decisions as to what instrument plays which part.  Other times, the arranger manipulates the original – he changes the time signature, modifies the melody, stuff like that.

So here’s a transcription for band by Donald Hunsberger.  The key has been moved down a half step from A to A-flat.  There are practical reasons for changing the key in that different instruments have an easier time with certain keys over others.  So the group you’re writing for can influence which key you use.  Sure, we musicians should be able to play in all keys, but I figure why makes things harder than they need to be?

Do you like one version better than the other?  What differences did you hear in the instruments?  Did you notice when one section of the piece was played by a different instrument than in the orchestral version?

I have one more recording to share.  We’re back to the orchestral version, but listen to how fast they go!  Holy cow!  I came across this one while searching for just the right one to use in my discussion post.  While I admire how well they play, I prefer the slower one.  With tempo, there is often some wiggle room for interpretation.  Composers will sometimes specify a metronome marking (which specifies speed as “beats per minute”).   I tend to see more general terms, such as allegro (fast), maestoso (majestically), etc.

Here’s the warp speed version:

And that wraps up our discussion of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.  I hope you enjoyed it!

Armenian Dances, Part I – Alfred Reed

Next we’ll move into concert band music.  Band music is for wind instruments and percussion.  No strings (except for string bass at times).  Most people’s experience of band is probably listening to their kids’ beginning attempts in 5th or 6th grade or perhaps hearing the high school marching band.  But many of us wind players continue to study hard after high school.  There are many excellent players in bands, and our music can be just as challenging and exciting as that for orchestra.

Armenian Dances is certainly one of my all-time favorites in the band genre.  We just performed it in community band so it’s fresh on my mind. I find myself drawn to a lot of music that has a basis in folk songs.  I don’t fully know why that is, but it’s definitely a pattern with music I like.  So expect to see more of these pieces to find their way into this blog.

Alfred Reed composed this piece for Dr. Harry Begian (who was of Armenian descent*) and his University of Illinois Symphonic Band in the early 1970s. It has become a staple of wind band repertoire.  Anyone who stays involved in band for any length of time probably knows Armenian Dances.  I first encountered it in college and have played it three or four times now.

“Part I” (yes, there’s a “Part II” as well) consists of five sections, each based on a different Armenian folk song.  Komitas Vardapet’s (or Gomidas Vartabed, depending on translation [1869 – 1935]) collection of tunes provides the sources for these songs. Let’s take a listening tour through the sections:

The Apricot Tree (Tsirani Tsar) (0:00-2:18)
The piece begins with a powerful statement by the brass, which flows into a broad, lush melody by the upper instruments (flute, trumpet, etc.) and a countermelody in the French horns.  Despite the slower tempo of the melody, listen for some faster flourishes from the other instruments throughout this section (starting at 0:26, more noticeably after 0:45).  The music continues with lighter scoring (fewer instruments playing), but it still has some tension from the flourish-filled countermelody.  The tension continues to build, most notably around 1:22, as those flourishes build up with different instruments.  Adding to that, the band as a whole gets louder, reaching a peak as the first theme of the piece is restated.

As with Copland from my previous post, Reed doesn’t simply repeat the first theme note-for-note.  For example, there’s a nice trombone echo at 1:31 that wasn’t there the first time.  He also adds more instruments into the flourishes.  The oboe solo (2:04) then starts the transition into “The Partridge’s Song”.

The Partridge’s Song (Kagavik) (2:19-4:03)
The music makes a fairly quick transition into this next section.  It is a simple yet sweet melody which passes around nimbly through the instruments over a steady bass and French horn accompaniment.  For the most part, the melody stays within the woodwinds – clarinets, flutes, oboes, saxes.  The cornet gets a brief chance at the melody, giving the tune a bit of a tonal “color change” before returning to the woodwinds.

Starting around 3:21, the music begins to transition.  More instruments join in, the ensemble gets louder, and the music modulates into a new key (“home base”).  The sound is nice and big here, with the trumpets and flutes on the main melody and the clarinets playing a countermelody.  Listen to the bass voices here – they also get to move along instead of playing an oom-pah type of part that’s often associated with the bottom notes.  As someone who plays a low instrument (bass clarinet), I truly appreciate it when composers add some interest to the bass line!

After a big, full sound for a few measures, the music quiets down, fewer instruments play, and “The Partridge’s Song” comes to a gentle, peaceful end.

Hoy, My Nazan (4:04-6:45)
Now for my favorite section!  As I describe in my cheat sheet, most music has a rhythmic track that falls into groups of four (i.e. rock and pop) or three (i.e. waltzes).  But there’s something different here – listen to the percussion’s lead-in to this section.  The beats are quick, but how many do you count?  If you guessed five, you’re correct.  If you’re having trouble hearing it, that’s okay; try listening to the bassoons once they come in at 4:07 (right after the sax entrance). They have a constant rhythm that should help you hear the five beats.  Once you hear that, listen for how those beats get stressed.  It should sound like 1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4-5 (Reed uses both throughout this section).  But watch out!  A few times he sneaks a measure of 6 in there (it sometimes takes the players by surprise as well!)

The melodic theme of this section begins with an alto sax solo and bassoon bass line.  The oboe and English horn join in shortly after that.  Reed continues to mix and match instruments throughout this bit, building up to the trumpet entrance at 4:47.  The brass introduce a new theme here – it’s short, but it’s a theme nonetheless.  There’s a loud, punctuated statement by the brass, followed by some noodling in the woodwinds.  The call-and-answer gets repeated, then the music dives into tension and chaos before returning to more harmonious waters.  I love that bit of tension.  It’s as if we were getting too comfortable with the odd meter of five; after being shaken for a few measures, five almost feels “normal”.

Reed stays firmly in the 1-2-3-4-5 here.  If you listen to the bass line, you’ll hear the pulse of 1 – – 4 -.  The melody passes through the various instruments some more, with some fun little interjections from other instruments throughout.  For my husband’s sake, I need to give a special shout-out to the French horns for their chance to shine at 5:44!  Then at 6:05, there’s another announcement by the trumpets, different than the one at 4:47, but it again goes into tension and chaos before making a final push into the end of this section.

The section ends with a repeated rhythm that travels down the band, followed by a pause to catch our breath.  This transition is a great example of why musicians should be aware of how they end notes, not just how they begin them.  The overall effect of the transition is diminished if any player holds on to his note when everyone else has cut off.  Reed specifically wrote a break right there; I feel it gives a chance for everyone (players and listeners) to regroup after feeling a little lopsided from trying to dance to five beats per measure.

Alagyaz (6:47-8:33)
Our next section presents another full, beautiful melody, this time in a steady three beats per measure.  It’s a section that makes me want to just close my eyes and let the music wash over me. Listen not only to the melody, but also to the countermelodies and bass lines.  While Reed changes the instrumentation now and then, overall this section stays quite full and lush.

The main melody repeats three times, each time with a different instrument taking the lead.  When the trumpets come in at 7:51, it sounds like they’re going to repeat the melody for a fourth time.  But no – they tease us with a shorter theme, then give us just a little bit more (including an extra beat at the pinnacle of the shorter theme at 8:08-09) before closing this section of the piece.  While the clarinets play their theme starting at 8:25, listen to the scrumptious tension that builds in the descending notes of the bass line.  This gives us an indication that something’s about to happen.

Go, Go! (8:34-11:05)
And we’re off!  This section is just fun.  Fun to play, fun to listen to, just plain fun.  The clarinets start us off with some wild runs, followed by the saxes in a happy little ditty.  The band interjects with some longer, accented notes, but the saxes just go back to “dittying”.  My husband will attest that I just love the brief, running bass line at 8:57.  It’s a nice touch of color when Reed could have kept the basses in their oom-pah pattern.  And it gives a feel of, “Hey, we’re here, too!”  They make a bolder statement at 9:08 after another interjection from the band.

This time when the ditty starts, listen for the euphoniums’ slower melodic line underneath.  The tension builds with that line until it breaks at 9:20.  But then we’re right back down again to build more tension until 9:32, after which the oom-pahs barge in with a wonderfully raucous statement.

We revisit the clarinet doodles, this time sounding in a different key, with a powerful French horn countermelody.  (And let me tell you, that set of clarinet doodles is not easy).  Reed then explores some new thematic material for a bit before a big announcement by the brass.  The full band interjects more accented notes and sets up the final, crazy rush of the piece.  All sorts of stuff is happening here, with some great effects at 10:18 and 10:22.  It’s like there’s a bit of suspension in mid-air, like that moment when a trapeze artist flies between the trapeze and her partner’s grasp.  Everything keeps building up and we feel like we’re coming to the end, until…

… we’re back at the ditty.  Reed revisits this theme one last time, though this time it’s shorter and takes us toward the end.  He repeats a small phrase at 10:47 to get us into that last stretch.  The low voices make a statement, followed by the entire band whooping it up.  The low brass have a descending melodic line, then the woodwinds answer by going back up (helped out by a wicked trill in the French horns).  Everyone comes back together for a powerful ending statement.

And there you have it.  I know this was a long one, but I don’t think I could have done this piece justice in a shorter space.  I’ll try to pick a shorter song for my next post!

* In doing research for this post, I discovered that there’s a region in Armenia named “Lori”.  I had no idea!