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!