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 – Three Shanties

Time for another set of bonus features!

For “Drunken Sailor“, you can’t go wrong with the Irish Rovers.

Boney Was a Warrior

Here’s a traditional-sounding version of good old Boney.  I love their outfits!

And this one rocks!

Johnny Come Down to Hilo
This is a good place to note that there are some variations in the lyrics, as is common with folk music.  One version in particular was no big deal in its day, but certainly would not be acceptable today (“N” word).  Don’t worry, I haven’t linked that one here 🙂

I love the lead singer’s voice!

Maybe not the prettiest version, but they sure are having fun!  And isn’t that the point of music?

Three Shanties – Malcolm Arnold

And now for something completely different!  I want to introduce you to one of my favorite small ensembles – the woodwind quintet (or, wind quintet).  This chamber ensemble consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn.  Isn’t the French horn a brass instrument, you ask?  It is.  So why is it in a woodwind quintet?  Well, the joke I heard is that one day the horn player took a wrong turn into a woodwind quartet instead of the brass quintet, liked what he heard, and decided to stay a while. But seriously, some of the earliest quintet music is from Anton Reicha in the early 1800s.  

The woodwind quintet (or wind quintet) has a very unique sound.  Brass and strings have a very homogenous sound within their respective sections.  There are certainly tonal differences between a trumpet and tuba, for instance, but but they both undoubtedly belong to the brass family.  However, on the woodwind side, a flute sounds very different from a clarinet, which sounds very different from an oboe, and so forth.  This provides some intriguing tone colors throughout the group.

So, combine an unusual-sounding group with one of my favorite composers, Sir Malcolm Arnold, and you get a crazy fun piece.  Composed in 1943, it consists of three movements, each one paying homage to a different sea shanty.  First up is  “What Should We Do With a Drunken Sailor?”  This is probably the most familiar tune of the three pieces.  The second movement is “Boney Was a Warrior”, followed by “Johnny Come Down to Hilo” for the third movement.

On to the piece!

Movement I – Allegro con brio (“fast, with spirit”, 0:00-2:21)
I think everyone’s heard this tune sometime in their life (everyone sing along with me! ♪♫♪)

What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
Early in the morning

Then the ditty goes on to explain all the things that can be done to this sailor.  Rather entertaining, and I’m willing to bet there have been many… unique… verses added to this throughout the years.

Malcolm Arnold loves to play around with melodies, taking bits and pieces and manipulating them so they’re not always recognizable.  We get a few instances of hearing the complete theme in this movement, such as in the flute at the beginning, but he interjects a lot of other material as well.  Sometimes you hear just the first few repeated notes of the tune (“what should we do with a”, 0:14), sometimes you hear snippets of “early in the morning” (0:58, bassoon, then clarinet).  Now and then it’s just the rhythm of the theme that links it all together (0:32).

He uses a lot of downward arpeggios in the movement as well, which I consider to be a motif in the piece. Arpeggios are basically chords that are played one note at a time, instead of all at once.  The first one happens at 0:18 in the clarinet.  While we’re here, listen to the horn’s accented notes underneath the clarinet arpeggio.  Does it sound a bit different? More nasal?  He’s using a technique called “stopped” horn.  A French hornist plays with his right hand slightly in the instrument’s bell. When he “stops” the horn, he inserts his hand further into the bell, which manipulates the tone quality of the instrument. You can hear more of this around 0:47.

At 0:24, he introduces a new motif, an up and down motion in the flute, clarinet and bassoon.  It sounds a bit like the waves of the sea (or perhaps the the uneasiness of the drunk sailor’s legs?).  He breaks it up with a rhythmic nod to the melody (0:32) and the arpeggio motif (0:35).  The waves get more agitated at 0:48 in the clarinet and bassoon, accompanied by some intentionally nasty sounding notes from the rest of the group.  Things settle down a bit as the piece transitions into new territory.  During this transition, the horn displays another technique: muting.  Muting uses a conical piece of material, usually made out of wood and cardboard, sometimes metal, that gets inserted into the bell.  The result is a less strident tone than is produced from stopping, but it still has an edge to it.  While you’re listening to the horn, try to identify when it plays a bit of the melody at 1:07 and 1:10.  It should sound like the “-en sail-or” part of the tune.

I love the section at 1:15 – to me it sounds very “sailors roughing it on the seas”, though I don’t know that I can explain exactly why that is.  Then there’s the deliciously brash clarinet line at 1:23 that leads into some great dissonance with the flute and oboe, with the horn “falls” answering to that.  Things do quiet down with a few steps leading into…

a tango?  I’m entertained by the thought of a boozy sailor trying to dance with someone.  Or something.  The bassoon plays the familiar tango bass line, with the flute, clarinet and horn playing smooth, repeated notes (the “what shall we do with a” part of the main tune).  The oboe adds some comments, followed by a lyrical flute line.  The tango doesn’t last for long, though, and we’re back to the quick pace of the initial melody.  I love the clash that happens when the tune reaches “morn-ing”!  We finish up the melody with more arpeggios and a closing statement from the group.

Movement II – Allegretto semplice (“moderately fast, simply”, 2:24-3:59)

Boney was a warrior,Way, hay, yah,
Oh Boney was a warrior,
John Francois

This is the most straightforward movement out of the three.  It begins with a lovely muted horn solo, with only long, sustained tones from some of the other instruments as accompaniment.  Listen for the flute melody right after the horn’s line, she’s playing in the lower register of the flute.  We haven’t really heard that yet in any of the pieces I’ve talked about.  I love the sound of those lower notes on flute.  We don’t always get to hear them, but they can be very effective.

Each instrument gets a chance at the melody in this movement.  While the accompaniment is mostly long notes, every now and then there’s some movement.  The bassoon has a nice descending line into its turn at the tune (2:53), and the flute answers with a descending countermelody of her own (2:58).  At 3:10, Arnold changes the character of the descending line a bit with the clarinet and bassoon playing the notes shorter, not as smooth and long as previous iterations.

After a grand pause at 3:36, the piece ends as it started with the muted horn solo.  What’s interesting is he kind of leaves the horn hanging – the other instruments have dropped out at this point.  It’s the sort of ending that makes the audience wonder, “Is there more?”

Movement III – Allegro vivace (“quite fast”, 4:02-6:47)

Never seen the like since I been born
A great big sailor with his sea boots on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

Hold on to your hats!  Arnold really plays around with the tune in this one.  He interrupts it frequently, having one instrument start the line with another jumping in to finish.  The most extreme example (and my favorite) begins with the oboe at 4:26 – the melody hits all the instruments just one to three notes at a time.  Played well, and in time, the listener can still hear the line of the melody, despite the difference in instruments.  Timing is crucial for that one!

He goes on to create a neat cascading effect from the flute down to the bassoon starting at 4:33 with each instrument starting the melody, though the flute is the only one to get through a complete phrase.  The music plays around a bit with short, rhythmic chords before the flute, oboe and clarinet unite in the “Johnny come down to Hilo” phrase.  The bassoon and horn lead us downward into the next section.

The bassoon and horn get into a groovy little accompaniment, but settle into a fast waltz with the clarinet as the flute and oboe arrive in a tipsy duet (the songs are about sailors, after all!)  Listen closely starting at 5:14 – after a descending line by the bassoon and horn, they go into a 5/8 pattern (remember 5/8 from Armenian Dances?) It doesn’t last long, but it’s there.  The clarinet and oboe get in on it with some wonderfully clashing notes before we get a clearer shot of the tune starting with flute and clarinet.  That doesn’t last long, either, before we get into another waltzy section.

We get into such a fun part at 5:44!  The bassoon, horn and clarinet set up a great rhythm, then the flute just takes off in a neat reworking of the melody.  There’s a great smear of sound from everyone else as they join in the festivities, with the horn whooping it up throughout.  After the party, the piece settles back into “normal”, though Arnold continues to play around with the tune and rhythms and gives us another cascade at 6:20.  This is followed by a dissonant “horn call” type of line with the clarinet and oboe.  He finally settles us down with a descending line into a hold, then a pause.  We finish with a fun little ending that’s very characteristic of Malcolm Arnold.

Now that we’re back on dry land, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to both the wind quintet and Malcolm Arnold!  I’ll probably be doing a “Bonus Features” post sometime soon, as I came across some fun videos while researching this post.

Bonus Features – Armenian Dances

As I was researching for my previous post, I came across quite a few videos of different versions of the folk songs used in Armenian Dances.  I had fun listening to so many different arrangements, so I thought I’d share some of them with you.  I hope you enjoy them, too!

The Apricot Tree (Tsirani Tsar)
I must say, I had never heard of a duduk until writing about this piece.  Quite a fascinating instrument!  Here’s a version of Tsirani Tsar for duduk, violin, and piano.

And here is an arrangement for soprano voice and piano

The Partridge’s Song (Kagavik)
Here’s one with violin and piano

This is one for string quartet (performed by the Komitas Quartet).  I really like this one!

This one is a bit of a mindbender – he turns it into a rather jazzy version and really plays with the melody.  It’s fun!

Hoy, My Nazan
Here’s a vocal version of the song.  You might notice this one feels more “balanced” than in the band arrangement.  That’s because it’s in 6/8 time instead of 5/8.  So you feel two strong pulses of three quick beats each (1-2-3-4-5-6 instead of the 1-2-3-4-5 that Reed used.)

Back to the Komitas Quartet for their rendition

I like this one, too – it’s for a choir

Alagyaz
Here’s a lovely vocal version of Alagyaz

And here’s a rather haunting duduk solo

Go, Go!
Sadly, I couldn’t find anything for this one.  It’s a shame, as I would have loved to hear some other takes on it.  If anyone happens across something, please let me know!

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!