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Irish Tune from County Derry

Frederick Fennell | August 2009

    Percy Grainger was an avid and highly successful collector of English folk songs, a summertime pursuit that began at the same time he emerged as a concert pianist and composer at the turn of the 20th century. These song-gathering expeditions would eventually provide the source for many of his compositions, the foremost being Lincolnshire Posy. On the way to that masterpiece, which slumbered within him for over 30 years, he spent considerable energies composing, among numerous other scores, a series of what he called British Folk Music Settings. The series, which eventually totalled 43, was conceived to be sung, played at one or more pianos, or performed by strings, orchestras, or military bands.
    Grainger’s rich, piquant harmonies were cast within a framework of great rhythmic vitality that provided attractive program material for easy listening. Such pieces quickly swept him to a lofty position among the composers of the post World War I period.
    Country Gardens was his most popular composition, but he lived to rue the day he had ever written it, feeling that it had robbed him, in his maturity, of a listening audience for his other equally serious but more personal creations. No matter how he beheld them, these superb instrumental settings are the harmonizations and the orchestrations so many of us have come to know as representative folk songs of rural England. They are undeniably his.
    Percy Grainger served in the U.S. Army from June 9, 1917 to February 6, 1919. His life as a musician at Fort Hamilton, New York must have been one continuous band clinic. Already hailed as one of the world’s great pianists, he was not one to pass up any opportunity to learn. He chose, among other interests, to practice the saxophone in an effort to learn more about that whole family of instruments. He never ceased to praise its beauty of tone and splendid lyric quality, or to register his strong if questionable belief that the whole family of saxophones was superior to that of the clarinet.
    When he transferred to Governor’s Island he began to conduct what he was composing, including the band settings of Irish Tune and Shepherd’s Hey. His continual interest thereafter in writing music for this type of ensemble makes Grainger’s volunteer wartime service a gift to us all.
    Irish Tune from County Derry is credited by Grainger as having been collected by “Miss J. Ross, of New Town, Limavady Co. Derry, Ireland, and published in the Petrie Collection of Ancient Music of Ireland, Dublin 1855.” His setting of it for piano solo was among his first compositions. It is No. 6 in the British Folk Music Settings series and was preceded by an a capella version for mixed voices, which Grieg greatly admired. That was followed by the famous arrangement for strings and horns.
    The military band version is Grainger’s final treatment of Irish Tune and its harmonic content (up half a step from E major) is a literal transcription of the setting for strings. However, his scoring for the military band reveals a concept of instrumental voicing that for band was daring, rich, and varied, in the vein of originality in band music that we admire so much in the two Suites by Gustav Holst (both of which Percy told me he did not know when he wrote this piece in 1918).
    Grainger obviously heard everything. His consummate knowledge of instrumental voicings as they appear in Irish Tune reveals an acute, almost innate awareness of how to bring out the best in all the instruments. From bar one Grainger’s score looks different. He has the tune in the bass clef, and that is the top clef of the three, with the ones for treble harmony and counter cantilena (flowing melody) tucked in the middle. I know of no band music set in this voicing before this piece. Immediately and vividly apparent are the long legato lines, all six of them moving in stately procession along the staves. The tune in these 32 bars is eloquently assembled and exquisitely balanced.
    That this beautiful music came to Grainger from a pure and expressive crucible of Celtic folk art shows his affinity toward almost all of those cultures surrounded by the eastern North Atlantic Ocean and most of the North Sea; his antipathy to things Germanic, save for the music of J.S. Bach, was complete and unchanging.
    The formal construction of Irish Tune may be analyzed in a variety of ways, for example: A-B-A-C (16 bars) D-D-E-A (16 bars), with the essential structure and rhythmic flow clearly relating each phrase and section to the other.
    The melody ranges over an octave and a fifth (I suspect that the low C# is Grainger’s), and is certainly a textbook chapter on how melodies are made. The listener and performer are carefully led through easily heard intervals to appropriate points of repose, then led again by thematic restatement to a midpoint that might itself have been a satisfying conclusion. The whole first half of the melody is neatly encased within the scope of a single octave (D to D). But then [17] the second section moves immediately through an upper F major tetrachord into the tessitura of the baritone voice. These same intervals are restated with insistence, gathering dynamic intensities of their own, until everything spills over into the high A that prepares the final phrases.
    The individual lines and their assignment to instrumental timbres proceed with balanced logic from phrase to phrase with the same clarity that emerges in the opening bar. Even though mixing dark timbres can be dangerous business in these registers of the key of F, Grainger takes no chance that his tune will be buried. The inclusion of trombones assures that the light of the melody will shine through all that surrounding darkness, and all textures that support harmonically are designed to blend.
    Grainger’s masterful counter cantilena, spun out above the beautiful tune, is among his most notable achievements. It fits its parent melody as though conceived simultaneously. To me, this together with the whole harmonization is the quintessence of the Grainger gift to us all.
    With the fulfillment of the first climax of intensities and at the height of the melody [26], he skillfully withdraws from this pileup of heavy sonorities into a quiet release that brings the first section to a perfect conclusion, having led us through one complete musical experience.
    The second statement [33] commences in a contrasting way: the tune, cast in pianissimo plus, is now passed to the soprano line and the whole scheme is elevated; the lucid harmony that supports this voice in the flute is distributed among four other lines assigned to complimentary reeds. Grainger’s classical sense of part writing and the essentially vocal ambience that one finds within it continually lead the music on, to one appealing instrumental entry after another [36-47].
    These instrumental entrances are judiciously selected to increase the harmonic and linear tension that is carefully built and then released in the sonorous F major chord [48], which brings this first section of the second statement to its intense middle cadence. Then come the great singing sonorities of the final phrases and the first employment of all the instruments. Their apex of sound [58], led by screaming horns (forte to the 4th power), is one of the great moments in band music, and Grainger’s sensitive release from this magnificent climax is a withdrawal as carefully planned and as beautifully balanced as was the instrumental buildup that preceded it. The recession from these great sounds to the quiet cadence contains that gift of genius that so frequently elevates his settings of other people’s tunes into a sphere that makes their music become his.

Conducting Changes
    A tempo that works is always the initial responsibility of the conductor. In this case the composer has done everything to provide guides to a proper tempo, beginning with that typical Graingerism: “Flowingly,” and continues with two equally characteristic descriptions: “Very feelingly” and “gently but feelingly,” and there is of course his metronome marking of quarter = 80.
    It should be obvious from all of this that Grainger hoped he might avoid having his interpreters choose a pulse that would find the music wallowing around in a pool of sentimental slush, the players gasping for breath, and those beautifully proportioned lines sagging at every seam. “Dyingly but graspingly” might better describe what is frequently heard rather than what is prescribed. Conductorial maturity regardless of age may be said to have arrived to some degree when one no longer conducts slow music too slowly or fast music beyond its pace.
    Everything plays beautifully at Grainger’s 80 pulses. The casting of these as quarters in 4/4 for military band as opposed to his setting in eighths at 4/4 for the string orchestra version always causes me to pause and think before I conduct one or the other. In either case the initial silent pulse must be definite and inviting. Obviously he is depending on the simple visual flow of quarters to provide the band with a pulse projection that encases his rhythmic needs within a single bar. Average band players and bandmasters in 1918 may not have been secure with eight slow pulses to a measure, and if Grainger’s experiences at Fort Hamilton and Governor’s Island had taught him so, this is probably why this version moves by the quarter note.
    Balances demand careful listening with all lines subjugated to the melody, which must be projected with greatest breath support in full keeping with Grainger’s exhortation to ultimate expression. The five different instrumental sonorities that he has selected [1-16] require careful balance within themselves, that they may blend into a homogeneous sonority.
    I have usually been happiest with the sound when I add more horns and urge the trombones to carry the leading quality, using as many baritones as available, but asking them to let their numbers, in a solidly supported piano, blend with the trombones rather than dominate them. All should play vibrantly, especially the trombones. Note that way back in 1918, Grainger asked the baritone and tenor sax to play with vibrato. All must play with the greatest possible sostenuto, clinging to every note for its full value and beyond, seeking the ultimate ensemble as the lines move in their marvelous way.
    The line above the tune, the one I call the cantilena (cornet 1, horn 1, soprano sax), has a special presence. Grainger sought to color it through his inclusion of the soprano sax amongst the sonorities of the brass. If your set of parts does not include one for soprano sax, this player can use the first cornet part for the first 16 measures.
    The cantilena must not be so unobtrusive as to lack presence as sounds begin to build in the second section (D) [17]; intensities generate of themselves, peaking at the climax [25 and 26] in an unmistakable musical fulfillment. But it is the closing, the releasing phrase [28-32] that demands the greatest discipline, the ultimate in breath support, the complete conductorial control of nuance and sonority.
    As the first complete statement approaches its conclusion [29], all should release the G7 chord deftly and cover that release with sufficient resonance to allow a skillful breath with which to finish the phrase [29-32].
    The beginning of the second statement [33] seems to demand five solo players, to be joined by a sixth where a choice between tenor sax and bassoon may be made for that important lowest line [37]. This suggested contrast, achieved by thinning the texture, follows the thick richness that is the hallmark of the first statement. Vibrant solo playing here is certain to bring sonic and artistic rewards, allowing critical control of the delicate nuances and minimum dynamics, all of this under the aura of expressiveness that has been so lovingly instilled by the composer.
    All instruments may be utilized as more and more instrumental voices gather around the action [41] and the midway point is reached [48]. In the interest of effective ensemble and the momentary emotional release to be found here, the conductor should extract the ultimate in tonal support from the players toward that release leading to the great tutti at [49]. All parts with a whole note at measure 48 should be edited as in this example for the first cornet:
    And now everybody should be at it, playing vibrantly and with a great singing sound. Whenever the excitement of playing such beautiful music grows as it does here all players must remember the constant need for the ultimate in breath support to drive the airstream on through the instruments. When vibrancy is added to all of this the music seems to soar off into a sonic realm that transcends the mere instruments producing it.
Every line is important, and it is up to the conductor to be sure that lines do not become buried within instrumental textures just about as thick as one is likely to find. As the music begins to louden [56] all must remember that any accents are to be played espressivo and tenuto. In the gathering excitement, the conductor and the players must hold sound in reserve for each pulse. Grainger’s request for sound must be served by those horns, cornets, clarinets, oboes, and saxes who must literally thrust their rising F major triad up through the rest of the band. It is vital to remember that the pulse of the music must continually press the great sounds forward, keeping the melodic line aloft and driving the rich harmonies to their climax [58].
The suspended cymbal [56-60] should be used to heighten the excitement of the climax, not to dominate it. The soft drumstick indicated should be a pair of felt timpani or yarn-wound marimba mallets.

The Final Cadence
    “Slow off lots” and “soften gradually” tell us what we need to know; if everything is kept as expressive as possible, the steady approach to the final cadence shimmers in beautiful sounds, capped by the closing harmonies of the horns and trombones.

    The final F major chord is a typical Grainger voicing, and its balance is not easy to achieve. The close intervals in the two bottom octaves (with their forbidden doubled fifth, a C natural) are more a pianoforte voicing than anything else. Scored for bassoon, baritone sax, and baritone, this fifth of the chord is certain to be present.

    It has long been my feeling that Irish Tune from measure 49 to the end is among the most demanding scores in the basic band repertoire for the conductor, and the first of these demands is to keep the music moving while all revel in the great bath of souds that Grainger has provided. I resort to a basic large pulse of two beats to the bar after establishing tempo in 49, returning to four pulses at “Slightly Slower,” where the conductor should indicate with steadily rising motion the stretch of the fourth quarter note in measure 57. The four-pulse continues to the end. When the conductor keeps the two fermatas of bar 63 moving upward, all is in position for the final fermata and its appropriate descending physical motion. Players and conductor should remain motionless for about five seconds after the sound has ceased, to continue the spirit of the music in the silence that grows from its termination.