Percy Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry

So we're continuing our little journey into the band literature world and building our hypothetical list of desert island band literature with piece #4.  I can't help but feel that this list is so inadequate and ultimately useless.  I mean, if you were actually stranded on a desert island, what the heck would you do with band music anyways?  There's no power, so any recorded versions of these charts would only last so long.  There's solar power, but that's assuming you'd bring a portable rig to make that all work.  So that leaves sheet music, but why?  You're in a survival situation!  What is band music going to help with?  Plus if you're sharing a desert island with a bunch of musicians, you're gonna have a bad time.  But I digress...


Ultimately, I want you to know that this list is in no way comprehensive.  This blog, coincidentally, is in no way comprehensive.  In moments like these, I have to look back towards my goal, my calling.  This blog was built on the sole purpose to expand musical knowledge beyond what we already know.  I hope that one day it gets popular enough that people might actually email me a suggestion or two to listen to, so that I might hear something I've never heard before.  But, until that day- I'll just keep going off what pops into my head.  This week, it's Percy Grainger (1882-1961).

Who, according to Reddit, looks like a "sadomasochist,
atheist, anti-Semitic, vegetarian" version of Ryan Gosling.

Grainger was an interesting character.  His father was a bit of a sleaze ball who married his mother without informing her that he had previously fathered a son with a different woman in London and that he had contracted syphilis which he so graciously shared with Grainger's mother.  She became the sole caregiver and raised the young Percy herself.  This began a close, but potentially worrisome relationship between mother and son, that some claim was incestuous in nature.  There are many examples of Grainger's personality that showcased a private life of sexual deviance (not to mention a whole not-so-private museum), but that's quite another story.

Grainger was born in Australia and eventually moved to London after becoming quite skilled on the piano.  He frequently performed concerts, often expressing his intent to promote his performing faculties ahead of his compositional talents.  He had a knack for taking European folk music and arranging it various styles that incorporated different genres that were commonplace in his day and age.  He was an avid follower of technology and even pioneered the use of recording technology to capture his folk song material in a manner that he would be able to use while composing, so as to reproduce it in his arrangements in such a manner that it would emulate the texture and emotional context of the original.

So speaking on folk tunes, let's examine what is probably the most convoluted tale of historicity for any folk song ever written.  The Air from County Derry.  There are two components at work here, the first being the actual melody.  There are numerous claims to who actually wrote the thing in the first place, but most people attribute it to a region in Northern Ireland known as Londonderry county, although there is some disagreement over that name itself.  Nationalist Irish do not favor the "London" added to the prefix of Derry and it became a naming dispute ubiquitous to "the Troubles" through the 1960's onward to 1998.

Not those troubles...

Anyways, the tune was written by someone in Ireland and that's as far as most anyone can determine.  You can look up the various claimants of the authorship if you'd like.  The other aspect of the piece relates to the text itself.  Grainger did not concern himself with the text as his renditions are instrumental in nature (for piano, band, etc.), but the most prevalent textural treatment is "Oh Danny Boy" written by the English lawyer, Frederick Edward Weatherly in 1910.  Here's the text:

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flow'rs are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow

Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, and all the flowers are dying

If I am dead, as dead I well may be
I pray you'll find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me

And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you'll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

Weatherly originally did not set his song to Londonderry Air, however three years after penning these words, he reworked it to fit.  "Danny Boy" has become somewhat of an unofficial anthem for Irish-Americans and Canadians and it is often reserved to be sung at funerals of those such people.  I've heard it described by many musicians as the greatest example of melody known to man, and throughout my tenure as a music educator I have observed it to hold a special place in the heart of many a salty, old band director.  Grainger's treatment of the tune is unequaled.

For me personally, I came to know this piece through high school band and like many of you who might read this blog, I had the pleasure of having Joe Kreines conduct our band while we worked through it.  I think more than anything, it reminds me of my grandmother, my "Ninie", who would often sing songs like this one to her grandchildren and who also took great pride in the Irish blood that flowed through her veins.  It is a heritage that I carry proudly, and Grainger's setting is a beautiful piece of the old country that I can share with you today.

Homework: Free write this week.  Whatever comes to mind.  Be brave.  

See you next Friday.