Irish Tune from County Derry

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            There are melodies whose immortality is assured by an intrinsic beauty that defies straightforward analysis—and this is surely one.  It has borne a variety of texts, most of them expressing deep sincerity and emotion, but most of those for whom it speaks directly to the heart associate it with the 1910 lyrics written by Frederick Weatherly, “Danny Boy.”  Other texts include “The Confession of Devorgilla,” “Irish Love Song,” and several hymns.  It is an old song, whose composer is unknown, and it first came to light in modern times in a collection of Irish folk songs published in 1855.  Its sturdy indestructibility is evidenced by the remarkable diversity of the hoard of artists who have recorded it:  Johnny Cash, Art Tatum, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf—to name just three.  But of all of those apparently innumerable arrangements, there is one that has long distinguished itself for its artistry, sophistication, and sensitivity, and that is the one wrought by the distinguished Australian pianist, composer, arranger, and writer, Percy Aldridge Grainger.  Other versions pale beside it.

            Grainger was one of the truly eccentric geniuses of twentieth-century music.  He early on established himself as an admired and formidable concert pianist—he was an early champion of the Grieg piano concerto.   He possessed a manic physical and psychic energy, often running many miles through the Australian outback to the venue of the next concert when on tour.  He was deeply interested in folk song, and published hundreds of sophisticated arrangements of them in a variety of media over the years.  Prominent in all of these is a supreme gift for subtleties of color and texture.   The woodwinds especially benefit from this superb attention, and generations of American students have played his major contributions to the literature of the band.   It tells us much about the man that, notwithstanding his world-wide reputation as an important piano virtuoso—and an Australian, at that—at the onset of World War I, he taught himself to play the soprano saxophone and joined an American army band.  He loved the “virile” sound of the instrument.  His most popular composition, “Country Gardens,” dates from about that time.

            His setting of the “Irish Tune” (the first version dates from 1902, with the orchestral version following in 1920) is a study in evolving musical textures that flow naturally from one to another, without seeming to repeat.  It opens with a sonorous low statement of the tune, followed by phrases that feature a kaleidoscope of orchestral colors.   But skill at managing the orchestration is not the essence of this arrangement.  Rather, it is Grainger’s creative weft of original harmonies and little counter melodies that come together to support the tune.  Listen for touches of pungent (that is to say, lovely) dissonances that carry it all forward, and at the peroration for the soaring unison line that Grainger composed for the horn section.  It ends as it began, with a rich meditative texture, perfect for this deeply moving little gem.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan