The Lark in the Morning

Last week and this week and next week the theme for my Saturday afternoon harp class in Dundee is Christmas music. Early this morning I suddenly decided that the wren song tradition would be a fun thing to do today – I have worked on Bunting’s 1809 setting of the Wren song before with a student, so I knew it was a great tune to give the class. But I also wanted to work on the traditions behind the wren hunt and so I had a quick look round to remind myself.

Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music has a nice little article on the wren, with a lovely photo of wren boys in Dingle – I would guess the photo was pre-WW2, one of the boys has a fife and two have bodhrans (which gave me a chance to talk about that!). The article also included one verse of the wren song, which fits Bunting’s tune pretty well.

I checked in Donal O’Sullivan’s notes on the Bunting tunes, and he does go into a lot of detail on the wren hunt but I did not spend too much time following up his references this morning.

Looking online I got a couple of excellent references. I got the pointer of the cutty wren song in Herd’s Scots Songs of 1776 – google books provided me with facsimile pages and all of a sudden I remembered that I knew this song from 20 years back, so I walked round the house trying to remember how it went. Every so often a whole new section of the question and answer would pop back into my head. In the class I managed to sing it and some of them even joined in with the answer sections – great fun, and not often that I sing an old song dragged up out of the back of my mind like that.

But the most fun was seeing a reference to Liam Clancy’s 1953 recording of the wren song on the LP, The Lark in the Morning. I have a copy of this LP which I had for some reason never got round to playing much so I had the fun of finding the record, setting up the equipment and listening to his lively version of the wren. This is another song I know from way back (I have it on an old cassette tape of traditional British and Irish midwinter songs), and I was amused to hear him mentioning the town where he lived and also his mother by name in the song.

Of course this evening as the gear was out and the record propped up against the bookcase I sat down on the floor and listened to both sides. What a beautiful and moving set of performances. At times I laughed out loud, and at other times there was a tear in my eye.

Grant of Sheuglie’s Contest betwixt his Violin, Pipe and Harp

I was contacted recently by a descendent of Alexander Grant of Shewglie, the early 18th century poet, piper, harper and fiddler. Alex Grant was a very interesting character, heavily involved in the Jacobite risings. He is said to have been a good poet or songwriter, but as far as I can see none of his poems survive. We know some details about two of them, but we dont have the text of either.

Grant composed a song in welcome to Charles Edward Stewart; it begins

Do bheatha Thearlaich Stiubhart,
Do bheatha do ar duthaich

which means basically, “welcome, Charles Stuart, welcome to our place”. Keith Sanger  (West Highland Notes & Queries 20, March 1983) suggests it may be in a manuscript belonging the National Library of Scotland (no. 6 of the MacNicol collection, MS Acc2152), but this manuscript appears to be missing from the library.

Grant also composed a song, a “contest betwixt his Violin, Pipe and Harp”. The tune of this, and also an English paraphrase of the words, was published in Simon Fraser’s book in 1816. We are told that the fiddle is addressed as “Mairi nighean Dheorsa” (Mary the daughter of George), and this seems to have been also a title of the tune.

I think the tune is an older traditional song air; Allan MacDonald in his Thesis connects it to the pipe “March for a Beginner” in Joseph MacDonald’s Complete Theory. Perhaps more intriguingly, the tune is said to have been used for other songs in the 18th century, a poem by Ardnabi in praise of a fiddle, Mairi nighean Dheorsa, and another famous poem in praise of MacCrimmon’s bagpipes. What is the connection between this tune and the name Mairi nighean Dheorsa given to a fiddle? The later Ardnabi poem not only uses the name for the fiddle but also says that the air to be used when singing the poem is “Mairi nighean Dheorsa”. Did both Ardnabi and Grant pick up an older tune called Mairi nighean Dheorsa and use it to praise their fiddles, or did Grant pick up an older generic song air and attach it to the Mairi nighean Dheorsa name and theme?

Here’s my version of it. I decided to pick up on the themes of Fraser’s paraphrase of Grant’s song, so the first and fourth of my verses are fairly straight from Fraser’s fiddle score; for verses two and three I have improvised a pipe-style and a harp-style interpretation of the melody.

It’s also interesting to think that Alexander Grant, of Shewglie in Glen Urquhart, was a contemporary of Raghnall Mac Ailein Óig, of Morar; both are said to have played pipes, fiddle and clarsach.

Flowers of the Forest

At the harp class in Dundee yesterday we looked at the old song, the Flowers of the Forest.

The main focus of the class was playing the oldest setting, from the Skene mandore manuscript.

But we also looked at some later versions including the one in the Scots Musical Museum, and we sang through the version written by Jean Elliot, using Ritson’s 1794 print:

You can get Ritson’s book here on Google Books.

Here’s a mp3 of me singing it through:
simonchadwick.net/music/Flowers.mp3

Here’s a PDF of the Skene manuscript version with transcription:
earlygaelicharp.info/sources/flowers.pdf

Here’s a Youtube of it on the harp:
youtube.com/watch?v=contsP6oXTs

Ecce Fulget

Today at the Harp Class in Dundee, as it is St Patrick’s day, we looked at a medieval hymn to St Patrick from Trinity College Dublin ms.80.

Ecce fulget clarissima
Behold, flashes brightly

Patricii sollempnitas
Patrick’s festival,

in qua carne deposita
whereby the body he has abandoned,

felix transcendit sidera.
happily he passes through the stars.

Recording of me singing it

Recording of me playing it on the harp

Salve Splendor

In my Dundee class, we have been working on the Magnificat antiphon, Salve Splendor, from the 14th century Inchcolm Antiphoner, a manuscript of chant from the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth.

Here are some recordings I have put together illustrating different approaches to this lovely little song.

First off, singing it straight off the manuscript page. Click here for the facsimile at Edinburgh University Library

And here are the words:

Salve splendor et pa-
Hail, glorious one and protector

-trone, iubar que iusticie. Orthodoxe doctor bone pastor et vas gratie. O Columba Columbine,
light of justice,correct teacher & good, shepherd and vessel of grace. O Columba, dove-like,

felicis memorie tue fac nos sine fine, coheredes glorie.
happy memories of you, give us without end, co-heir of glory.

And here is the recording:
Salve_Splendor_sung.mp3

Next, playing the song version though on the harp:
Salve_Splendor_harp.mp3

And finally, jazzing it up with some twiddles and drones:
Salve_Splendor_drone.mp3

Heroic music at the Cathedral

On Tuesday is the last in my summer series of cathedral concerts for this year. I’ll be repeating a programme from last year, of music connected to the heroic legends of Britain and Ireland. The centrepiece of the concert will be a performance of one of the medieval Gaelic lays – the story of Caoilte and the giant with five heads, which I have learned from a 1965 field recording of Kate MacDonald. There are a large number of such recordings of these medieval heroic songs being performed, and I have catalogued a number of them on my website at www.earlygaelicharp.info/lay. As well as lays from the Fenian cycle, as this one is, there are also lays dealing with characters from the Ulster cycle, the Historical cycle, and also from the Arthurian cycle.

All of these lays that survived down to the mid 20th century (I believe only one, Am Bron Binn, is still current in living tradition) survive only as unaccompanied solo song. This is of course very valuable for the study of early Gaelic music because we get a medieval text, a reciting melody, and a performance style. But for a harp concert I wanted to find instrumental music on a similar theme, and not just play instrumental adaptions of the vocal reciting melodies.

So for Tuesday’s concert I cast my net as wide as I can to try and find an interesting selection of genuinely instrumental music which somehow connects to this heroic theme. Come along to the cathedral at 12.45 and see what you think!

Harlaw: 1st session

Yesterday was the first in my series of Saturday afternoon workshops on the music associated with the Battle of Harlaw. In the pleasant and airy surroundings of the Wighton Centre in Dundee, a mixed group of singers and instrumentalists came together to explore the traditions. In this first session, we started with an overview of the battle, looking at a map of the area north-east of Aberdeen, and discussing 15th century Scottish politics.

Then, using the tombstone of Gilbert de Greenlaw as an example, we discussed the military technology of the time, and the nature of the fighting and preparations. Everyone was interested to handle the replica 15th century arms and armour!

Finally, we studied the Scots ballad. Working from Child’s version, and listening to Jeannie Robertson, we discussed the tune, as well as the subtext behind the story, and sung and played through the entire ballad.

Next week, we will be considering the story from the other side, looking at the Gaelic incitement to battle, or brosnachadh. Saturday 9th July, 2pm, Wighton Centre, Dundee. See you there!

Rory Dall Morison

I have long been interested in the music of Rory Dall O’Kane, the early 17th century harper-composer from Norther Ireland who lived and worked in Scotland, composing tunes for the Perthshire and Central Scottish gentry and nobility in the 1620s and 1630s. I included a number of his tunes on my CD including Port Atholl, Port Gordon, Da Mihi Manum and Lude’s Supper.

However I have long felt that I should also be interested in the music of Rory Dall Morison, the late 17th century harper and poet to Iain Breac MacLeod at Dunvegan Castle on Skye in the 1680s. Unfortunately, the harp tunes often ascribed to him (such as Rory Dall’s Sister’s Lament, or the Fiddler’s Contempt) appear in manuscripts written before his birth (in 1656), and so it seems that the ‘Rory Dall’ tunes all belong to O’Kane.

What Morison did do without a doubt was compose songs, and perform them with harp accompaniment. William Matheson’s book The Blind Harper is a great edition and translation of these songs.

I have just found on Tobar an Dualchais, a lovely field recording from 1953, of Calum Johnston singing Rory Dall Morison’s song to Iain Breac. Rory Dall laments that Iain is away down South, and that he misses him greatly – it has almost romantic overtones, with Rory pining for Iain like a lover. You can listen to this performance here: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/fullrecord/7364/1

I’m hoping to work up a version of this. Maybe down the line I will post a Youtube of it…

Video demonstrations of Indian Classical music

http://itunes.open.ac.uk/r/nu8D5

The music of North India is mesmerising, and shrouded in tradition and culture. There, raga is the art of life – it is the music of the mind. The tracks in this album focus on three instruments – the tabla, the alap and the voice – all central to the existence of Raga. Each instrument is broken down into the individual sounds that make up the intricate compositions. Performances on all three complete this introduction to the fascinating sound of Raga. This material is drawn from the Open University course AA317, Words and music.

Thanks to Stuart at footstompin for this link. If you really want to know what alap means, try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alap – needless to say it is not an instrument, despite the confusion of the OU caption writer.

I was most fascinated by the vocables used to describe the different tabla gestures, and also the connection explained by the player of the guitar-shaped instrument between string music and vocal music.

The Battle of Strathcarron, AD642

This stanza is preserved in the Book of Aneirin, as part of The Gododdin, a cycle of early medieval poetry from Edinburgh and the South of Scotland. This stanza is actually quite seperate from the rest of the poem, and is about a battle that was fought near Glasgow in the year 642. The poem is in the Old Welsh language of the Strathclyde Britons, who were the victors. Domnall Brecc was leader of the South Argyll Gaels, and he was killed by Eugein, grandson of Neithon, king of Strathclyde. This is a highly experimental performance and I apologise for my poor pronunciation and erratic lyre playing.