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Thoughts on the origins of Irish traditional music, part 2



Ornament Ornament This is the second half of this document. Return to part 1.


Movable type printing was invented around 1450, but it took about another 50 years before the technology was developed to print music. At this point, we suddenly find large amounts of dance music being published, the majority from modern-day France and Belgium. But what we find elsewhere is very much the same. In fact, some of these same tunes are still played in Sweden. They are all song-like melodies; in many cases we have the original song as well. The tunes may be a bit distorted to fit to a dance beat, but are still very recognizable. Usually they are arranged in four-part harmony; presumably this was normally improvised in the manner of a modern Dixieland band.

So in such an environment, how did a musician demonstrate skill and virtuosity? The answer is, for both vocalists and instrumentalists, by adding complex ornamentation to the original simple tune. By the Renaissance, this had been formalized into the playing of divisions, complex variations on the original tune. For example, the Elizabethan-era Fitzwilliam Virginal Book contains a number of keyboard works by noted composer/performers of the time, such as William Byrd, which consist of sets of divisions on popular songs of the time. (There is an excellent website, The Keyboard Music of William Byrd by John Sankey, which has MIDI versions of Byrd's music.)

In case it is suspected that playing divisions was an practice confined to art music composers, we have ample evidence to the contrary. We have complaints such as that of Matthew Locke in the preface to his Little Consort for Viols or Violin, about "the tearing of a Consort in pieces with divisions-an old custom of our country fiddlers". We have accounts by some of the more honest composers admitting that some dance musicians were as good at or better than themselves at playing divisions. And finally, we have actual sets of divisions surviving in the Northumbrian pipe repertoire, and to a lesser extent in the uilleann pipe repertoire.

Things began to change around 1600 in Italy. A school of thought arose which was supposed based on a revival of the purity of ancient Greek music (about which they actually knew little if anything). In any case, ornamentation was reduced so that the words could be understood. For the same reason, complex polyphony was replaced by a single melodic line and a simple accompaniment based on a harmonized bass line, or "continuo". It was the beginning of what we now know as Baroque music. Another feature of the new style was that instrumental performance was divorced from vocal performance and for the first time stood on its own. The leading instrument in the new Italian style was the violin, which had been around for a century or so. Now it developed its own performance style, with an extended range of notes and non-vocal techniques such as double-stops.

It took most of the rest of the century for the new style to catch on throughout Europe. This involved, among other things, developing new instruments to replace the Renaissance instruments such as the crumhorn, which did not have a wide enough range for the new style. The lute acquired a new tuning as its role changed to that of a continuo instrument.

The Penny WeddingFolk musicians, as usual, lagged behind the changes taking place in art music world. Throughout the 1600s they continued to play divisions on popular songs. (If you are going to play divisions, it's best to start with a simple tune to give yourself lots of scope to add notes more in.) But by the early 1700s they seem to have caught up, as we can see happening in Scotland. This seems to be about the time the modern violin became popular, replaced the older, more primitive medieval fiddles. (England was a hold-out, violins being regarded as a common, vulgar instrument compared to the noble viol, until the Restoration of Charles II, who brought a French violin band back with him.)

Tunes such as jigs and reels are intrinsically full of fast notes; while their performance can certainly be varied, they are not suited for embellishments of the division type. Many of the old tunes had only a single strain which would be tedious if repeated without variation. Hence there was a rush to equip existing tunes with second strains. Many of these would have been chosen out of the floating divisions which had been passed along aurally, just as jazz musicians learn a body of standardized licks, riffs and solo lines, which they draw from in their improvisations. Others were composed by known performers. This process is very well documented in Scotland.

But what was going on in Ireland at this period? Here we return to the Belfast Harp Festival. As the Gaelic aristocracy got pushed out and replaced by the English, the harpers attempted to keep their lucrative jobs by adapting to a style that was more like what was in fashion in England. All the harpers except Hempson played gut-strung harps instead of the traditional Gaelic harp. The most noted harper-composer of the century was Turlough O'Carolan, who devised a style which combined the Irish tradition with the Italian Baroque. His tunes were not only popular with 18th century harpers, but many survived in the repertoire of fiddlers and pipers to be collected by Bunting (or Lynch); quite a few were printed by Francis O'Neill in the early 20th century. Carolan doesn't seem to have left a stylistic influence in traditional music, in that no one else seems to have composed in this style. If traditional players performed Carolan tunes (and it is a point of debate how much they did), it was as an item of curiosity rather than an integral part of the tradition.

Caoimhín notes with reference to the O'Neill collection:

Published in 1804, O'Farrell's Collection of National Irish Music for the Union Pipes was the first significant collection of Irish dance music collected and written down by a traditional musician. O'Farrell was an Irish piper who performed on the London stage in the late 18th century. His collection includes several Carolan tunes: Bumper Squire Jones, Captain O Cain, Carolan's Dream, Carolan's Farewell to Music, Carolan's Receipt for Drinking Whiskey. So there is evidence that some of Carolan's tunes were in circulation among traditional players. Incidentally, a number of tunes in this collection are provided with sets of variations.

Caoimhín himself has collected an example which appears to be a survival of the old harp music preserved by folk musicians:

Caoimhín MacAoidh
Between the Jigs and the Reels
Drumlin Publications, 1994
p. 39

So I argue that during the 1700s the patronized musicians had to adapt to support themselves by adopting what was the currently fashionable style, and what they adopted was the kind of music that was all the rage in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain, namely the new jigs and reels and the like. They adopted a lot of tunes, and they also took a lot of their own existing melodic material and changed it to fit the new style. So they turned 6/8 clan marches into jigs, folksongs into reels, etc. The same thing happened in the 19th century when the polka became popular. The Irish didn't adopt many polka tunes from outside sources. Instead they took their existing melodies and changed the rhythm to turn them into polkas.

In the case of Carolan, his melodies were certainly influenced by continental models, but his playing style apparently made no attempt to imitate the continuo accompaniment style common in Baroque music. Instead, it appears to have been very similar to what Bunting recorded from Hempson and is found in his notes (not in his publications). It seems likely that this style is the traditional manner of playing the Gaelic harp.

About 200 of Carolan's airs survive, both instrumental pieces and songs, with, in many cases, their words, but unfortunately most are only in single line form, so that it is not definitely known how he harmonized or accompanied his melodies. The key to this problem may lie in a book of Carolan's music of which only one incomplete copy is known to exist, in the National Library of Ireland. In the absence of the title page, this book was until recently mistakenly thought to have been published in 1721 by the Neal brothers of Dublin; but examination of the watermark has now proved that the book dates from 1742 at the earliest. It seems almost certain that this is the book known to have been published in 1748 by Carolan's son, in collaboration with Dr. Delany of Dublin University, and of which no complete copy has ever been found. Carolan's son would have known how is father played, and the arrangement of the music in this book perhaps provides a clue to Carolan's own method of performance and to the Irish traditional harping style as as whole. The melodies are accompanied by a single line bass. Salient features are the absence of conventional harmony, and the moving bass which is often in octaves with the treble, and often anticipates or echoes the melody lines.

Irish danceSo although the Irish traditional music of today took its current form in the 1700s, much of the melodic material goes back a lot further. As far as sean-nós singing is concerned, we have some indications that it did not change very much at this period, and was essentially the same some centuries earlier. In fact, sean-nós may be very close to the singing style of the old troubadors, but we don't know enough about how they sang to be able to say whether or no. Or it may have been in the 1700s that the former patronized poets brought in the French influence, although personally I think it was there a long time before.

So as yet we haven't answered the question what was pre-1700s Irish dance music like. Now one approach would be to say that it was much the same as everywhere else. We know that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, although there were differences in emphasis from one country to another, music was pretty much the same whether you were in Italy, France, Poland or wherever. In fact, musicians tended to travel around a lot from one place to the other, in the same way as other skilled craftsmen like stonemasons.

Chant MS Ireland was very much connected to the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. Before the Reformation, the same church music was used throughout Europe, including Ireland. Many Irishmen were involved in the great medieval monastic orders. We see compositions such as Omnis caro peccaverat (The lai of Noah and the flood) (recorded by Sequentia, Visions from the Book, harmonia mundi 05472 77347 2, 1996) and the well-known Christmas hymn Angelus ad virginem in the 14th century Dublin Troper, which differ little from similar works found on the Continent.

John Stevens
Music & Poetry in the Early Tudor Court
London, 1961
pp. 40-41

Irishman and Scotsman went to the Crusades, and made pilgrimages (the Irish were said to be particularly fond of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela). Ireland had trade links to Spain, the Scottish Gaels to Scandinavia, and Lowland Scotland to France and Germany. The Gaelic nobility possessed manuscripts on medicine and astronomy (possibly based on Gaelic tradition, rather than copies of Greek or Arabic texts) said to surpass any in Europe. Irish mercenaries fought in Germany. So by this argument, Irish music should have been not too much different than anywhere else.

Françoise Henry
Irish Art in the Romanesque Period, 1020-1170 A.D.
London, 1970
pp. 155-156

Trinity College harpWe can find some similarities to Renaissance music in the playing of Denis Hempson. For example, he does something called Faigh an Gléas ("Get the tuning") which is a sort of rambling piece that allows you to check and modify your tuning before you start anything else. This is very useful for a modal instrument like the old harps, where you have to change the tuning to play in different modes. And we find the same sort of preludes used elsewhere in Europe for lutes and keyboard instruments (this was before equal temperament came into use). So in the field of dance music, we might expect to find Irish dance musicians playing divisions on popular songs. And since we can see some remnants of this sort of playing in the piping repertoire, it is quite plausible, but we have no contemporary evidence.

However close the relationship of Ireland to European culture in the Middle Ages, however, the religious problems that tore Europe apart during the Renaissance caused Ireland to become less connected to European culture. Even in England, it is said that the music of the court of Henry VIII seemed to lag the trends of France or Italy by nearly a century.

Although what we know today of division playing comes mostly from the Renaissance, the practice most certainly goes back to medieval times, so its existence in Ireland is highly likely, whether or not there was much musical influence from Europe during the Renaissance. And the same kind of assimilation that Corkery mentions took place as well at a later period, I argue, with the new type of dance music that was catching on elsewhere in Britain during the eighteenth century.

Denis Hempson But Hempson said one other thing that is quite curious. When Bunting asked him to play certain old tunes, he completely refused. He said that it would be pointless since no one nowadays would understand them, and it would only make him depressed to think about his old departed friends. What was he talking about?

It may be that he was referring to ceòl mòr ("great music"), which is nowadays known as "pibroch", the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. This consists of a basic urlar ("ground"), which is stylized and then subjected to a number of variations which involve the insertion of different types of ornaments. It's a very intellectual type of music which does not appeal much to the modern listener. (For more information check out A Short Primer on Pibroch, if you can find it.)

Ceòl mòr is a bit of a puzzler on the pipes because the whole concept seems to have appeared out of nowhere, although the stories accompanying some of the tunes would indicate that they go back to medieval times. It's now thought that ceòl mòr was adopted wholesale from the Gaelic harp. The names of the various ornaments can be related to the harp ornaments that Bunting collected from Hempson, and the pipe ornaments can be related to ornaments that are natural to the harp. Ceòl mòr is in fact a style of music that appears to be utterly unrelated to anything else known in Europe; it seems to be unique to the Gaels, and probably very old indeed. Although it is a variation form, it is very much unlike the playing of divisions which we find elsewhere.

It's not known whether ceòl mòr was supported only by the aristocrats. Probably, as it has done in historical times on the pipes, it co-existed with ceòl beag ("small music"), dance music that was influenced by European tunes. But it would be consistent with the appreciation for art and learning seen at all levels of Gaelic society if it spoke to chief and peasant alike.

As Caoimhín points out, the meaning of the word "traditional" depends on context. And it's rare that anything in music is created out of nothing-normally it is some kind of variation of what came before. But I believe that a significant part of the Gaelic music tradition in Ireland died with Denis Hempson, leaving its trace only in the ceòl mòr of the Highland pipes.


There are a few other minor points in which my opinions differ from Caoimhín. He says:

Admittedly, early instruments were often a bit harder to play, but a good performer can get much more out of a mediocre instrument than a mediocre performer can get out of a good instrument. I can think of a lot of early music which requires a high degree of technical skill, and it is usually much more complex rhythmically than classical music. Of course, this is art music I am talking about. Granted, the dance music published in the 1500s is usually performed slowly, simply, and exactly as written—by today's performers! But modern classical performers lack the improvisational skills that would have been second nature to the Renaissance dance musician.

I don't agree with this completely, because I think that most of the ancient musicians were travelling professionals. This was just as true in 19th century Ireland. Padraig O'Keefe and John Doherty were late examples of the type. If they had any profession other than music it would be something that didn't involve heavy labour, such as tin-smithing or selling used clothes. Amateur performers were not common until the end of the 19th century. Look at the early collections such as O'Farrell's and you will see some pretty challenging tunes.

Hammy Hamilton, the well-known Irish flute maker, posted the following to the IRTRAD-L list in July 1994:

But likely the repertoire was much smaller and more local. There are reports from the 18th and 19th century of pipers who only knew one or two tunes being pressed into action at dances for want of any better. But going back further, if musicians spent a lot of time exploring the division-playing possibilities of a tune, there wouldn't be the need for as many tunes as today when you only play them two or three times without much variation and go on to the next. But the tunes you did have would need to be good ones.

Probably tunes were played slower than today, but I think that's more because modern players don't play for dancing as much. Some of the 19th century pipers were criticized for playing tunes too fast, though.

I agree with this, but I think that simple melodies would have been chosen because of how well they would adapt to division playing, which could have displayed a high technical standard with the best performers. Likely, though, there were also a good percentage of performers who were not of the best standards.

An extremely profound statement, worthy of being placed on the front page of all tune collections!

Not that it proves anything, but I recently had the opportunity to go through some of my theory in practice. I was performing when someone came up with a big tip and requested Greensleeves for his dear old mother. It's not a tune that I usually play—but it is in O'Neill's collection. I couldn't say no to someone's dear old grey-haired mother, so we launched into the usual version. Then I thought, let's try some divisions, and it proved to be a great tune for that (not surprisingly, it's based on the Romanesca ground, one of the classic Renaissance harmonic ground patterns). And then I finished off by playing it as a jig, as found in O'Neill's. It all worked very successfully—the musical development followed history perfectly. Try the experiment some time!

Return to part 1 of this document.



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