This post was written in preparation for our September 2016 summer program.
“The Secret Life of Barns (Cedar)” by Ellie Harold, 2016 Collaborating Artist
For our Summer Fantasies concert, we invite you to join us in a colorful journey for the imagination as we visit the themes of summertime and all of its fantastical elements. In this series of brief articles, you can learn more about the pieces on the program; the composers who penned them and the events that inspired them.
The second premiere on our program, this September, is a new suite based on fiddle tunes from the isle of Cape Breton arranged by Jason McKinney. “I have a list of places I’d like to visit someday and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is near the top of that list,” he says. “Since our concert’s theme is about fantasies, I thought it would be fun to create a musical journey to a place I long to visit someday. Plus, it was an excuse to learn more about Scottish music!”
— Jason McKinney (b. 1979)
The suite is arranged for flute, clarinet, and lever harp (i.e., Celtic harp), and contains three distinct movements. “I wanted each movement to capture a different mood or scene you might expect to find during a céilidh (pronounced KAY’-lee) — the Scottish-Gaelic word for a party where there will be singing, dancing, and storytelling,” Jason explains.
I. Natalie Fraser is based on a hornpipe tune written by legendary pianist Joey Beaton of Mabou. Beaton happens to come from a very long line of famous Cape Breton composers and musicians. The hornpipe is a dance many northern European cultures share — each with their own version and traditions. In Cape Breton, the hornpipe is usually a lively dance in 4/4 time (though it can be danced slowly when the occasion calls for it) with a distinctly contrasting A & B sections.
Jason explored what he could from the internet about Beaton’s tell-tale style of piano accompaniment. “In traditional Cape Breton music (which is seldom written down by the way), the piano accompaniment usually provides a bass line and rhythmic foundation for the undulating fiddle while ‘filling in’ chords and harmony. Since fiddling is nearly impossible on wind instruments, I basically split the musical roles between all three members of the trio,” Jason explains. “The harp part provides the bass line and the basic harmony, but it also grabs bits and pieces of the melody, allowing the flute and clarinet a little liberty to breathe and also embellish.”
Watching the dancers of the hornpipe swirling and bouncing like planets shifting in and out of their orbits is a bit mesmerizing (watch a hornpipe here). While there won’t be any dancers at our concert, it’s not hard to imagine them as the flute, clarinet, and harp weave in and out of the texture of the trio seamlessly.
II. The Rosebud of Allenvale is based on a relatively simple tune by the famous Scottish fiddler, dancer, and prolific composer J.S. Skinner (1843-1927). Many Scottish emigrants to Nova Scotia arrived as a result of being thrown off their lands during the Highland Clearances. These displaced Scots made their way to North America and beyond, carrying their culture with them. A thoroughly Scottish citizen, Skinner’s music influenced the Scottish community in Nova Scotia because of his international notoriety and his advancement of Scottish music and dance.
“Since the traditional céilidh would contain at least a little storytelling, I thought this charming lyrical melody would be a great segue from the dancing,” Jason explains. “I imagined everyone making their way to their seats or gathering around as a single vocalist began singing a lyrical ode to a lost or current love.”
In this movement, the melody is carried mostly by the clarinet with the flute taking on the role of an accompanying violin while the harp provides graceful, arpeggiating accompaniment. “I think what drew me to this melody initially was that it was calming and graceful without the expected hint of tragedy that almost always finds its way into Celtic music,” Jason explains. “Reading the title then hearing the melody, you get the sensation that the fiddler is filled with pride or love rather than mourning.”
But, alas, after digging deeper there remains that little hint of tragedy. Skinner published this tune around 1922 and dedicated it to his cousin Jessie who was married to the gardener at Allenvale Cemetery in Aberdeen, Scotland. In his original inscription, Skinner wrote, “The Rosebud is in full bloom and will be played when you and I are asleep.” J.S. Skinner died five years later and was buried in the Allenvale Cemetery.
III. The Night the Goats Came Home (sometimes known as “The Night We Had the Goats”) is a traditional Cape Breton reel tune. Here’s the moment in the céilidh where everyone has likely had one too many and the party’s getting decidedly rowdy! The fiddler takes the stage to get the crowd on its feet. “I’ll be honest, I don’t know how this tune got its name,” says Jason. “It’s so energetic, though, one just understands that it was an awesome thing when the goats showed up (perhaps for one night only)!”
In Scottish folk music, a reel is one of four traditional dances, but it is also a loose musical form (usually used to accompany the dance of the same name). Similar to the hornpipe, a reel has contrasting A & B sections that are repeated (sometimes growing faster and faster). In contrast, the tempo of a reel is often much faster than the hornpipe and/or its melody is more heavily embellished (i.e., fiddled).
“I’m honored to have Sam and Anne perform this suite with me. Working on the intricacies of the music and working through my own learning process on the harp was a joy thanks to their dedication and energy to their individual parts.”
— Jason McKinney
“This is the toughest movement of the suite,” Jason confesses. “Between the tricky embellishments written in the flute and clarinet parts and the muffling technique required in the harp part to create a pianistic effect between each chord, there is a good bit of challenge to getting this reel in motion. While not exactly like a fiddler’s bow strokes (watch a fiddler play this tune here), I think the energy and effect are similar.”
We look forward to sharing this one-of-a-kind foray into Scottish folk music with you.