When I began studying lever harp in 2010, one of the volumes of harp music I purchased was a collection of tunes by O’Carolan*. Exploring the tunes while also teaching myself to play the harp, I eventually read more and more about the composer, developing a growing curiosity about the particular tunes I kept coming back to.
Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) was born somewhere in County Meath (most likely Nobber [Irish: an Obair]) during a time of unrest in Ireland. Throughout his lifetime, an ongoing struggle for power and dominance raged constantly between Britain and Ireland, Protestants versus Catholics. The country was torn apart by oppressive, unfair laws which impoverished and disenfranchised many natives. While O’Carolan’s career as a traveling composer, musician, and poet brought him into the homes of families on both sides of these conflicts, history shows he managed to have broad appeal without ever betraying his loyalties to Ireland and Catholicism.
There is scant information known of his life and career as little was documented. What we do know of his biography is largely comprised of pieced together anecdotal accounts. As a child, O’Carolan was educated thanks to the generosity of the wife of his father’s employer (Mrs. MacDermott Roe). Roughly around age eighteen, O’Carolan caught smallpox which blinded him completely. In an effort to save his future, Mrs. MacDermott Roe sent O’Carolan to a harpist where he trained for three years to become proficient.
What follows is an interesting scene. Upon completing his musical studies, Mrs. MacDemott Roe presented the 21-year-old O’Carolan with a sum of money, two horses, and a sighted guide to be his companion. From there, he was on his own and this was to be his only option: a career as an itinerant harpist.
In a story that might have easily have ended in tragedy, O’Carolan went on to become one of Ireland’s most famous and prolific composers. Relying solely on the generosity of his patrons, for nearly 50 years he roamed the Irish countryside from Dublin to Galway and all points north composing songs and entertaining the rich and powerful. By the end of his life, he’d amassed a reputation which always preceded his arrival. He was received not as a traveling minstrel but as a welcomed friend. Weddings and funerals were often postponed until he arrived!
Most of O’Carolan’s compositions were kept alive by harpists, fiddlers, and flutists who taught them by rote to their students. Though there are extant books published during his lifetime which contain one or two O’Carolan tunes, volumes of his collected works did not begin appearing until the late 18th century. At last count, there are 214 verified tunes attributed to him with several dozen others of dubious origin.
Because of the long path each of his compositions traces through history and retelling, we know very little about them other than possibly which patron they were written for and the homes or castles in which they likely premiered. In some instances, lyrics written by O’Carolan have been unearthed and matched with specific tunes, but in the absence of musical notation it’s uncertain how these songs would have been sung or accompanied. Unfortunately, O’Carolan’s works are preserved only as single melodic lines. How any of the tunes would have been harmonized by O’Carolan is literally anyone’s guess!
When I began compiling repertoire for Manitou Winds’ “A Celtic Summertide”, including tunes by O’Carolan was an instinctual decision and provided an excuse to learn more about his life and work. Seeing the bare melodies as an adventurous challenge, I selected four of my favorites, compiling them into a suite I entitled O’Carolan’s Symphony for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and lever harp.
Movement I: George Brabazon (first air)
Movement II: Lady Athenry
Movement III: Planxty Burke
Movement IV: Mrs. Power (or Carolan’s Concerto)
Click each tune name to read a brief history and see the original melodic line.
courtesy of IrishPage.com
While performing in those stately homes in Ireland, O’Carolan chanced to hear the music of Corelli and Vivaldi performed by visiting musicians. Biographers say he was intrigued by their art and absorbed as much of their sophisticated style and form as he could with his limited musical education and his musically-limiting instrument. In O’Carolan’s time, a harp could only be tuned in one key and could not play any accidentals.
Rather than attempt to recreate what O’Carolan himself might have done with these tunes (which would have amounted largely to guesswork), I chose to compose O’Carolan’s Symphony in a style I felt would indulge O’Carolan’s own musical curiosity while giving a nod to the colorful anecdotes peppering the many written accounts of his life. To further aid the storytelling aspect of the work, I chose to imagine the varied personalities and daily lives of the people for whom O’Carolan named these tunes.
While maintaining respect for the form and melody inherent in each tune, I incorporated modern harmonies, added countermelodies and varied textures, changed a few rhythms… ultimately scoring the entire work for instruments that either didn’t exist in O’Carolan’s day or have evolved to a great extent. I hope the work is a fitting homage to the inspiring if not somewhat legendary life story of Ireland’s last great bard.
*There is some debate among scholars as to whether Turlough O’Carolan (Irish: Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) should be referred to as “O’Carolan” or simply as “Carolan”. Though historic record confirms the composer referred to himself as “Carolan,” as did his closest friends (completely ignoring his first name), the “O'” prefix is universally included in modern usage when formally referring to someone whose surname is preceded by it. My personal preference is to include the prefix out of respect to the composer.
For further reading about the life and music of Turlough O’ Carolan:
O’Sullivan, Donal. Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper. Cork, Ireland: Ossian Publications, 2001 .
Rowsome, Catríona. The Complete Carolan Songs & Airs. Dublin, Ireland: Waltons Publishing, 2011.