Finding the Words

This post was written in preparation for our May 2019 concert, Found Objects.

“Music takes a long time to speak—much longer than words by themselves”

—Ralph Vaughan Williams

Poetry and song have been natural companions since time immemorial, but in Western Classical music, it wasn’t until the Romantic Era (c. 1780-1910) that composers had the novel notion of marrying poetry and music in a way that made them equal partners. Romantic composers felt that when a poet expresses joy, angst or longing, the music should respond sympathetically.

Vaughan Williams by RothensteinFree to venture beyond the sometimes limiting boundaries of tonal harmony, composers granted themselves more and more freedom to bend music to the needs of poetic expression. Though time and style have marched on, this idealistic notion of harmonic and poetic symbiosis remained deeply embedded in the realm of art song. In fact, with the coming of the 20th century and more daring, chromatic writing, it could be asserted that this relationship between text and music has only become stronger.

And so it was late in December of 1957 that Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) spent his Christmas break poring over the expansive literary universe of William Blake (1757-1827). Vaughan Williams had been asked to compose music for a documentary about the life and works of the poet, and became so engrossed in his work that he completed Ten Blake Songs over his vacation.

Vaughan Williams selected most of the poetry for his song cycle from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The volume, representing Blake’s most well-known works, explores the contrasts between happy, fearless vulnerability (Innocence) and negative, societal and religious norms (Experience). The tenth poem was excerpted from Blake’s notebook.

Blake Songs

Infant Joy” (Innocence)
A Poison Tree” (Experience)
“The Piper” (Innocence, originally entitled “Introduction“)
London” (Experience)
The Lamb” (Innocence)
The Shepherd” (Innocence)
Ah! Sun-flower” (Experience)
“Cruelty Has a Human Heart” (Experience, originally entitled “A Divine Image“)
The Divine Image” (Innocence)
“Eternity” (originally entitled “Several Questions Answered“, excerpted)

William Blake by Thomas PhillipsWriting music to support and convey the poetry of William Blake is no small task. To say Blake was unappreciated during his lifetime is a bit of an understatement: many of his contemporaries labeled him as mad! Both a visual artist and a poet, Blake’s works often revealed his controversial views on religion, the equality of women and minorities, democracy, and sexuality. Thus, many of his works were unpopular in his time while others remained unpublished for fear of prosecution.

Since Vaughan Williams had long proven his prowess in orchestrating massive works, his decision to score Ten Blake Songs for tenor or soprano voice and oboe reveals his personal understanding of Blake’s work. In fact, his selection of poems oscillates seamlessly between Innocence and Experience, providing the continuity of contrast intended by the poetry.

Vaughan Williams’ minimal scoring provides a juxtaposition of folk-like melodies against restless chromaticism and blatant dissonance, mirroring Blake’s poetic exploration into the contrasts of Innocence and Experience. Though deceptively simple in construction, these songs present very real musical challenges for both vocalist and oboist.

Emily Curtin Culler, soprano & Jason McKinney, oboe

Guest soprano Emily Curtin Culler and Jason have joyfully explored these songs for our spring performance. For Emily, the delight has been mastering the chromatic musical twists, using them to elevate the texts and deepen their meaning. “I love the colors and shading of the harmonies that were clearly meant for certain words and moments in the poems,” says Emily.

Jason & Emily

Though Emily will be the only one articulating Blake’s words, both vocalist and oboist must keep a watchful eye on the poetry. For Jason, it’s been challenging and rewarding to embody the shape-shifting roles Vaughan Williams wrote into the oboe lines. “One minute you’re fairly drone-like accompaniment, then a syllable later, you’re off and running in conversation with the vocalist!” Jason says.

Manitou Winds is proud to present this classic work combining music and poetry. We hope you’ll join us Saturday, May 11th, 2019, for Found Objects: a concert about finding beauty and meaning amid the seemingly serendipitous.


Inspiration can turn up anyplace, whether or not you’re searching for it. It can be found trailside on a walk through a familiar nature preserve, casually absorbed while people watching from your favorite café window, or even scribbled amid the pages of an old Tony Manfredonianotebook.

Composer Tony Manfredonia and his wife, Maria, were combing through some old samples of her poetry when he found a poem that set off a spark in his imagination.

Maria’s poem, Two Roads, was a reflection on a memorable ride on Forte, an ode to her dear paint horse. Their ride had started out typically, but Forte suddenly bolted wildly, full-speed ahead, throwing Maria, and eventually coming to a halt later down the trail.

“Upon reading her piece, I had the conception,” Tony says, “this would be an awesome backdrop for a new, short work for wind quintet.” It was a serendipitous find, for he’d very recently been commissioned by the Bay View Wind Institute faculty to write a brand new quintet. “Forte was an incredibly special horse for my wife. We felt this work would be a nice homage to his life,” Tony says.

Maria & Forte

Tony went on to write a brilliant character piece for wind quintet entitled Whoa! which premiered in July 2018 at the Bay View Music Festival.

Whoa! is essentially a three-part story in musical form, but is told perhaps just as much from the horse’s perspective as the rider’s. In the first section of the piece, the ride is beginning and there’s a sense of reserved excitement as the trail unfolds before us.

Suddenly, an intense fermata gives way to a galloping ostinato as we’re sent tearing through the forest! The music, rushing past like low branches and flashes of light through the canopy, depicts danger, chaotic panic, or thrilling freedom; it all depends on your perspective! Tony built in several colorful musical effects to showcase the voices of the quintet—most notably the unmistakable neighing made possible by clarinet and horn.


The final section of the piece finds rider and horse recovering from the sudden flurry of energy. Tony unravels the themes as the music gradually fades like the slowing of a pulse. The final note—an audible punctuation mark played by flute, oboe, and clarinet—has the unmistakable air of playful mischief in it.

Manitou Winds is proud to present this exciting recent work! We hope you’ll join us Saturday, May 11th, 2019, for Found Objects: a concert about finding beauty and meaning amid the seemingly serendipitous.

Maria & Forte

Special thanks to Tony and Maria for allowing us to share their personal photos of Forte. You can learn more about Tony Manfredonia and his growing catalog of works by visiting his website.

Spinning Tales from Seven Bagatelles

This post was written in preparation for our May 2019 concert, Found Objects.

What is a bagatelle? Is it a fancy pasta shape traditionally served in a light béarnaise sauce? A hearty Italian bread served alongside a cheeseboard? Actually, it’s neither of those things, though you’re welcome to go and invent either when you’re done reading this article (please send me the recipe if you do). No, it turns out a bagatelle is anything of little value or substance—a trifle (sorry, not the kind with custard and ladyfingers).

As best we can tell, in 1717, François Couperin (1668-1733) was the first composer to apply the term to musical ideas. When given that title, we’re left to believe a piece is something the composer came up with while just playing around, not really putting great effort or thought into it.

Still, as music journalist Stephen Johnson said, “In all these [bagatelles], from Couperin to Ligeti, there’s a sense of something discovered while just ‘playing around’—something which, in several cases, turned out to be anything but ‘mere’.”

This is certainly the case with Peter Schickele’s Seven Bagatelles for woodwind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet, & bassoon). While the rhythms and isolated lines are not overly complicated, the seemingly abstract harmonies and characters packed underneath each vague but evocative title are no trifling matter.

Most concertgoers know the music of Peter Schickele (b. 1935) thanks, in part, to his alter alias PDQ Bach. Though much of Schickele’s output is peppered with satire and humor, the true Peter Schickeleheart of his work has always been serious Classical music (truth: he resists describing any music as “serious”).

Because they’re short and intriguing, Shickele’s wildcard collection of musical vignettes sprang immediately to mind when I set about selecting repertoire for our Spring 2019 concert, Found Objects. As I began researching the selections on the program, I was surprised to discover virtually nothing had been written about this work.

Written when the composer was 27 years old, Shickele’s Seven Bagatelles contains seven very brief movements, each with a curious title:

I. Three-Legged March
II. Serenade
III. Walking Song
IV. City Song
V. Game
VI. Country Song
VII. River

At the top left of most sheet music, tempo indications are printed which prescribe both the speed and the mood a musician should emulate throughout the piece (e.g., Allegro literally means lively in Italian). The movements in this collection contain no musical instructions at all other than occasional articulations and dynamic suggestions; cold, numerical metronome settings provide the tempos. There are no program notes; no backstory is provided on any page. It’s as though the composer expects us to draw our own conclusions about the meaning of the titles and how they relate to the music that follows.

Each movement begins with no introduction and promptly ends before it’s really had a chance to take off; many of the endings sound less than final. In short, Schickele seems to have made every effort to be vague, leaving almost everything to our imagination.

While it is at times sparse and perhaps playfully obtuse, I never once considered this music “trifling”. Almost immediately, I came to see these bagatelles as a collection of unfinished musical short stories with vastly different settings and characters, united only by their having been gathered into a single work written by a single composer.

Sam Clark, flute; Jason McKinney, oboe; Anne Bara, clarinet; Christina Duperron, bassoon; & Jan Ross, reader

As a creative exercise, I decided to turn each of Schickele’s bagatelles into a writing prompt—composing a literary interpretation for each musical short story. As an accompaniment to our quartet’s performance of Seven Bagatelles, our reader, Jan Ross, will perform my Seven Unfinished Stories between movements.

I. Role-Playing ✣ Three-Legged March
II. The Barista ✣ Serenade
III. Plot Thickeners ✣ Walking Song
IV. The Cabin ✣ City Song
V. Word Search ✣ Game
VI. Shades of Blue ✣ Country Song
VII. Elusive ✣ River

Like each movement of the music, each story drops us into a different setting amid the saga of completely unrelated characters, either at the beginning, middle, or end of their story. The stories are “unfinished” because they conclude with a cliff-hanger, a lingering question, or they’re a full scene but clearly not the end of the story.

We hope you’ll join us Saturday, May 11th, 2019, for Found Objects: a concert about finding beauty and meaning amid the seemingly serendipitous. Together, we’ll explore these seven musical scenes and others we’ve found along the way.

Found Objects

Do inanimate objects have a narrative, a story to tell from their perspective? Can ordinary objects be viewed as works of art? Artists have explored this concept throughout history in one form or another, but composer Jenni Brandon (b. 1977) may be the first to set this inanimate narrative to music.

Jenni-BrandonThis spring, Manitou Winds will perform three movements from Jenni’s “Found Objects: On the Beach”. The six-movement trio, commissioned in 2014 for the PEN Trio, is a colorful, imaginative work bringing to life the narratives of “natural artifacts” the composer discovered on her walks along the coast in Long Beach, California. The motifs and themes of each movement perform double duty, setting the scene while inviting the listener into a world viewed from the perspective of each object.

Movement one, Tumbled Stones depicts the power of the ocean’s currents and waves as they tumble and sculpt the stones littering the sand. With her masterful skills of tone painting, Jenni uses the three voices of the trio (oboe, clarinet, & bassoon) in rising and falling patterns to depict waves. The rounded waves are punctuated by playful motifs depicting the pounding surf and tales of each stone’s journey.

Our trio has enjoyed navigating and negotiating the musical challenges built into this movement—practically a synchronized dance for three! In order to avoid stepping on the toes of your partners, performing it requires knowing the other two parts as intimately as your own. We have to communicate constantly throughout the performance to keep each other in balance, but — at the same time — we have to allow each other the freedom to express our parts individually. The first movement of this trio, in particular, really forces us to flex our ensemble and musiciality muscles!


Kelly Green Sea Glass, movement two, is a beautiful unaccompanied clarinet solo. While finding glass on the beach can be dangerous, over time sand and sea wear away at its sharp edges to create small gem-like pieces. Gradually, the “gems” dissolve into tiny particles of sand, returning to their origin. Through the use of a special technique (timbral trill), Jenni tells a story of sea glass as it stares at the sun from beneath shallow waters. IMG_5536The melody rises and falls, shimmering and gradually disappearing.

The third movement we’ll perform for the concert is the final movement of the trio: Seashells. Jenni chose a lilting waltz as the storytelling medium for these colorful natural works of art. Just as each seashell is slightly different from the next, the context and color of the melody changes throughout the movement before the ocean waves eventually return, creating a rousing conclusion.

Up north, along the coast of Lake Michigan, where the water is unsalted and the waves are (usually) smaller, we can still appreciate these musical narratives about water’s beauty and its power to change the world around us. Though many of the rocks we find on our beaches were left behind by glaciers carving out our inland seas, they tell a compelling tale nonetheless (including the Petoskey stones). Thanks to a hopefully small cadre of careless beachgoers, we can even occasionally find sea glass all along Lake Michigan’s beaches in many shades!

We’re delighted to present another excellent work by Jenni Brandon, one of our favorite contemporary composers and a champion for modern chamber music. We hope you’ll join us May 11, 2019, to hear the trio as part of our spring concert, “Found Objects”.


To learn more about Jenni Brandon and her growing catalog of works, visit her website. To discover more about Manitou Winds’ ongoing exploration of Jenni’s music, click here to read past articles from our Manitou-Zine.

Album Release Party!

On Saturday, March 9, 2019, we invited everyone to Rove Estate Vineyard & Winery in Leelanau County to celebrate with us in the release of our debut album, First Flight. An afternoon of excellent local wine and beautiful local music, it was great to visit with you and share some selections from our album along with some newer things we’ve been working on.


fullsizeoutput_2d99In addition to the award-winning wines and beautiful charcuterie platings from Rove, we were dishing out a Double-Decker Detroit-Style Bumpy Cake from Oryana Community Co-Op.

It isn’t often a local chamber group has the opportunity to create and produce an album. The best part of the party for us, was the opportunity to thank, face to face, many of the people who made our album possible through their donations at our concerts or during last autumn’s Kickstarter campaign.

In our first performance set, we performed colorful quintets:

Shetland Air & Reel — Traditional Shetland, arr. J.T. McKinney
flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, & bassoon

Royal Garden Blues — Clarence & Spencer Williams, arr. Ken Abeling
flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, & bassoon

The Old Ash Tree — J.T. McKinney
flute, clarinet, bassoon, guitar, & harp

A Fine Winter’s Day — J.T. McKinney
flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, bassoon, & guitar


After more chatting (and cake and wine) we performed a second set of mixed quartets & trios:

Lytlington Tune — S.H. Nicholson, arr. J.T. McKinney
flute, clarinet, & harp

Summer Waltz — Laura Hood
flute, clarinet, guitar, & harp

Seoithín Seo Hó — Traditional Irish, arr. J.T. McKinney
flute, clarinet, & harp

First Flight — Laura Hood
flute, clarinet, guitar, & harp

III. The Night the Goats Came Home — Traditional Cape Breton, arr. J.T. McKinney
flute, clarinet, & harp

Photo Mar 09, 4 04 12 PM


We hope you enjoyed the party as much as we did! If you didn’t have a chance to purchase a copy of the album during the festivities, please stop by our CD table at our next concert. Or you can visit CD Baby any time to order a copy or download it to your preferred device.

Winter Songs & Carols: Our 2018 Concert Program

Our 2018 Winter Songs & Carols program was tremendous fun to present and an exciting evening for both performances! We were honored to perform with two very special guests: Emily Curtin Culler, soprano, and Katherine Drago Luellen, mezzo-soprano.

The year had been a very busy one for the ensemble: multiple concerts, a fundraising campaign, a recording project, and recording sessions. Needless to say, we were happy to put together this program of favorite wintry pieces pulled from past programs plus a few new pieces to spice things up!

2017 WS&C, Grace Episcopal Church

We presented an updated arrangement of Gregory Norbett’s Winter’s Coming Home which Jason arranged for our performance with Emily. You can watch the premiere performance right here!

We premiered a joyful, Celtic-flavored original work by Jason entitled A Fine Winter’s Day inspired by a full day of sledding in Leelanau County. We pulled together a truly unique instrumentation for the occasion: flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, bassoon, & guitar! Watch the premiere performance here!

We premiered another original work entitled Midwinter Twilight which Jason composed especially for our upcoming debut album. It was an intertwining of music and narration depicting a fiery sunset just after the winter solstice. It was a fun experience (and challenge) incorporating narration into live performance! If you weren’t able to join us you’ll just have to wait for your copy of the album to hear the piece.

2017 WS&C, Grace Episcopal Church

As usual, admission to the concert was free. Freewill offerings from our audiences at both performances helped to raise funds for the Friday Community Lunch at Grace Episcopal Church, arts and music programs at the Leelanau School, and operating expenses for our ensemble. Many thanks to our audience for helping us help our community.

And special thanks to our hosts (Grace Episcopal Church, the Leelanau School, and Glen Arbor Arts Center) who provided wonderful venues and support for both concerts.

2018 WS&C, Leelanau School 2018 WS&C, Leelanau School

We so enjoy presenting this annual concert—a beautiful, meaningful way to kick off the holiday season each year. We especially enjoy the opportunity to talk with you afterward and hope you’ll join us at a performance in our 2019 season!

Translating A Sunset

As musicians, we translate written music—the composer’s instructions and all the technical demands—into an active, emotional experience for an audience. During our rehearsals, we often discuss where we think a piece is going—the story it’s telling, the images it brings to our minds, or the characters our instruments are becoming in the unfolding drama.

Unlike a painting or a sculpture, music is a temporal art form—art which exists only in the moment we experience it. We musicians spark a rippling effect, igniting the air with vibration, enlivening it with pulsating rhythms and patterns. It doesn’t stop there, though. Musical art is the shared experience between the composer’s plans, the musicians’ interpretation, and the audience’s imagination and spirit. Each performance is a new creation!

As both a musician and a composer, I relish the challenge of translating my personal memories, reflections, and creative musings into music. I’m honored to share my music with musicians I trust and admire—who will partner with me to create an earnest and heartfelt experience for an audience.

Last winter, on an evening drive into Traverse City, I was awestruck by a scarlet sunset. As I hurtled past the naked forest and snow-covered furrows bathed in those last few moments of daylight, I couldn’t help taking a mental picture. It was a picture of light and color as emotion and sound, of winter as a beginning rather than an end.


I’m excited to share with you on our debut album the premiere of the musical essay (Midwinter Twilight) that grew from that small moment. The music depicts the colors of a fiery twilight flickering through bare branches along a deserted country road, and the rush of memories of all four seasons across a single landscape. Interwoven into the musical score is narration taken from my personal journal, drawing parallels between sound and light, nature and music.

On behalf of Manitou Winds, I’d like to thank you for making music with us—by being an active participant in the art we create in our concerts and by making a pledge that has enabled us to create our debut album. We truly could not make our art without you.

Jason McKinney

P.S. Looking forward to visiting with all of you at this year’s Winter Songs & Carols performances where you can hear the first-ever live performance of Midwinter Twilight!

A Celtic Summertide: Thank You!

Thank You to everyone who came out to experience “A Celtic Summertide” with us at the Oliver Art Center in Frankfort! It was a lovely evening of music and art made all the lovelier by the warmth of your company.
Ellie Harold, artist
The gallery became filled to capacity before the concert began and so many audience members were asked to sit in hallways or stand where possible. Unfortunately many others had to be turned away due to legal limits for capacity at the venue.
Oliver Art Center
A Celtic Summertide by Manitou Winds
We apologize for any disappointment and inconvenience this may have caused any of our friends. As part of our planning for the next summer concert in Frankfort, we are working to secure a larger venue in the hope that you will all join us again for another wonderful evening.

The concert program was a journey across the Celtic realm with music from the Shetland Islands, Scotland, Ireland, and Nova Scotia in many different combinations of instruments.
A Celtic Summertide
We were honored to be joined by Emily Curtin Culler, soprano, who premiered a brand new collection of traditional Irish folk songs set for soprano and wind quintet.
Emily Curtin Culler, soprano
Ellie Harold, artist
In addition to the musical journey, we were delighted to be joined by Frankfort artist, Ellie Harold, who dazzled our audience by bringing a brand new painting to life over the course of the program.

Jason in Studio AJust a few days before the performance, our founder, Jason McKinney, was invited to perform in Studio A at Interlochen Public Radio and share a bit about the program and talk about working with the music of Turlough O’Carolan. You can listen to the full interview here and watch Jason performing a harp solo in Studio A on the IPR Facebook Page.

Thank you to our entire Northern Michigan community for helping to make our performance a success. We are especially grateful to all those who gave donations toward our upcoming recording project.

The Old Ash Tree

IMG_6442One of my fondest memories of moving to our home in northern Michigan was waking up on the morning after the move, looking out the window, and seeing the old ash tree at the edge of the front lawn. It was majestic and stately, easily setting itself apart from the scraggly ironwoods around it.

As seasons rolled by, I saw the tree in many different lights and characters, in sunlight and moonlight. It became a prominent feature in my mental map of our property. And so, when it became apparent the tree was suffering a slow death by infestation, my heart sank. We were powerless, unable to save the tree and its sisters.

The ash tree plays a significant role in Celtic mythology. The ash tree was often seen as the central column of the Tree of Life. Sometimes referred to as the World Tree, the ash was believed to be a bridge between worlds — like a cosmic axis running from Annwn (the lower world), Abred (this world), Gwynvid (the upper world), and disappearing finally into Ceugant (eternity).

When the arborists came in May 2017 to remove the ash trees, I tried to carry on with my office work. I tried ignoring the chainsaws and chippers roaring mere feet away, but it was impossible to deny the irreversible and permanent changes taking place outside. I was gradually overcome with a heavy, inexpressible sadness. Hearing a bittersweet tune in my head, I sat at my piano and wrote it down. With an uncharacteristic finality, I wrote “The Old Ash Tree” at the top.

The Old Ash Tree 1

Knowing the ash tree’s importance in Celtic symbolism and lore, I felt it was appropriate to orchestrate this tune for our Celtic concert. But while exploring the tune further — turning it over and over, adding layers, expanding themes — something unexpected happened. The metaphor behind the tune expanded beyond the ash tree to encompass my own family tree.

My paternal grandfather (Paw Paw Bryant) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease around 1997 when he was in his early sixties. Bryant McKinney Sr.The news was hard to bear, and — having witnessed the disease overtake many of his siblings — there was not a lot of hope for the future.

Paw Paw was a constant presence in my childhood — a bottomless source of encouragement, discipline, and inspiration, always making time to indulge our curiosities. He was gentle yet persistent in doling out wisdom. He was nearly always right, but rather than tell you so repeatedly, he would usually set out to prove it or suffer impressive injury in the attempt.

Always a fan of spinning tales from his childhood, he fostered in me a love of storytelling. He seldom scolded me even when it was apparent I might be exaggerating details to make my story more compelling.

One of my most vivid memories of Paw Paw is when he told me he often climbed persimmon trees to pick fruit for his mother and sisters. I was skeptical, but before I could complete my sentence, he had shinnied up the trunk of the old persimmon tree, and was readying to chuck the fruit down to me. The best fruits, he said, are in the tops of the trees, and Paw Paw was always right.

He instilled in me and my brothers a work ethic that’s unrelenting, fascinated with seeing a job through. Though he may have sometimes been the very reason we were in danger, he was also the reason we were perfectly safe and had no reason to be afraid. To my mind, he’s never aged a single year, but reality tells a different tale.

Jason with his father & grandfather Jason with his father & grandfather

It’s been 20 years since his diagnosis. While it’s nothing short of a miracle that he’s still with us, watching his slow descent into the barrenness of the disease has been The Old Ash Tree 3painful. On visits, I’ve witnessed his mind oscillate unpredictably between the present and the past. I’ve seen genuine fear in his eyes as he describes losing himself, getting lost in the woods — a place he’s known like the back of his hand. He can no longer venture out on his own.

The Old Ash Tree is dedicated to my grandfather, Bryant McKinney. In it, I hope to capture his strength, the beauty of the humble life he’s led, and his role as a central axis in my family, the main branch in our tree of life. I also wanted to portray his bravery and stubbornness, his constant fight against a disease that steals his mind inch by inch, day by day.

I’ve woven a central tune throughout the piece, similar to a rondo form. Each time it returns, it reminds me that Alzheimer’s may silence our loved ones, but it doesn’t erase them. Paw Paw hears us, but he can’t always let us know that he understands; he remembers and loves us, but he can’t always express it.

The Old Ash Tree 2Writing the piece was difficult for me because it meant confronting my grief and sharing it at the same time. Deciding on an ending was probably the most challenging moment. Our lives don’t end with neat and tidy cadences, and I didn’t think it was fitting for this piece to do that either. Instead, the central tune slowly retreats, weightlessly drifting off into the light.

When I visit the stump of the old ash tree, I still sense the space that immense tree occupied. Its roots remain, still holding the earth in place. The rings of its life, now on display, are weathered the color of stone. When a breeze stirs the slowly encroaching understory, I look up to see the opening it left behind in the canopy. Sun streams down, warming the forest floor. New saplings are slowly emerging.

The Old Ash Tree 4

O’Carolan Reimagined

When I began studying lever harp in 2010, one O'Carolanof 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 Meathcompanion. 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 Athenry Castleverified 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

O'Carolan in Concert

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 Jason's Harpwould 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 [1958]

Rowsome, Catríona. The Complete Carolan Songs & Airs. Dublin, Ireland: Waltons Publishing, 2011.

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