Practising What I Preach (Reflectively)

There’s not much point in encouraging our students to complete their reflective diaries if I don’t reflect upon my own practice.  Indeed the main purpose of this blog is to provide myself with a place where I can reflect on the various creative activities that I pursue.

Tonight, I’m reflecting on my musical arrangements.  I generally arrange small-scale pieces, often traditional tunes, for small instrumental or vocal ensembles, and last night I decided it was time to do another.  I had been teaching a new hymn to the choir, when I began to realise that the perfectly competent setting of a modernised psalm text to a traditional tune was really rather incongruous.  The lyrics were fine; archaicisms had been removed, so “Thou” becomes “You”, and “Thine” becomes “Yours”, but not much else had changed.  However, the setting of ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ (aka ‘Macpherson’s Lament’) in four-part harmony – four chords to a bar – really irritated me.  Yes, of course this is my personal preference – I don’t claim that my opinions bear any more weight than the next person’s, and I’m not saying there’s anything at all harmonically wrong with the setting in the hymn book.  (Hear it HERE.)

How would this song originally have been sung?  Well, ‘originally’ is conceptually a bit of a problem, because you first have to decide when the ‘original’ era actually was!  In this case it was clearly during the eighteenth century.*  So let’s assume that it was originally SUNG, maybe with a fiddle and/or a cello.  To put it in historical context, whoever wrote the tune more than likely wrote it during or shortly after Johann Sebastian Bach’s era, but the performance context could not be further removed from an SATB chorale setting in a Lutheran church, for ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ was just a song about a fiddler who had got on the wrong side of the law – and smashed his fiddle before he was hung, rather than leave it for a lesser musician to play!

Because folk tunes are so singable, they’re tempting fare for hymn-writers.  (Indeed, 1844, Reverend Roland Hill passed the comment, “The Devil should not have all the best tunes.”  This observation has since been attributed to several different authorities, but that’s irrelevant here.**)  Now, there is no right or wrong answer to the question of how to set a trad tune.  Whatever the lyrics, many people believe that traditional tunes should have straightforward harmonic settings, but as many more feel that they should just be set in appropriate contemporary style.  This is how it came about that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Gaelic festival known as The Mod produced books of Gaelic songs in SATB settings suitable for choral singing.  Hymns at the time were set in homophonic (chordal) SATB idiom, and the rather old-fashioned Highlanders adopted a similar style for their Gaelic tunes.

What annoyed me was that, in 2005, here was the same decorated homophonic style being perpetuated, forcing a  rather lovely traditional tune into a four-square SATB straitjacket. To me, the fast-moving chords detracted from a tune that was elegant in its simplicity.  Joseph Ritson, way, way back in the late eighteenth century, wrote a rather poetic metaphor about traditional tunes, in which he likened folk tunes to a simple country lass, whilst he likened art tunes to a primped and corseted fine London gentlewoman.  It’s too much of a generalisation, and too simplistic by far, but – had things changed so little?

At the same time, I hasten to add that I fully realise we can’t have a twenty-first century congregation lustily singing a psalm to the accompaniment of a fiddle and cello!  Nonetheless, I immediately came home from choir practice and booted up Finale Songwriter to devise an arrangement suitable for congregation and organ without requiring the choir to sing the whole thing in fast-moving chordal harmony.

What I ended up with was a setting for unison voices, with the organ chords moving two to a bar rather than four.  I used fairly conventional twentieth century harmony with the odd seventh, but nothing very innovative, and I tried to make the bassline fairly decisive – it lent itself to stepwise downward movement in the verse, and bigger intervals with some cycles of fifths (V7-I) in the chorus.

Controversially, I’ve added a couple of organ bars at the end so that the tune can end on the tonic chord.  This is absolutely not how it would have been intended originally, and Scottish music enthusiasts will confirm that it’s not unusual to end “in a different key” or with the tune on something other than the tonic note.  However, my twist rounds it off into a conventional V-I cadence, because church congregations tend to feel slightly adrift if a tune doesn’t seem to “end right”!  Listen to a midi file of my version HERE.

Because this is a reflective posting, I can’t rule out that I might not make further changes to my setting at a later date…

* Here’s some information about ‘Macpherson’s Rant’, on Susannes Folksong-Notizen

** And here’s the story of Reverend Hill’s outburst

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3 thoughts on “Practising What I Preach (Reflectively)”

  1. I’ve always thought one of the best approaches to harmonising traditional song (tunes) is that of the Watersons: lots of octave unisons, parallel motion, and general whooping. A million miles from SATB but for me a very powerful approach.

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