Tag Archives: Folk music

Arranging Folksongs – An Enduring Passion

At work, I’m currently sharing a series of seminars on preserving and transforming Scottish melodies. The first week, we looked at various song collections. The next week, we thought about different angles that were worthy of research, then looked at online resources – both specialist ones that the library subscribes to, and free ones that are simply too good to overlook. And we talked about keeping a bibliography (Mendeley, anyone? Zotero?), and about keeping track of web favourites via Diigo or Google Chrome. (Josh coined the term, “webography”, which is a good way of describing it!) Either way, I strongly recommend keeping a record of which resources you used, for future reference.

Next, we’re talking about taking old tunes and transforming them. I want to demonstrate that you can take an old song from an old songbook and place it in a new setting.  Now then, my Soundcloud account has a number of my arrangements – for saxophone trio and quartet, flute quartet, cello quartet … but I wanted to do something new for next week’s seminar. So this afternoon, I flicked through an old Scottish songbook – not very old in my line of business, just 138 years! – and picked a tune to play with. I found “Farewell to Lochaber”, in a very competent but typically late nineteenth century setting for voice and piano. Actually, the tune goes with Allan Ramsay’s song lyrics. (Ramsay lived 1686-1758).Farewell to Lochaber 1 Brown and Pitttman 001 (572x800)

The songbook is The Songs of Scotland, edited by J. Pittman and Colin Brown, published by Boosey in 1877.  (NB, this is a different publication from George Farquhar Graham’s similarly-named Songs of Scotland published in various editions by John Muir Wood.  I’ve written so much about the Graham/Wood book that I thought I’d better clarify that point!)

I chose to arrange the tune for wind quintet. (The oboe has the tune purely because I’m an oboist!)  I wanted to experiment with five different instruments, because I have done a number of arrangements for multiples of ONE instrument and I fancied a change. It’s a midi file, not a live recording – sorry about that!   LISTEN HERE.

Now, old folksongs do present certain challenges.  For a start – and let’s not get into the tricky question as to how old this tune actually is, or we’ll never get to the notes themselves – they lend themselves to pretty straightforward harmonies, as this example demonstrates.  So it’s always going to be hard to come up with something really original, and if you stray too far from the strait and narrow, you run the risk of spoiling it.  Too many chords per bar certainly wreck the average folk melody, so I avoided that.  However, I quite like sevenths, ninths and temporary clashes that resolve, so if you think I’ve left “wrong notes”, then please be assured that I meant every one of them! My cadences introduce a bit of chromaticism that works in an instrumental setting (in my opinion).  After doing my wind quintet setting, I re-set the piece as a choral arrangement with religious words for my church choir;  I hesitated about replicating these harmonies in a vocal setting, but they worked well enough chorally too.  LISTEN HERE(You can hear the two settings one after another HERE.)

Another consideration is the matter of modality – Victorian compilers got quite concerned about what to do with the “flattened seventh” – the choice is basically either to harmonise it (whether as part of a chord or a temporary clash resolving downwards) – or sharpen it (which I don’t think I’d ever do) – or contrive some other kind of inoffensive discord.  Either way, my harmonies aren’t exactly what you’d put in a more ‘trad’ folksong setting for voice and/or fiddle and guitar.

The other aspect that I particularly concentrate on, after the harmonies, is the interaction between the instrumental (or vocal) lines.  I like to include motifs in the “accompanying” lines, that weave about as a countermelody to the tune itself and recur in different instruments as I go along.  I was quite pleased with this setting, in that regard.

This evening I tried out the choral setting with my choir.  It went quite well, but I had to change a couple of bars where the voices crossed one another.  Where there are two different sounds, the lines remain distinct, but having the soprano and alto crossing over just muddies the sound for the listener.  Also, I changed the underlay of the text in a few places while I was at it.  (You can’t see the text here, but it’s basically some lyrics that I wrote as a “recessional” for the choir to sing at the end of a church service.  I’ve been a church organist so long that finding suitable rhyming words is sadly only too easy for me. There’s nothing wrong with them – they’re just startlingly derivative!)  If you’re involved in church music and would like a copy of the score, do get in touch with me.

There is a mildly humorous side to the whole saga – when I proudly produced my arrangement of a Scottish folksong to my Church of Scotland choir, thinking they’d be enchanted with this Sassenach’s setting of a popular folk melody … they liked it, sure enough – but no-one actually knew the tune!  This just goes to show that fashions change, and tunes that were popular in the 19th century may not still be known today.  Anyway, I’ve just revived it.

What I look forward to, is having the opportunity to discuss the differences in approach between a classical musician with a musicologist’s interest in “trad”, and a trad musician repurposing something that has been preserved in a conventional MOTR (middle of the road) classical collection.  More on this note another day!

Scottish versus English, Folk versus National, Tradition versus Revival …

I’m enjoying Maud Karpeles’s biography of Cecil Sharp.  It’s interesting reading about his folk song collecting, and how he was determined to get folk song back into the school curriculum so that children would get acquainted with their heritage.  He also got involved with Morris and folk dancing, and got quite hot under the collar about well-meaning people who were happy to get the dances DANCED, without being too concerned about the niceties of accuracy.  By all accounts he was an astonishingly dedicated and hard-working individual.

His definition of ‘folk’?  Something passed through the oral tradition, perhaps modified as it was transmitted, but certainly not a “national song” published in a book and henceforth preserved in aspic.  Something more fluid in form, then.

I began thinking about Miss Milligan, who did similar work with Scottish dancing for what became the Royal Scottish Dancing Society.  She, too, decided ‘how it should be’, and tried to set standards and codify steps and dance-movements. (My mother-in-law was her first pianist at Jordanhill Teacher Training College, as it happens.)

Does it not seem that both Cecil Sharp and Miss Milligan, having collected something that they feared would perish if it weren’t revived, then proceeded to try to pin down and ‘fix’ the very traditions that they were saving?  It’s as though each was saying, ‘this is what I consider the purest form of THIS song, THIS dance, and THIS is how it should be from henceforth.’  Indeed, my mother-in-law, a longstanding and loyal member of the RSCDS, later earned a scroll of recognition of her ‘outstanding service and loyalty … maintaining the aims of preserving the standards and traditions of Scottish Country Dancing …’  There it is again – preserving standards and traditions.

But!  This laudable attempt to keep something pure and unchanged is at the same time at variance to the idea of a fluid folk tradition.  Saying, ‘we do it this way, this is the best way, and this is how it must be done’, is a rather risky way of encouraging the next generation to adopt traditions and make them their own.  (We could say the same about churches clinging to metrical psalms, I guess, but I’m not blogging about that just now!)

My thesis touched on some of these arguments in earlier times.  Sharp and Miss Milligan were positively modernists compared to my research into Scottish song collecting from 1760-1888, and I really want to read more before I leap into old arguments with my size three wellies on and upset everyone who knows more about the early 20th century collectors.  More anon, then.  Until then, I must be restrained and willing to be corrected!