Sometimes a tune comes down through the folk harp repertoire in a simplified form. This is not to say that the tune doesn’t sound great but it does mean that an older form of the tune has sometimes been ‘lost’. Well when I say ‘sometimes’, I actually mean ‘often’ – as my research is steadily revealing! I really enjoy tracking harp tunes back to the earliest source I can find. As a music historian, I find it is the cultural context of the tunes that is just as interesting and revealing to me as playing the piece itself. The historical context also helps me to find my own interpretation of the pieces I play, which in turn informs my arrangements. In this blog I would like to share with you an arrangement I have done of The Chanter’s Tune.
I tracked this tune back to the third volume of Edward Bunting’s publication The Ancient Music of Ireland, arranged for pianoforte published in Dublin in 1840. Bunting claimed he collected the tune from E. Shannon in 1839 but the author and date of composition was unknown. This was one of the first tunes I learnt on folk harp and in Australia at least it is very popular. Today we usually play it in D Dorian mode, so the harp is in the key of C major but the tonic is D (the second scale degree). The tune is good for beginners because a D drone – either as a single note or a fifth – can be played in the bass through the whole piece underneath the melody. This gives the tune a strong regular beat in the bass on the first beat of the bar. As the piece is most often notated in simple quadruple time or 4/4, it often feels a bit like a march. Even when the piece is notated in cut common time, the repeated note on beats one and two at the beginning of the piece set a strong sense of two with the first half of each bar emphasized more than the second. The overall effect is one of weight and a regular rhythmic duple structure.
Returning to the version published by Bunting, however, there is a feeling of lightness with the staccato articulation and a feeling of three in the timing. The emphasis in the rhythmic structure is different and quite delightful. To me it echoes the preference in the early nineteenth century for the Classical music style and the continued influence of elements from the Baroque that was also seen in publications of folk music. Bunting notated his Chanter’s Tune in 2/4 time, which has the effect of halving the main note values to quavers instead of crotchets. This shortening of the note lengths keeps everything lighter and implies a faster tempo than the piece is often played when it is in simple quadruple time. A careful review of Bunting’s version also reveals that the first three notes in the bar are given a staccato articulation which keeps the first part of the bar, or one and a half beats, light and consistent in timbre. The second half of the bar (only a half beat) has a normal articulation making it feel smoother and warmer. This also gives weight to the last quaver in the bar making it feel like an upbeat into the next bar. This completely inverts the way The Chanter’s Tune is played today. Bunting notes that it should be played “A Little Slow and Distinctly” but gives a quaver equals 116 tempo marking, which is still quite fast normally but metronome markings could be variable in 1840!
Finally I want to make one more observation. While normally we would play the tune in Dorian mode, the Bunting version has more of a Mixolydian sensibility. The key signature has a B flat and the tonic is F but there is an E flat accidental in the melody line. Bunting didn’t like modes much and tried to put the tunes he collection into a major or minor key. I think it is more appropriate, however, that we think of Bunting’s version as being in F Mixolydian (F being the fifth scale degree of the foundation major key of B flat). Musicians think about Dorian mode as a minor mode because of its close association with a natural minor scale and Mixolydian as a major mode because of its close association with the major scale. As a result Bunting’s version is slightly more upbeat but it loses some of the ‘ancient’ feel of the Dorian mode. Well I think that is enough from me. I haven’t altered the tune very much from Bunting to keep it as true to his version as possible but I have made it a bit more playable and accessible for the upper beginner level harpist of today. Just click on the following link for the pdf. Feel free to play and share my arrangement with others. All I ask for is acknowledgement. See if you can hear the difference and let me know what you think!