The traditional music of Ireland has been a love of mine since I was very young. From the dance spectacular of “Riverdance” that took off in the ’90s and the beautiful voice of Mary Black (thanks to my sister), Irish music found my ears as a child and has since then certainly remained one of my favorite genres to listen to.
When concerning ourselves with traditional Irish music, most pieces would generally fall into two categories: dance music or song. There certainly are pieces in Irish music which are only meant to be played without dance or words, but the majority of the repertoire is what I will focus on in this project. I, unfortunately, can not go in to much detail about the dance forms as I would like, in order to focus on the musical aspects as much as possible. However, I will provide supplementary links at the end if you wish to explore it further.
Irish dance relies heavily on meter and rhythm. The most popular form of dance, known as step dancing, has two different styles of hard-shoe and soft-shoe. Step dancing involves the dancer tapping out rhythms with their feet to the music (this, however, does not occur in the soft-shoe style, but steps are still intricately placed in a specific rhythm). Therefore, the musical meter must not be complex or mixed as to make the dancer’s performance even more difficult.
The step dances of Ireland can be broken down into four basic categories: jigs (in 6/8 or 9/8 time), reels (in 4/4 or 2/4 time), hornpipes (in 2/4 or 4/4, slightly more syncopated), or set dances, which come in a variety of meters.
These different dances have their “standard” repertoire pieces that musicians and dancers are familiar with. For example, one of the most popular hornpipes that is performed is called “King of the Fairies” and you probably wouldn’t be able to find an Irish trad player who doesn’t know the tune. Therefore, when Irish trad players are undergoing their training, they learn all of these pieces (usually by ear and not by sheet music) and master them to the point that they can begin to ornament them during performance. The term ornament in music refers to the embellishment of a piece of music, whether by slightly changing rhythms or adding certain notes without distorting the overall phrase or melody. In other words, when an Irish musician plays, they rarely ever play the same thing twice.
This following link is a video of Matt Molloy, considered by most to be the king of Irish flute playing, performing a reel called “The Buck of Oranmore”. Notice a few things while watching this video: the absence of music, the musicians’ posture, the agility of his fingers, the simplicity of the melody yet the complexity of the embellishments the flute presents, etc. From a flute player’s perspective, this type of playing is incredibly difficult to master because of the rapid pace the fingers must move and the jumping of intervals between low and high is especially difficult for maintaining clarity. This type of music, in order for it to be played at this level, must be instilled in the performer so that they know the piece backwards and forwards. And the energy that must be presented is essential.
Song (Ballads, Laments, and Pub Music)
A very old tradition of song and a staple of Irish music is that of sean-nós (meaning ‘old style’ in the Irish language) singing. This is a style of song which is sung unaccompanied, usually in an informal setting such as a pub, and is highly ornamented and melismatic in nature. The songs are typically sung in Irish but there are many variations of this, usually combining English or another language. The lyrics may comprise of a ballad, lament, lullaby, or many other forms. It is often encouraged for the audience to participate in the singing and be insisting towards the singer, especially in the refrains.
Here is a great example of exceptional sean-nós, sung by Iarla Ó Lionáird. It is considered to be a suantrai, or lullaby:
No trip to the pub could be complete without hearing a ballad or two in the set. In Irish culture, it is more common for a story to be sung rather than spoken. The traditional folk music of Ireland is filled with legends of mythological characters, laments, love ballads, and stories about the many hardships that the Irish people endured through famine, religious conflict, and colonial rule. Songs such as “Boolavogue”, written in 1898 by Patrick Joseph McCall, reenact the scenes of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and are still widely popular in Ireland today. The ballad entitled “The Foggy Dew”, which tells the story of the famous Easter Uprising of 1916, has been arranged and recorded by many different artists, which is a typical custom in Irish traditional music. Many folk songs that have survived the years are performed by multiple Irish recording artists or by the many pub traditional bands that play throughout Ireland and the world. Songs are an important staple in the Irish culture and they have helped the Irish to share their emotions and experiences with one another.
Here are two contrasting examples of the famous ballad “The Foggy Dew”. The first is a more traditional interpretation by the popular group The Dubliners. The second, a performance by another group known as The Chieftains with singer Sinead O’Connor. This shows how ballads continue to be a staple of Irish music and are constantly being recorded and reinterpreted.
The piece that I will be performing in my recital is called “In Ireland” by composer Hamilton Harty. My goal is to be able to evoke the atmosphere of all of these examples with similar ornamentation techniques and also with my sound production. Let’s see what happens!
I hope you enjoyed some of the examples I gave you. There are some extras at the bottom that I couldn’t help but sharing as well… let me know if you would like any more or have any questions!
Next week, I hope to be sharing my experiences in India this past December. Thanks for reading and a BIG thank you to those who provided me with answers to last week’s questions. It is so interesting hearing what others think about this and it was much appreciated!
Wishing everyone a great week,
Jean Butler dancing a slip-jig from Riverdance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhV0oehcVlE
Nell Ní Chróinín singing sean-nós: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBmWqxUF7LI
A more contemporary song by Phil Colclough and sung by Mary Black: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRdDnpkR3AQ
An excellent bodhrán (Irish drum) solo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqVvUXsA7is