Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Irish music and dance

The harp is the instrument most associated with Ireland from ancient times; it was used for centuries by learned bards who entertained the royal Gaelic courts with recitations of poetry and sagas. After the dissolution of the Gaelic courts ordered by the Cromwellian Act of Settlement in 1652, the bards scattered to the countryside, where they mingled with folk poets, and a general intermarriage of their styles ensued. The classical airs that evolved from such collaboration The Coolun, Roisin Dubh, and Eileen Aroon present a refinement and gravity uncommon in folk music.

Turlough O Carolan

The harpists traveled among the houses of the rural gentry, playing traditional songs and creating new ones on commission. The greatest of these harpists was Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), whose compositions wed a certain European sophistication (perhaps acquired in Dublin) with a native Irish sensibility: Though his melodies are quite lengthy and complex, they also flirt now and again with the popular gapped scales, never losing touch with the folk spirit. Some have become staples of modern Irish ensembles. Another instrument always associated with Ireland is the bagpipe.

Irish bagpipes

The uilleann (pronounced illen) pipes differ from those played in Scotland in that the bellows is pumped with the elbow, a softer reed is used, the drones are slung across the leg of the seated player, and there are keys that change the drone notes when depressed with the heel of the right hand, enabling the player to produce chords.

The uilleann has been called the Irish organ, for it is capable of extremely rich, resonant sound, though with its straps and harnesses it resembles an instrument of torture. The west of Ireland, particularly County Clare, was until recently the home of fine Irish piping; but the recent rise in popularity of Irish music throughout the world has persuaded numbers of young Irish (who might otherwise have belabored guitars) to take up the arduous study of this noble and exacting instrument.

Traditional irish dance music

While traditional dance music is played on pipes as well as fiddles, the big airs the slow and majestic classical tunes are especially moving when played on the expansive pipes. Although the older generation of pipers has passed away, many recordings of such great pipers as Willy Clancy and Leo Rowesome still are available. The McPeakes of Belfast were three generations of harpers, pipers, and singers led by Frank McPeake, reputed to have been the first piper skilled enough to sing to his own accompaniment.

Three of the best pipers were Paddy Maloney, of the Chieftains; Finbar Furey, of the Furey Brothers; and the virtuoso Joe McKenna. The piper produces the melody trills, grace notes, and other flourishes by moving his fingers to open or close the holes of the chanter, or pipe. Flutes and pennywhistles are played in the same way, without tonguing. The great Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman, who emigrated to America and recorded there in the 1920s, evolved a similar ornamental style for his instrument, one which has since become the standard.

Jigs reels and hornpipes

The musical embellishments used by fiddlers, pipers, flutists, and pennywhistlers perfectly suit the structure of Irish dance music the jigs, reels, and hornpipes in which a sinuous and fluid melody rushes along with scarcely a pause for breath, diving and soaring with dizzying exuberance. The stuttering throb of the bodhnin (a handheld drum beaten with a doubleheaded stick) gives the music an irresistible rhythmic momentum more like jazz or flamenco than anything in the other Celtic musical traditions.

The music of County Kerry tends to be less hectic and more regularly cadenced than that of the rest of the country. Some scholars believe it represents an older style. Polkas and schottisches (a Scottish country dance), not found elsewhere in Ireland, are performed in Kerry, as are longer, more elegant dances. A fine example of the latter, which will seem more classical and less Irish to the average listener and more like the harp music of Carolan, is the work of Eugene O'Donnell, the fiddler.

Music in Connemara

The Connemara region on Ireland's far western coast, a rocky and forbidding region north of Galway City, is famous for its singers and for its stately, mysterious ballads. The vocal technique resembles that of piping and Sligo fiddling; some of the notes are changed or the tempo slowed, and the melody is delivered with a multitude of embellishments. The effect can be quite fascinating, as if one were listening to dance music in slow. motion. The recordings of Jue Heaney of Carna provide excellent examples of the ballad style.

Travelling around in Ireland

Whether you want to experience the music and dance in Connemara, Galway, Limerick, or Dublin, you should pre-book airport car hire to pick up when you arrive at Dublin, Belfast or Knock Airport. This will save you time and money and enable you to move from region to region without any hassle.

Ensembles of singers or musicians are not traditional in Ireland. Solo playing was the rule until the 1920s when record companies began to demand lively and audible renditions of dance tunes to supply the dance market in America; this prompted musicians to seek accompanists.

During the 1950s, Sean O'Riada, a serious composer and harpsichordist, hearing the ceifdhe (pronounced kaylee) dance bands that had begun to form and sounded, as someone wrote, like a tree full of blackbirds, conceived the idea of arranging Irish music for an orchestra of traditional instruments.

He gathered a group of fiddlers, pipers, accordionists, whistlers, flutists, and drummers in Dublin and taught them their parts by ear (few could read music). The delightful result was Ceolteori Cualain, the first sophisticated folk music ensemble, for whom O'Riada provided many orchestrations that though they were enriched with harmonies, counterpoint, even rudimentary fugues never lost their simplicity and drive.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

During the 1960s, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem found an audience among folk music fans in America and introduced them to a species of Irish music worlds away from Mother Macree and the other products of the Hibernian division of Tin Pan Alley. Their repertoire included revolutionary and patriotic songs (as well as that pungent Irish subgenre, the antiwar song), sea chanteys, and children's songs, all of them delivered with robust good humour and taste. Since the disappearance of the harpers in the 19th century, music had rarely been a professional undertaking among the Irish, but the Clancys stimulated a new interest, and before long Ireland was in the midst of a ballad boom.

The Dubliners

Among the more successful groups were the Dubliners, a group of four later five men including Ronny Drew, a flamenco guitarist and master of the Dublin street ballad, and Barney McKenna, a wizard who pioneered the application of the Sligo style to the tenor banjo. The Dubliners have proved to be a durable institution, though, like most Irish musicians who want to earn a living by their art, they have had to seek audiences in England and on the Continent.

After the death of Sean O'Riada, a party of his alumni formed the Chieftains to carry on his style and bring it to a wider audience. They tightened the O'Riada sound and began running tunes together in patchwork medleys, sometimes juxtaposing contrasting sounds for dramatic effect. The Chieftains fathered a generation of such ensembles in Ireland and Scotland as well as America, where Celtic bands have begun to proliferate.

Among the best Irish bands were Planxty, Sweenys Men, the Bothy Band, and De Danann; they preserve the charm and melodic richness of traditional music but deliver it with the instrumental daring and emotional impact of rock.

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28 March 2010 23:33  

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