Saturday, June 16, 2007

Danny Boy

The title of this piece is Irish Tune from County Derry. There are various notes in the score explaining how Percy Grainger, the composer, came upon this tune, and who he got it from. There is nothing to indicate that he knew of any words that go with it. It has now become a very famous tune indeed, known variously as Danny Boy, or The Londonderry Air, and it comes up for sentimental (and often inebriated) rendition almost as often as Auld Lang Syne or Amazing Grace. If it’s Irish, you hear it. It’s the perfect piece for when you are feeling very emotional indeed, but not quite sure, if asked, why, or what you are feeling emotional about. (It could be that single malt whisky.)

I don’t think it is particularly because of Percy Grainger’s version of the Irish Tune from County Derry that Danny Boy became so famous, but that fact in itself makes all the more remarkable the way in which he seems to have so perfectly captured the essence of the piece, writing this arrangement, as he did, in 1918, of a melody that had first been collected in 1855, and that was not yet widely known. For he seems to offer us, with utmost perfection, that mixture of innocence and agony, simplicity and heart-wrenching angst, that a melody like this captures all in a single arc.

I have an amusing memory of this piece that I should have mentioned in Concert Disasters. I was conducting an outdoor summer concert in San Diego, and the location of the San Diego Symphony’s summer concerts lies right under the flight path of San Diego International Airport. We were about a third of the way through Irish Tune from County Derry (the very quiet bit, as you shall hear) when a Boeing 747 took off, and climbed at full throttle, passing right overhead. It was, shall I say, loud. I figured the San Diego Symphony was probably used to this sort of thing, and should be quick on the uptake. So I simply froze in mid-beat. I waited, maybe 35 seconds, until the plane was far enough away for me to be able to detect whether or not the orchestra was playing, solely by using my ears rather than my eyes, and then I continued beating from the exact point where I had stopped. The orchestra did likewise, and the performance was completed without the slightest confusion or doubt. Ah! If only all orchestras were so responsive.

Well, back to the matter in hand.

Percy Grainger was a strange fellow. Born in Australia of English forbears, he became an American Citizen. He was rather a racist, I am sorry to say, and had strong feelings about the superiority of the “Nordic” race, writing his memoirs in a peculiar and irritating version of English that he called Nordic English. But we can afford to ignore all that, partly because he is now dead, and also because it infused his musical goals, which were to be as emotional as possible, to represent human pain, to be brief and direct, and to avoid false complexity and pretense. In particular, his opinions led him to take natural melodies of the common folk, and harmonize them in a way that, he said, invoked a sense of wailing and weeping, such as was appropriate to the circumstances of the lives of normal folk. He wanted to conjure that passion that lies beneath the surface of humble lives. And I believe he succeeded.

What I was surprised to learn, on reading his memoirs, was how far he felt he was pre-occupied with pain. True, he was into sado-masochism sexually, but that was his private affair. It’s just that most of his music does not sound very sad to me. In fact, as far as 20th century music goes, it sounds surprisingly happy. He was a friend and admirer of the composer Frederick Delius. Now there was a gloomy gus! Delius’s music is positively suicidal all the time. (I have adored it ever since the darkest days of adolescence.) I always thought of Percy Grainger as the happy one!

Still; as you listen to this wonderful setting of the Irish Tune from County Derry, you can sense that strong inner distress, whether it be sadness or ecstasy. (I’ll confess that this tiny little piece is one of my personal all-time favorites.) Listen out for a masterstroke of orchestration, too. The whole piece, which consists of nothing more than two verses of Danny Boy, is scored for strings only. But right near the end, when the emotion is becoming almost unbearable, two French Horns creep in, encroaching subtly without any grandiloquence or ceremony, just to enrich the sound, and turn that final knife in the wound.

Andrew Massey.