Tunes for Patrons
17 O’Carolan compositions from the “Tunes for Patrons” collection. A collection of 17 less-oft performed/recorded O'Carolan compositions. In rendering each of these pieces I have endeavored to strike a balance between honoring the tradition from which this music comes, while casting each in a new light that will appeal to the modern ear and
17 O’Carolan compositions from the “Tunes for Patrons” collection. A collection of 17 less-oft performed/recorded O'Carolan compositions. In rendering each of these pieces I have endeavored to strike a balance between honoring the tradition from which this music comes, while casting each in a new light that will appeal to the modern ear and contemporary sensibilities. Features Celtic folk harp with rich accompaniment on acoustic instruments such as guitar, violin, viola, cello, mandolin, cittern and nyckelharpa.
Program: 1. Mabel Kelly 2. Honorable Thomas Burke 3. Miss Noble 4. Robert Jordan 5. Two William Davises/Sir Charles Coote 6. Catherine Martin 7. Betty O'Brien 8. Luke Dillon 9. Miss Crofton 10. Sir Ulick Burke 11. Kitty Magennis 12. Colonel Irwin 13. Lady St. John 14 Sir Festus Burke 15. Elizabeth McDermott Roe 16. Planxty Sweeney
Program Length: 56 minutes
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In mid-October 2020 a peculiar inspiration overcame me: to revisit my harp and the music of Turlough O’Carolan. Odd. It had been a long time since my harp beckoned me, let alone the music of Carolan (the harp used on this recording is a wonderful Serenade by Thormahlen Harps (https://thorharp.com/pages/models.htm). I was not alone; after all, 2020 was Carolan’s 350 year birthday anniversary. Whatever it was, some Muse - Terpsichore and/or Calliope - was singing her siren call, drawing me in. “Let me see - where’s that book of O’Carolan melodies? What tunes should I look at? Well, how about that one … ?” A few tunes in and I’m mesmerized.
I’ve been playing Carolan ever since I began my journey into Irish folk music back in my teens (as most every musician who dips their toes into those deep waters). Born in 1670 and dying in 1732, Carolan is considered Ireland’s national composer though his music is oddly situated in the Irish folk music tradition. There is a lot of diversity reflecting distinct influences from continental Baroque music to the “older” style of Gaelic harp and much in-between.
No matter what the influence, there is a distinctive stylistic quality to his tunes - the way the notes flow and stream forth are distinctively “Carolan-esque”: lovely, charming, distinctively evocative and compelling. In 1994-5, just starting out as a harper and recording artist, I published an all-O’Carolan album, and throughout my career I’ve had occasion to find a few more tunes of his to record on a subsequent albums.
Not all Carolan compositions, however, stirred my interest. There are over 200 compositions (214? More?) attributed to Carolan; yet we tend only to hear and play only a certain slice of them over and over with a second, third and fourth tier of the lesser played and progressively more obscure. And then there seems to be a layer of compositions that do not seem to get much attention at all (though certainly once in a while, of course!).
In the past I had a stab at these less-oft played Carolan pieces, curious to see if I could make a happy discovery. Alas, at that time, the obscurity felt deserved. Either a tune seemed a passing fancy or alternatively nearly undecipherable. There are a number of odd, curious sounding Carolan compositions which seem to lack clear direction, sense, mood or meaning and I gave up on many previous attempts to penetrate deeper into them.
This time was different. Opening the pages, as I began to run my fingers on the strings, tunes I had previously passed over started to tickle my ear and stir my musical spirit. The music beckoned me as did the harp. And so it began.
Four less oft played compositions immediately jumped out as simply breathtaking: Robert Jordan, Miss Crofton, Ulick Burke and Honorable Thomas Burke. Miss Crofton felt like a hidden bittersweet gem similar and equal in grace and beauty to the more oft played and much beloved Eleanor Plunkett. Other less traversed tunes but which I had heard before inspired further attention: Miss Noble and Colonel Irwin, Lady St. John, Catherine Martin, Kitty Magennis and Elizabeth MacDermott Roe. Others simply charmed me into submission: Two William Davises, Sir Charles Coote, Betty O’Brien and Planxty Sweeney. Sir Festus Burke (which is more second tier in obscurity) challenged my technical skills as I dusted off my harp and started to get my harp chops back again. The third part is brutally difficult and required a month or two of practice and several dozen takes to tame it. I had previously recorded Mabel Kelly and Luke Dillon but felt they needed another pass and better treatment.
In approaching the recording, I aspired to balance competing energies: fidelity and flexibility: honoring the tradition, composer and the melodies as transcribed (more or less) while rendering them accessible, fresh and pleasing to the contemporary ear, somewhat unencumbered by how others may have approached the music before or alongside me.
There is one notable exception: Robert Jordan - a relatively obscure Carolan composition. The tempo marking is Allegretto (somewhat fast clip). When I started to tease out the music, however, I was struck by how gorgeous it sounded as a slow air (slow and with some rhythmic freedom) - a radical departure from the tempo marking. Perhaps my interpretation may shed a new light on a Carolan tune that certainly deserves more attention and airplay.
All these tunes come from a portion of O’Carolan’s repertoire filed as “Tunes for Patrons” (with one exception - Two William Davises). Carolan himself called them “planxties”: tunes composed and dedicated to his friends and benefactors, tributes to a merry host or in honor of wealthy patrons as thanks for support and patronage - a bed to sleep in, a meal to eat, a glass of whiskey to drink, a few coins in the pocket. As a touring musician this is something I could relate to: my career and livelihood is also sustained through patronage. Hence the title of the album - the double reference and significance.
As my friend, colleague and mentor, Patrick Ball remarks: Turlough O’Carolan lived in dark and brutal times in Irish history. More over, blinded by smallpox in his teens he lived his entire life in his own personal darkness. Yet, despite the dark times and personal affliction of darkness, he rose up to become Ireland’s most celebrated composer and harper, creating music that lifted the hearts and spirits of his country men and women.
The magic and timelessness of Carolan’s music is how they perform the same alchemy on our own hearts and spirits centuries after they were first written and performed - offering us solace, respite, beauty and joy in our own dark and challenging times.
Perhaps this is why the music called to me back in the fall of 2020 lifting my heart and spirit in dark and challenging times. In the same way, I hope it calls to you too.
Thank you for your patronage. These tunes are for you!
The harp used on this recording is the Serenade model by the wonderful luthier David Thormahlen at Thormahlen Harps: https://thorharp.com
Mabel Kelly 4:400:00/4:40
Miss Noble 2:150:00/2:15
Robert Jordan 5:170:00/5:17
Catherine Martin 3:550:00/3:55
Betty O'Brien 2:390:00/2:39
Luke Dillon 3:190:00/3:19
Miss Crofton 4:170:00/4:17
Sir Ulick Burke 3:150:00/3:15
Kitty Magennis 3:080:00/3:08
Colonel Irwin 2:380:00/2:38
Lady St. John 3:080:00/3:08
Sir Festus Burke 3:040:00/3:04
Planxty Sweeney 1:540:00/1:54