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Irish folksongs for the vocal studio.

Soon after this author moved to the United States from Ireland as a teenager, he sang an unaccompanied Irish folksong entitled "Thugamar fein an samhradh linn" for the North Carolina high school vocal solo contest. A judge commented, "Nicely sung; but we would like to hear something from the standard repertoire next time."

For a variety of reasons, folksongs usually enter the classical vocal canon only if they have been arranged by a recognized classical composer and translated into one of the standard languages of classical vocal literature. The melody of "Thugamar fein an samhradh linn" was set to English words by Thomas Moore and published as "Come, Send Round the Wine" in Sir John Stevenson's famous volume, Moore's Irish Melodies, in the early 1800s. If the author had sung the Stevenson arrangement of the same song for the vocal contest (or the later arrangement by Villiers Stanford), his choice would have both fallen within the favored canon and allowed the author to perform a work from his native heritage. In an age in which some prospective voice students prefer accessible popular and folk music, it is useful for classical voice teachers to become aware of the numerous folksong arrangements (besides the Herbert Hughes and Benjamin Britten collections that too often represent the entire genre) which bring Irish folksong into the classical vocal orbit. Irish folksong arrangements can find a place in classical voice studios if teachers are directed to the best sources, many of which are available for free as digitized public domain scores. In this two-part article, the author will provide readers with a listing for these sources.

Students and audiences are frequently drawn to folksongs because of their charm, tunefulness, simplicity, humor, narrative structure, and lack of academic seriousness. Additionally, students are more motivated to master songs when they connect with the subject matter and musical style. The subject of many texts assigned to Irish folksongs is visceral and down-to-earth: poems about working, child-rearing, drinking, flirting, fighting, or being alone, rather than heady poems with intangible metaphors. Students are furthermore likely to be drawn to these folksongs because Irish music and culture have been fashionable for generations in the United States-particularly in recent decades, with the commercial success of artists in the broad genre of "Irish traditional music." Future generations are likely to demonstrate continued interest in Irish music, given the large number of Americans with Irish ancestors.


It is necessary to discuss the terms "folk" and "art" music, as they are ubiquitous considerations in Irish music. There is no established definition of "folk music," and the controversy around the term stems from the complex issues of identity, class, nationality, and ethnicity involved in defining it. William Cole provides both an academic definition-"Music that has submitted to the process of oral transmission: it is the product of evolution and is dependent on the circumstances of continuity, variation and selection"-and a layman's definition borrowed from Pete Seeger: "They're called folk songs because folks sing 'em." (1)

Although the term "folk" connotes rustic, anonymous, or untrained music to some people, none of these descriptors is requisite. Cooper writes about melodies that "were treated as if folksongs, subjected to minor modifications and often transmitted orally, even if they had originated as composed art music." (2)

The term "art music" describes "music that is written down and that takes a more or less established form to transmit some sort of artistic expression." (3) Certain non-Irish composers who used the folksongs of their countries for "art music" compositions-including Dvorak, Britten, Sibelius, Grieg, Copland, Smetana, Bartok, Schubert, and Brahms-have found their folkbased works successfully incorporated into classical vocal repertoire. They applied their individual (and highly classical) compositional styles to traditional melodies and/or texts, but tried to retain certain features that they considered "folk" elements. Since there are fewer arrangements of Irish folksongs that have found a similar path out of obscurity, this article undertakes to identify collections that make reference to Irish folk melodies and also achieve appropriate classical standards, regardless of the divergence in the composers' approaches to setting folksongs.

In evaluating whether to use songs by folksong arrangers in the vocal studio, teachers consider the same musical factors that affect their overall repertoire selection: technical demands, range, melodic contour, harmonic language, musical style, tempo, text quality, potential for dramatic interpretation, and overall pedagogic usefulness. There are definitely instances in which the folksong does not survive the migration into the art song idiom very well, resulting in unsuccessful settings that should be avoided. In some cases, the melodic simplicity and repetitiveness that gave the folksong its charm or functionality becomes monotonous in the stylized musical structure of art song; or the rustic verse seems campy and provincial without relating to a universal sentiment in the artistic context. The teacher must answer a number of questions, especially regarding the accompaniment: Is the setting truly an art song in which both piano and voice have a role in communicating the text, or is the piano simply supporting the voice with mechanical chords and vocal doubling? Is the text a flowery or archaic parlor room poem, or does it use powerful or humorous imagery and imaginative ideas that will engage the student?


Some characteristics of collected Irish folksongs distinguish the melodies markedly from conventional melodies constructed for art songs. Irish folksongs are often metrically irregular or unmetered, unaccompanied, strophic, modal or nontonal, embellished with melismas, and composed to fit Gaelic texts. Folksong arrangers approach these challenges in various ways, often assigning multiple verses of text to repeated music, or writing varied accompaniments for the verses of a strophic melody.

Distinct from dance-derived Irish song types, there is a broad category of Irish songs called sean-nos, or "Old Way." These are songs that are unaccompanied, unmetered, and very melismatic, with melodic ornaments such as grace notes and turns. Some characteristics that are common but not requisite for sean-nos songs are Gaelic language texts, long narrative texts (it is not uncommon for a song to have up to fifteen verses), stories that stand as metaphors for larger issues, and texts that speak of love or lament. (4) Some later arrangers, such as Harty and Hughes, chose a "quasi senza tempo" notation to attempt to replicate this expressive performing style, where the performer varies the phrasing and delivery pace according to individual choice (Example 1). Fast, metrical songs (often in triple meter) are examples of song types outside of the sean-nos genre, and they tend to be associated with dancing and to contain a refrain or chorus, providing light-hearted respite from the intensity of sean-nos. (5)


Folksong settings provide an accessible introduction to classical vocal literature for even the youngest students, and are useful for teaching dramatic text delivery. The scope of the anthologies in this study is wide enough to include repertoire for students and artists of any ability level and temperament.

The earliest arrangements of Irish folksongs for voice teachers and performers are Beethoven's folksong settings. Scotsman George Thomson (1757-1851) had a clerical career that afforded him the financial stability to pursue his lifelong passion of procuring prestigious arrangements of folksongs from the British Isles. From the late 1780s through the mid-1840s, Thomson sent melodies from various countries to Beethoven, resulting in approximately sixty-two Irische Lieder. (6) As published in the Beethoven Gesamtausgabe, these sixty-two songs are found in WoO 152; WoO 153; WoO 154; and WoO 157.

In the seven years beginning in 1803 that Thomson spent corresponding sporadically with Beethoven regarding fees for Irish folksong arrangements, Thomson (who had already employed Robert Burns as poet for numerous Scottish songs) attempted to secure Thomas Moore's services as poet for the Irish collection. Moore waited two years to answer Thomson's request, then decided instead to take the proposal of the publisher J. W. Power, who published Moore's collaboration with composer Sir John Stevenson. (7) Thomson was unable to employ one poet consistently for the Beethoven Irish songs, and the texts are frequently the weakest point in these arrangements.

Beethoven wrote ad libitum violin and cello accompaniments for all of his Irish songs, at Thomson's request, but stated that strings could be left out in performance. While the instrumental interaction provides interest (particularly in the ritornelli that begin and end songs), there is a complete piano accompaniment without them. Overall, Beethoven attempted to meet the challenge of making irregular folk materials fit into his personal aesthetic, rather than trying to evoke a "folk" sound. Since some of the songs Thomson sent to Beethoven were modal or harmonically irregular (with double tonics, off-key endings, or pentatonic scales), Beethoven preferred to risk surprising and potentially awkward solutions rather than to mold the songs completely to conventional harmony. This resulted in irregularities such as the clash of notes in the pedal point on C in the phrase "Can I live the dear life" in "Return to Ulster" (Example 2), and led Thomson to state that some of Beethoven's methods were "too recherche, too bizarre" for him. (8)

In Beethoven's folksong settings, numerous songs have written-out vocal cadenzas, including many of the duets. Although these ornamentations sound classical rather than Irish, they allow singers to practice cadenzas in an operatic style. This is the case in "Oh Harp of Erin" (in WoO 152), a song that also illustrates Beethoven's approach to writing challenging accompaniments for folksongs. Although the piano doubles the melody, the left hand becomes the contrapuntal interest, playing a scalar countermelody rather than a bass line, while the right hand plays both the melody and a second voice that is contrapuntal filler (Example 3).

WoO 153 is the most varied Beethoven volume for teaching, containing three well structured duets, as well as solo songs with leaps upward through the passaggio, declamatory sections, and both dramatic and humorous texts. A mezzo soprano with good stage presence and comic ability will benefit from the technical challenges of the wide-ranging and fast-moving melody in "Paddy O'Rafferty," in which the rhythmically clever piano is difficult and humorous. "No More, My Mary, I Sigh for Splendor" is a poignant, short love song for tenor. Its key, affect, and technical demands are similar to "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon," and it could be used to prepare a tenor for that demanding aria. WoO 154 contains the worthwhile soprano-tenor duets "Oh! Would I Were but that Sweet Linnet," which trades melodic themes between piano, violin, and cello, and "The Soldier in a Foreign Land," in which the singers are required to execute a cadenza together in thirds, providing a good exercise in ensemble work.

After Beethoven's arrangements, there are very few collections until the late 1800s that are valuable for today's vocal studio. The most important folksong settings from this era are Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies. However, since the original accompaniments by Sir John Stevenson and Henry Bishop that were published between 1808 and 1834 are predictable and inferior to the later arrangements by Stanford, Hatton, Hughes, Harty, Britten, Friel, and many others, this article will discuss only those Moore arrangements from the late 1800s and beyond.

The next outpouring of Irish folksong arrangements after Beethoven and Moore took place around the time of a number of overlapping nationalistic movements of the late 19th century: the Irish Literary Revival or Renaissance, the Celtic Revival, and the Gaelic Revival. While these movements were cultural in focus, their political agendas-particularly regarding the Irish struggle for Home Rule (granted in 1916) and Irish independence (granted in 1922)-were interwoven with the artistic and cultural symbols of national identity. As support for the Irish nationalistic cause grew among Irish immigrants in the United States, Irish folksong arrangements were published widely by American companies. Composers arranged Irish folksongs for an audience outside of Ireland whose taste was not primarily for the elusive quality of "authenticity," but rather for settings that translated songs of Irish oral tradition into the musical syntax of the European tradition. The majority of the songs in this wave of publications were new arrangements of Moore's Irish Melodies, which had already impacted U.S. songwriters such as Stephen Foster. Two features of Moore's Irish Melodies that endeared them to widespread audiences were their personal, subjective texts and their eloquent, affective language about Ireland's glorious past; this nostalgic theme resonated especially well in the U.S., where Americans longed for narratives about a collective past. (9)

Scottish musicologist Alfred Edward Moffat (1866- 1950) arranged seventy-nine of Moore's Irish Melodies in his 1898 volume The Minstrelsy of Ireland: 206 Irish Songs, now available for free on the Irish Traditional Music Archive website. The settings are mostly unremarkable but adequate; all songs contain da capo repeats, with underlaid text verses all set to the same music. Most songs have a two- or three-bar introduction and postlude, and while the accompaniment is mostly chordal, the vocal line is not usually doubled. There are some skillful ostinati and unifying motifs, and the accompaniments are mostly economical enough to be playable by voice teachers with moderate piano ability. "Beautiful and Wide are the Green Fields of Erin" uses most of the range of a young mezzo or baritone, and requires a student to learn to take quick catch breaths without tension. Other useful teaching songs from the anthology are "One Eve as I Happened to Stray," "Sleep On, for I Know 'Tis of Me You Are Dreaming," "Though Full as 'Twill Hold of Gold," "To Dhrink Wid the Divil," "With Deep Affection," "I Wish I were on Yonder Hill," and "I Once Loved a Boy."

The following Appendix applies not only to this article but also to the one that follows it in the March/April 2016 Journal of Singing.


All works below that were published before 1923 are in public domain (PD). Many of the PD works may be found through online repositories such as the Petrucci Music Library, the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA), or Google Play. If not yet digitized, many may be borrowed through Interlibrary Loan or purchased through sheet music vendors. If the work is available for free online, the source is listed after the citation.

Baptie, Charles R. Irish Songs and Ballads for Medium Voice. Glasgow: J. S. Kerr, 1916.

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Four collections, all PD in early editions whose copyright has not been renewed, such as C.F. Peters 1900 edition.

1. WoO 152, Twenty-five Irish Songs

2. WoO 153, Twenty Irish Songs

3. WoO 154, Twelve Irish Songs

4. WoO 157, Twelve Assorted Songs

Bowles, Micheal . Claisceadal 1. Dun Laoghaire, Ireland: At the Sign of the Anchor, 1986.

--. Claisceadal 2. Dun Laoghaire, Ireland: At the Sign of the Anchor, 1986.

Clarke, Rebecca. Songs with Violin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cole, William. Folk songs of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

Corigliano, John. Three Irish Folksong Settings: For Voice and Flute. New York: G. Schirmer, 1991.

Edmunds, John. Folk Songs: American-English-Irish. Boston, MA: R. D. Row Music Co, 1959.

Esposito, M., and George Sigerson. 3 Irish Melodies. Lullaby No. 1, O, hush O! Dublin: Pigott, undated.

Friel, Redmond. The Paterson Irish Song Book. London: Paterson's Publications, 1957.

Harty, Hamilton. Three Irish Folksongs. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

--. Three Ulster Airs for Voice and Piano. Boca Raton, FL: Masters Music Publications, 1995.

Hatton, John Liptrot, J. L. Molloy, and Thomas Moore. The Songs of Ireland: Including the Most Favourite of Moore's Irish Melodies. London: Boosey, 1880. Source: Google Play.

Hoekman, Timothy. Three Irish Folksongs: For Voice, Clarinet and Piano. Fayetteville, AR: Classical Vocal Reprints, 2011.

Hughes, Herbert, and Padraic Colum. Songs from Connacht. Huntsville, TX: Recital Publications, 1989.

Kidson, Frank, and Martin Shaw. Songs of Britain: A Collection of One Hundred English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish National Songs. New York: Boosey, 1913. Source: Google Play.

MacMillan, James. The Blacksmith: Irish Folksong Arranged for Voice & Clarinet in [B.sup.[flat]]. London: Boosey & Hawkes, 2008.

Moffat, Alfred. The Minstrelsy of Ireland: 206 Irish Songs Adapted to Their Traditional Airs. London: Augener, 1897. Source: ITMA.

Moore, Thomas. Moore's Irish Melodies, Revised and Enlarged. Philadelphia: Oliver Ditson Company, 1893. Source: Google Play.

Nelson, Havelock. Four Irish Songs: Soprano, Horn in E[??]/F [??] Piano. Crans-Montana, Switzerland: Editions M. Reift, 2006.

--. and Teresa Clifford. An Irish Folksinger's Album. London: J. Curwen, 1957.

Pratley, Geoffrey. Six Irish folk songs. Bury St Edmunds: Kevin Mayhew, 1998.

Quilter, Roger. Arnold Book of Old Songs, Arranged by Roger Quilter. New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 2006.

Somervell, Arthur, and Harold Boulton. Songs of the Four Nations: A Collection of Old Songs of the People of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. London: J. B. Cramer, 1893. Source: Google Play.

Stanford, Charles Villiers. Shamus O'Brien. London: Boosey & Co., Ltd., 1896.

--. Songs of Old Ireland: A Collection of Fifty Irish Melodies. London: Boosey & Co., Ltd., 1882. Source: Google Play.

Stanford, Charles and Alfred Perceval Graves. Songs of Erin: A Collection of Fifty Irish Folk Songs: Op. 76. London: Boosey, 1901. Source: Google Play.

--. and W. M. Letts. A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster: Op. 140. London: Stainer & Bell, 1914.

--, and Thomas Moore. The Irish Melodies, Op. 60: The Original Airs Restored and Arranged for the Voice. London: Boosey & Co., 1895. Source: Google Play

Stevenson, John Andrew, Henry R. Bishop, Thomas Moore, and John Leighton. Moore's Irish Melodies: With Symphonies and Accompaniments. London: Addison, Hollier and Lucas, 1859.

Walters, Richard, ed. Benjamin Britten: Complete Folksong Arrangements. New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 2006.

Wood, Charles. Irish Folk-Songs. London: Boosey & Co., Ltd., 1897.

--, and I. A. Copley. Seven Irish Folk-Songs. London: Thames, 1982.

--, and Padraic Gregory. Anglo-Irish Folk Songs. Volume One. London: Stainer and Bell, 1931.


(1.) William Cole, Folk Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), ix.

(2.) Barry Cooper, Beethoven's Folksong Settings (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 58.

(3.) Jane Bellingham, "art music," in Alison Latham, ed., The Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford Music Online; (accessed May 31, 2014).

(4.) Sean Williams, Focus: Irish Traditional Music (New York: Routledge, 2010), 164.

(5.) Ibid., 180.

(6.) Alice Hufstader, "Beethoven's Irische Lieder: Sources and Problems," Musical Quarterly 45, no. 3 (July 1959): 354.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Cooper, 149.

(9.) Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (New York: Norton, 1979), 54.

Born and raised in Ireland, baritone and opera director Conor Angell joined Taylor University's music faculty in the fall of 2013. Previously, he taught at Houghton College and Wabash College. Award winner in the 2013 Chicago Oratorio Competition and 2013 American Prize in Vocal Performance, he has also received awards in the Heafner-Williams Vocal Competition, NATS Competition, and Kentucky Bach Choir Vocal Competition, among others. While completing his doctoral degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, he appeared in numerous performances with IU Opera. Before his studies at IU, Angell was a studio artist at Kentucky Opera, singing roles in Werther, Pirates of Penzance, Otello, Don Quichotte, and Iolanta. Angell is an active performer in operas, recitals, and orchestral concerts throughout the eastern and midwestern US. He completed his master's degree at UNC-Greensboro and his bachelor's degree at Taylor University.

I counted till they danced so
Their slippers leaped the town,
And then I took a pencil
To note the rebels down.
And then they grew so jolly
I did resign the prig,
And ten of my once stately toes
Are marshalled for a jig!

                  Emily Dickinson, "Snow Flakes
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Title Annotation:part 1; The Song File
Author:Angell, Conor
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Jan 1, 2016
Previous Article:Read the footnotes! Garcia on the timbres.
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