Tam o’Shanter by Malcolm Arnold

As it’s Halloween, it’s time to talk about a piece I’ve had on my list since I started the blog: Tam o’Shanter by Malcolm Arnold. This piece has ranked in my top tier of favorite pieces ever since I first heard it many years ago. Arnold (1921-2006) was a prolific English composer who wrote a variety of works, from string quartets to ballets to movie scores.

Malcolm Arnold took his inspiration for this piece from the poem of the same name by Robert Burns (1759-1796). It tells

"A Scene from Tam O'Shanter."

“A Scene from Tam O’Shanter.” Photo credit: Summonedbyfells. Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

the tale of dear Tam o’Shanter, a farmer who spent one evening getting drunk with friends (well, he spends many evenings getting drunk with friends, but the poem speaks of one night in particular). He finally begins his trek home on his mare, Maggie, while a storm is brewing. That’s not the only thing in store this night, however:

The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last
The rattling showers rose on the blast
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellow’d
That night, a child might understand
The Deil [Devil] had business on his hand

But perhaps we should go back to the beginning:

We begin on octave Es throughout the range of the strings, just a hint of sound. The clarinets mimic a bagpipe drone at 0:10, giving us a clue to the location of our tale (Ayr, Scotland, near Burns’s birthplace). The piccolo plays a short motif; it’s rather a sweet beginning that feels like we’re taking a peek into village life.

But with another chord from the flutes and clarinets, the pub door opens and Tam stumbles out. He’s so sloshed he’s seeing double – bassoons, that is. We have a wonderfully drunk bassoon duet at 0:23, which is accented by some sliding around in the brass. At 1:00 we catch glimpses of the impending storm, but Tam continues on his meandering way to find his horse (1:20).

Tam gets Maggie and starts toward home as the storm gains intensity (1:30). Tam seems to have just enough wits about him to sense the severity of the storm, as evidenced by the trombone solo at 1:43 (note, though, that he’s still rather drunk and sliding about the notes). The wind blusters about and Tam presses Maggie onward toward home. Listen how convincingly Arnold paints this mental picture of Tam and Maggie tearing across the countryside during a furious storm. You can hear the rhythm of hoofbeats underneath the swirling winds (2:36).

We get a brief respite beginning at 2:50, a lull in the storm. We hear a different version of Tam’s drinking song in the piccolo (2:57). Perhaps he’s thinking of his dear wife, Kate, who had warned him about going out yet again. We can still hear the hoofbeats and some thunder claps despite the piccolo trying to sing a slightly sweeter song to us.

The storm rears its head again (3:15), this time prompting Tam to use the whip on poor Maggie, who probably isn’t dilly-dallying anyway. I’m sure at this point she just wants to be home at the barn with some hot mash and hay. The trombone returns to the drinking song at 3:47, this time with more urgency (though still not nearly sober enough). The storm refuses to abate.

At 4:22, the landscape shifts. Everything’s still intense, but now we get some fast, ominous trills in the strings. The brass and winds hold out long tones that sweep upward at the end. There’s another shift at 4:44, with most of the ensemble playing a variation of the hoofbeat motif. The brass continue with their long notes. There’s yet another shift at 4:55, the storm reaching its crest. Tam has to be almost home, right?

“And, wow! Tam saw an unco [strange] sight!” It turns out he has ridden past the haunted Alloway kirk (church) and discovered a coven of witches and warlocks! They’re having a grand old time when Tam sees them at 5:15. If you listen closely, there’s some resemblance between this theme and the opening piccolo solo. Perhaps some foreshadowing by Arnold? You can hear the bagpipe drones underneath it all and some horn rips starting at 5:27.

The theme fades into the distance as someone catches Tam’s attention (5:38). It’s Nannie, a witch Tam thinks of as “winsome.” I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with her wearing a skirt short enough to show her “cutty sark” (underknickers). Tam is transfixed. Meanwhile, the party continues (5:46), with the addition of a great, harsh brass line.

At 5:58, we’re reminded that there’s still a storm going on. We have a different hoofbeat motif from before; I think Maggie’s amazed at what she’s seeing as well, although she might be getting a little impatient at this point. But Tam really wants to stay and watch Nannie (6:21). The bacchanal continues in its frenzy, building and building until Tam can no longer hold it in and shouts —

“Weel done, cutty sark!” (6:58)

Tam O'Shanter Makes His Escape by Mary and Angus Hogg

“Tam O’Shanter Makes His Escape” by Mary and Angus Hogg.
Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

Well, THAT certainly caught everyone’s attention! And not in a good way, either. The witches and warlocks see him (and poor Maggie) and shoot after them in hot pursuit (7:01). Tam uses the whip again (7:14), desperately trying to flee the witches. But ahead he sees a bridge! As long as he crosses it, he is safe, because in folklore witches cannot cross water (in this case, the river Doon). As he crosses the river, the sounds of the coven diminish and we hear a beautiful, slow chord progression from the flutes and clarinets (8:00). Tam is safely across the river, and the nightmare is over.

Or is it?

One witch is still in pursuit and gets close enough to pluck Maggie’s tail clean off!

With that, I present the closing lines:

Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Each man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to drink you are inclined,
Or cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o’er dear;
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

If you’d like to hear a delightful reading of the poem, check out Irene Michael’s rendition.

There’s a great recording of the band version of this piece on the CD “Arnold for Band.” Purchase it from Sheet Music Plus and support the blog!

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Andantino from Symphonic Metamorphosis by Paul Hindemith

Over a year ago, I discussed the march from Symphonic Metamorphosis here on the blog and commented that I’d eventually talk about the other movements in this fantastic piece. Why wait any longer? Today I’ll be talking about the third movement.

As with the other movements of this work, Hindemith used a piece by Carl Maria von Weber as the foundation to build upon. In this case, it was a piano duet from a set of six pieces (Op. 10, No. 2). I did manage to track down a YouTube video of the set – click here if you’d like to hear the original piano form (it starts at 3:14 in case the link is wonky).

So without further ado, let’s listen to the piece:


There is no introduction to this piece; we begin with a clarinet solo on Theme A. It is melancholy, accompanied by minor trills in the low register of the flute and somber chords in the strings. The cellos come in with a descending line at 0:12, which adds to the mood. For the second half of the theme, the bassoon takes over the melody (0:17) with the second clarinet on the low minor trills. At 0:31, the clarinet returns so that we can repeat the entire theme.

Theme B begins at 1:03 with a horn solo; the strings and flutes answer. Immediately the clarinet makes a statement (1:10). Again, the strings and flutes respond (this time including horn). For the second half of the statement (1:20), the strings get to provide the melody. We’ve kept fairly quiet up until now – here we finally let out some sound and build up to forte.

Hindemith uses a very short transition into Theme C, only 1-2 seconds long. However, there’s a big change in mood (1:37). While we go back to being quiet, the melody itself has transitioned to a major key. It can be heard in the clarinet, bass clarinet, and cello. Instead of a call-and-answer type of setup, most of the non-melody instruments are sustained on a chord. The exception are the violas, who have running notes as an accompaniment/countermelody. Listen to that line – it’s not quite ready to give up the melancholy mood from earlier in the piece.

For the second run through Theme C, Hindemith switches the melody to the first violins, violas, and oboes (1:55). The second violins and cellos provide the running line, but not in unison. This adds another layer of tension to what was originally a happier-sounding melody.

At 2:13, we have a bit of a transition section. The winds (with the exception of the bassoon and contrabassoon) play the running line, moving together in parallel fifths. The strings have a new motif, which I consider to be the primary line in this section. The horns provide chordal support, although the first horn has a line that sounds more like a countermelody. While we’ve been in 6/8 time (counted in six instead of a faster two) since the beginning of the piece, Hindemith adds one 9/8 measure (counted in nine; 2:22). This adds just a bit more tension as we work toward finishing out this section.

We hear one last statement of Theme C (2:29). Hindemith includes the entire orchestra (well, except for first flute, but you’ll understand why in a moment). All lines are accounted for: melody, running accompaniment, and sustained chords. Despite everyone’s involvement, we’re still marked just piano here; it’s more of a sense of “fullness” than “loudness.” He inserts another 9/8 measure at the end of the phrase, giving us an extra moment for the first flute to lead us into the final section (2:48).

For the most part, the final section is a straight recap of Themes A and B, with no repeat of A. There are a few minor differences in instrumentation, and the minor trills we heard earlier have changed to short musical statements. It’s okay that there aren’t many changes here, as it lets us turn our attention to the solo flute.

The solo flute is the star of the last section. She plays an obbligato – an essential countermelody or accompaniment. Listen to how it flits and moves above the orchestra, almost like a butterfly or bird bringing a small sign of spring. The line covers a large range, low to high, with lots of peaks and valleys. But eventually, everyone eases into calm, the flute continuing just a bit more as the other instruments sustain a chord underneath, the melancholy mood never fully lifting.

From here, I encourage you to continue on to the fourth movement for a change of mood.


Sassy the cat


Postscript: I began this post a couple of weeks ago. Since then, we had to say goodbye to one of our beloved kitties, Sassy. She was a loving, silly, confident little girl and she will be missed. She had been in the shelter for four years when we adopted her. We like to think she was waiting for us.

Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare by Richard Strauss

I thought it might be time to feature another fanfare, one composed for a specific orchestra and purpose. The Vienna Philharmonic is familiar to many; I’d guess that even people not overly familiar with classical music may have heard of the group.

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) lived during the late Romantic/early modern era and was one of the major composers of his time. Strauss was influenced by the music of fellow German Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He developed as both a composer and conductor, despite some unconventional choices in musical interpretation.

The Vienna Philharmonic dates back to 1842. In 1924, the group held its inaugural ball in order to raise funds for the musicians’ pension. Strauss composed a piece for the occasion; it has been played at the beginning of every ball since then. You can find a bit more information at Barbara Heninger’s site.



Like many fanfares, this one starts with a single note. It’s played by the E♭ trumpet (it’s like the trumpets you see in school band, but a bit smaller and plays a higher range). We hear a single pitch for three beats, followed by a set of triplet eighth notes on beat four. Keep this rhythmic motif in mind, as it’s woven throughout the entire piece. The trumpets repeat the  motif, adding layers of harmony to the opening note. After the initial musical statement, the trombones echo in triplets (0:09), followed by the horns (0:12). They have a short conversation, then the trumpets join back in with their own line of triplets (0:20).

The layers build and build, with lots of give and take between the sections. They start to come together rhythmically at 0:30, although the timpani and horns want to continue to converse (of course… chatty little things). We build a bit more, trumpets and trombones against horns and timpani.

At 0:36 we reach what we’ve been building toward – a solid wall of triumphant sound, moving rhythmically as one through a majestic theme. The horns answer with their own motif at 0:44. In the next bit of the theme beginning at 0:47, we hear triplets from one voice or another, but they feel more supportive than conversational than the triplet figures we heard in the intro.

With the second half of the theme (0:55), the pitch moves just a bit higher and is a bit more lyrical, introducing new rhythmic pattern at 0:59 (a very short new rhythmic pattern – it’s a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note instead of a set of three eighth note triplets. While both fit into the space of one beat ([quarter note], It’s a subtle yet distinct difference).

The lyrical line ends as the horns and trombones come in with the horn motif (1:04), which alternates with the running triplets in the trumpets and trombones. It’s interesting that the timpani is playing running triplets during the horn motif, not with the other triplets. The conversation builds again.

The lyrical theme comes back again at 1:16, but modified. It’s presented in a different key, sounds more minor. It doesn’t last long, though, and we’ve moved back into a happier-sounding place by 1:34. From there, we head into the second half of the lyrical theme. Or so we think. While Strauss gives us the first part of the second half, he doesn’t end it like before. He repeats the initial motif of that section up a little higher (1:39) and a little higher (1:43), then very briefly acknowledges an idea from the first theme we heard at 0:36 (1:47) before heading into a recap of the intro (1:51).

In this last section, Strauss continues to build up the intro motif, going higher and higher with most of the ensemble, the horns and timpani (and one random trombone) answering back. After the third time through the motif, the trumpets and trombones shimmer on a high major chord while the horns milk their motif for all its worth (2:04). Yes, they’re playing that entire line from way down below to way up high. After the horns have had their say, the entire ensemble comes together for its final bows.

(To this day I’m ready to hear Overture to Candide immediately after hearing this piece. A concert I played years ago opened with this fanfare, followed by Candide. I listened to that recording so many times the two pieces are forever linked in my mind.)


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Bonus Features: March from Symphonic Metamorphosis

I still have the Hindemith piece on my mind, so I thought I’d share a little bit more.

I’d mentioned in my previous post that Hindemith based much of Symphonic Metamorphosis on piano duets by Carl Maria von Weber. The march for Hindemith’s fourth movement comes from 8 Pieces (Op. 60, No. 7). You can find the sheet music over at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.

While I couldn’t locate a piano duet on YouTube, I did find one recording of a double woodwind quintet playing a transcription of the piano piece. If you remember my post about Malcom Arnold’s Three Shanties, you’ll know that a woodwind quintet consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. A double woodwind quintet has two of each of those instruments.

And here’s a recording of the concert band transcription:

If you liked this piece, I highly encourage you to listen to all four movements. Preferably more than once, as there’s a lot to absorb. While I hope to talk about the other three movements eventually here on the blog, if you want to get a head start, here’s a full recording:

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March from Symphonic Metamorphosis by Paul Hindemith

Looking for recordings or some sheet music? Visit Sheet Music Plus and support the blog!

And now we move to a completely different style of march – the fourth movement of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (sometimes seen as “Symphonic Metamorphoses”). The piece has four movements, and while I’d love to talk about all four, today I’ll concentrate on just the march. I may eventually talk about the others because there’s a ton of incredible music in there, but the march is the most well-known.

Paul Hindemith, 1945

Paul Hindemith, 1945

Symphonic Metamorphosis was inspired by some piano duets and other music composed more than a century earlier by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). While Hindemith retains much of Weber’s melodies, he puts his own distinctive spin on them. Hindemith composed the work in the early 1940s. It was originally intended to be used as ballet music, but he and his collaborator, Léonide Massine, parted ways. Not letting good music go to waste, Hindemith re-imagined the work into an orchestral suite. The suite remains popular with both orchestras and wind bands thanks to a transcription by Keith Wilson, Hindemith’s fellow Yale professor.



(the original video I linked to got deleted, so let’s try this one instead 9/26/13)

There are three words that come to mind when I hear (or play) this piece. Two of them are “intensity” and “activity”, which I think you’ll notice early on in the piece. I’ll fill you in on the third word later.

We begin with a short brass fanfare that’s powerful, yet at the same time, subdued. The trumpets and trombones announce themselves then quickly retreat, leaving us to hear a muted chord in the horns. This happens a second time (with a different melodic progression) before going into the main theme of the piece.

The main theme begins in the oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet (0:09), with a bouncy accompaniment in the strings. Bouncy, but not necessarily cheerful sounding. To me, this first section sounds rather eerie. The flutes and clarinets join in with the melody at 0:16 and we continue on, building a bit in volume. We taper as we reach the end of the theme, culminating in another muted horn chord at 0:33. There’s some back-and-forth between the clarinets, bassoons and oboes, then the trumpets and trombones interject their two cents, leading us back into a repeat of the main theme (0:42).

This time through, we continue the back-and-forth, bickering on louder and louder until 1:18, where we get a recap of the opening fanfare. However, instead of a muted horn chord, the woodwinds add a statement of their own, borrowing the fanfare’s rhythm. The brass make one more statement, then the strings give us a flurry of activity that leads us what sounds like the main theme (1:25). Here, the strings have the melody, the woodwinds have the bouncy accompaniment, and the low brass adds some rhythmic chords to support it all. But we don’t get the full theme. We only get a few seconds of it before Hindemith takes us off into a new direction. And while we hear a soft chord again, this time it’s the flutes and clarinets – not the horns (1:36). There’s some back-and-forth between the drums and woodwinds, then the strings give us a neat phrase that leads us to our next section.

Here, we start to hear some happiness poke through (1:46). We have the woodwinds fluttering around above with triplets – they’re very busy up there. But they’re just the accompaniment. The melody lies below in the horns. They play through their theme once, then it’s repeated with accents from the trumpets and additional accompaniment from the strings. A cool, two-note phrase in the low brass at 2:10 helps get us into the development section of the piece.

At 2:11, Hindemith plays around with the horn theme. The upper woodwinds take over, but you’ll hear that it’s not the same melody that the horns were playing. The rhythm is similar, and the melody sounds kind of the same at first, but it quickly morphs into other melodic content. Meanwhile, the strings are sawing away below in triplets. This builds up to 2:21, when the strings take over the melodic line and the woodwinds and brass do a lot more triplet-ing. The horns come blazing in at 2:27, continuing to build until…

We repeat back to the quieter bit that we were hearing at 2:11 (but now we’re at 2:31). We go through this section again, and the horns again take over and build us up…

But Hindemith knocks us back down to piano with a haunting, sustained phrase in the woodwinds at 2:52. That sounds an awful lot like a slower version of the opening fanfare, doesn’t it? While the winds move on to the second part of the fanfare theme, the low strings enter with a haunting line of their own. At 2:55, try to listen for the lowest note. Waaaay down there. Lower. Hear it? That’s a contrabassoon. It’s awesome.

We return to the first theme, this time with trombones (3:04). The strings are plucking away at the bouncy accompaniment, and the clarinets and bass clarinet comment in triplets. We feel a bit eerie again. But Hindemith hasn’t forgotten the happier sound from 1:46. The trombones start the second phrase of the theme, but instead of staying in unison, they break out into a beautiful major chord (3:18). It doesn’t last long, but I love that part.

The theme continues, but doesn’t get to finish. Hindemith stalls by repeating an idea: from 3:23 to 3:26, he essentially repeats that idea (with different notes) three times. By the way, listen for the oboe at 3:24 – you’ll hear the fanfare again! Then he moves forward at 3:33-ish, but he doesn’t rush to a resolution. He continues to build and grow, then places a very effective rest (silence) that leaves you holding your breath in anticipation for the next note. (See, kids, once again it’s just as important to end your notes with purpose as begin them!)

Triumphant. That’s my third word.

Man, this last section never fails to get my emotions stirring. It’s so bold, so triumphant and heroic; it’s an amazing bit of music. Here we have full brass on the main melodic material, with the woodwinds and strings flying around in triplets. The horns are playing their hearts out, adding some neat flourishes to the theme (specifically 3:43-44 and 3:46-48). Then they get one of the best lines ever written for horn – a basic, yet extremely effective, chromatic scale that builds from 3:52-57.

We get one last run through the horn theme, still on full power, but it doesn’t immediately finish up. The first part of the fanfare theme comes back again at 4:12 as a call-and-response between the horns and trumpets, with some flourishes in the woodwinds and strings. We hear it twice, then Hindemith takes us through one final buildup to the end, giving us a last bit of fanfare (4:24). The brass hold on to that fanfare while the strings and winds flurry up to the final, decisive statements of the piece.

What a ride!

Want to hear a bit more about this piece? Visit the “bonus features” post!

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