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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Three Shanties by Malcolm Arnold

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And now for something completely different!  I want to introduce you to one of my favorite small ensembles – the woodwind quintet (or, wind quintet).  This chamber ensemble consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.  Isn’t the horn a brass instrument, you ask?  It is.  So why is it in a woodwind quintet?  Well, the joke I heard is that one day the horn player took a wrong turn into a woodwind quartet instead of the brass quintet, liked what he heard, and decided to stay a while. But seriously, some of the earliest quintet music is from Anton Reicha in the early 1800s.  

"Duke of Lancaster" and "Royal Saxon" off Cape Town by Samuel Walters

“Duke of Lancaster” and “Royal Saxon” off Cape Town by Samuel Walters


The woodwind quintet (or wind quintet) has a very unique sound.  Brass and strings have a very homogenous sound within their respective sections.  There are certainly tonal differences between a trumpet and tuba, for instance, but they both undoubtedly belong to the brass family.  However, on the woodwind side, a flute sounds very different from a clarinet, which sounds very different from an oboe, and so forth.  This provides some intriguing tone colors throughout the group.

So, combine an unusual-sounding group with one of my favorite composers, Sir Malcolm Arnold, and you get a crazy fun piece.  Composed in 1943, Three Shanties consists of three movements, each one paying homage to a different sea shanty.  First up is  “What Should We Do With a Drunken Sailor?”  This is probably the most familiar tune of the three pieces.  The second movement is “Boney Was a Warrior”, followed by “Johnny Come Down to Hilo” for the third movement.

On to the piece!

Movement I – Allegro con brio (“fast, with spirit”, 0:00-2:21)
I think everyone’s heard this tune sometime in their life (everyone sing along with me! ♪♫♪)

What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
Early in the morning

Then the ditty goes on to explain all the things that can be done to this sailor.  Rather entertaining, and I’m willing to bet there have been many… unique… verses added to this throughout the years.

Malcolm Arnold loves to play around with melodies, taking bits and pieces and manipulating them so they’re not always recognizable.  We get a few instances of hearing the complete theme in this movement, such as in the flute at the beginning, but he interjects a lot of other material as well.  Sometimes you hear just the first few repeated notes of the tune (“what should we do with a”, 0:14), sometimes you hear snippets of “early in the morning” (0:58, bassoon, then clarinet).  Now and then it’s just the rhythm of the theme that links it all together (0:32).

He uses a lot of downward arpeggios in the movement as well, which I consider to be a motif in the piece. Arpeggios are basically chords that are played one note at a time, instead of all at once.  The first one happens at 0:18 in the clarinet.  While we’re here, listen to the horn’s accented notes underneath the clarinet arpeggio.  Does it sound a bit different? More nasal?  He’s using a technique called “stopped” horn.  A hornist plays with his right hand slightly in the instrument’s bell. When he “stops” the horn, he inserts his hand further into the bell, which manipulates the tone quality of the instrument. You can hear more of this around 0:47.

At 0:24, he introduces a new motif, an up and down motion in the flute, clarinet and bassoon.  It sounds a bit like the waves of the sea (or perhaps the the uneasiness of the drunk sailor’s legs?).  He breaks it up with a rhythmic nod to the melody (0:32) and the arpeggio motif (0:35).  The waves get more agitated at 0:48 in the clarinet and bassoon, accompanied by some intentionally nasty sounding notes from the rest of the group.  Things settle down a bit as the piece transitions into new territory.  During this transition, the horn displays another technique: muting.  Muting uses a conical piece of material, usually made out of wood and cardboard, sometimes metal, that gets inserted into the bell.  The result is a less strident tone than is produced from stopping, but it still has an edge to it.  While you’re listening to the horn, try to identify when it plays a bit of the melody at 1:07 and 1:10.  It should sound like the “-en sail-or” part of the tune.

I love the section at 1:15 – to me it sounds very “sailors roughing it on the seas”, though I don’t know that I can explain exactly why that is.  Then there’s the deliciously brash clarinet line at 1:23 that leads into some great dissonance with the flute and oboe, with the horn “falls” answering to that.  Things do quiet down with a few steps leading into…

a tango?  I’m entertained by the thought of a boozy sailor trying to dance with someone.  Or something.  The bassoon plays the familiar tango bass line, with the flute, clarinet and horn playing smooth, repeated notes (the “what shall we do with a” part of the main tune).  The oboe adds some comments, followed by a lyrical flute line.  The tango doesn’t last for long, though, and we’re back to the quick pace of the initial melody.  I love the clash that happens when the tune reaches “morn-ing”!  We finish up the melody with more arpeggios and a closing statement from the group.

Movement II – Allegretto semplice (“moderately fast, simply”, 2:24-3:59)

Boney was a warrior,Way, hay, yah,
Oh Boney was a warrior,
John Francois

This is the most straightforward movement out of the three.  It begins with a lovely muted horn solo, with only long, sustained tones from some of the other instruments as accompaniment.  Listen for the flute melody right after the horn’s line, she’s playing in the lower register of the flute.  We haven’t really heard that yet in any of the pieces I’ve talked about.  I love the sound of those lower notes on flute.  We don’t always get to hear them, but they can be very effective.

Each instrument gets a chance at the melody in this movement.  While the accompaniment is mostly long notes, every now and then there’s some movement.  The bassoon has a nice descending line into its turn at the tune (2:53), and the flute answers with a descending countermelody of her own (2:58).  At 3:10, Arnold changes the character of the descending line a bit with the clarinet and bassoon playing the notes shorter, not as smooth and long as previous iterations.

After a grand pause at 3:36, the piece ends as it started with the muted horn solo.  What’s interesting is he kind of leaves the horn hanging – the other instruments have dropped out at this point.  It’s the sort of ending that makes the audience wonder, “Is there more?”

Movement III – Allegro vivace (“quite fast”, 4:02-6:47)

Never seen the like since I been born
A great big sailor with his sea boots on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

Hold on to your hats!  Arnold really plays around with the tune in this one.  He interrupts it frequently, having one instrument start the line with another jumping in to finish.  The most extreme example (and my favorite) begins with the oboe at 4:26 – the melody hits all the instruments just one to three notes at a time.  Played well, and in time, the listener can still hear the line of the melody, despite the difference in instruments.  Timing is crucial for that one!

He goes on to create a neat cascading effect from the flute down to the bassoon starting at 4:33 with each instrument starting the melody, though the flute is the only one to get through a complete phrase.  The music plays around a bit with short, rhythmic chords before the flute, oboe and clarinet unite in the “Johnny come down to Hilo” phrase.  The bassoon and horn lead us downward into the next section.

The bassoon and horn get into a groovy little accompaniment, but settle into a fast waltz with the clarinet as the flute and oboe arrive in a tipsy duet (the songs are about sailors, after all!)  Listen closely starting at 5:14 – after a descending line by the bassoon and horn, they go into a 5/8 pattern (remember 5/8 from Armenian Dances?) It doesn’t last long, but it’s there.  The clarinet and oboe get in on it with some wonderfully clashing notes before we get a clearer shot of the tune starting with flute and clarinet.  That doesn’t last long, either, before we get into another waltzy section.

We get into such a fun part at 5:44!  The bassoon, horn and clarinet set up a great rhythm, then the flute just takes off in a neat reworking of the melody.  There’s a great smear of sound from everyone else as they join in the festivities, with the horn whooping it up throughout.  After the party, the piece settles back into “normal”, though Arnold continues to play around with the tune and rhythms and gives us another cascade at 6:20.  This is followed by a dissonant “horn call” type of line with the clarinet and oboe.  He finally settles us down with a descending line into a hold, then a pause.  We finish with a fun little ending that’s very characteristic of Malcolm Arnold.

Now that we’re back on dry land, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to both the wind quintet and Malcolm Arnold!  I’ll probably be doing a bonus features post sometime soon, as I came across some fun videos while researching this post.

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