Music Appreciation: Early One Morning by Percy Grainger

Well, I didn’t intend to miss all of July (and most of August…). Sorry about that. Between band and travel, July simply flew by in a flash and August has been time to regroup. But here I am, finally, with a new post!

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I’ve talked about Percy Grainger before, and I think I’ve waited a respectable time before talking about another piece of his. “Early One Morning” is a beautiful little folk song setting. If you’ve ever heard the traditional tune, it’s a fairly cheery-sounding song. Of course, if you know the lyrics, they describe a sorrowful lass mourning the loss of her beau (which is a rather standard subject in old English folk songs).

Dandelions. CC0 Public Domain license.

Dandelions. CC0 Public Domain license.

Early one morning,
Just as the sun was rising,
I heard a young maiden,
In the valley below.

Oh, don’t deceive me,
Oh, never leave me,
How could you use
A poor maiden so?

Remember the vows,
That you made to your Mary,
Remember the bow’r,
Where you vowed to be true,


Oh gay is the garland,
And fresh are the roses,
I’ve culled from the garden,
To place upon thy brow.


Thus sang the poor maiden,
Her sorrows bewailing,
Thus sang the poor maid,
In the valley below.

We begin with a somewhat ominous-sounding chord from the clarinets, bassoons, and a tuba; Grainger lets us know right away that we’re not going to hear the same lilting ditty we’re used to with this tune, at least not right away. The euphonium presents the first, soulful statement of the melody in a deliciously minor key. Given that, overall, the lyrics to this song really aren’t all that cheery, it makes sense that Grainger wouldn’t sound too happy here. The accompaniment has some movement, but it’s more of a low, subtle moaning than any sort of typical accompaniment beat.

The euphonium sings the chorus starting at 0:23 (Oh, don’t deceive me), followed by the bassoon providing the second line at 0:27 (Oh, never leave me). The euphonium takes over to finish the chorus. Listen the accompaniment starting around 0:34 and how it starts to shift away from the dark moodiness we’ve been hearing so far.

At 0:41 we shift slightly into another key. It’s not obvious at first, but then the horns, followed by the trombones, come in with simple (yet very lovely) lines at 0:43.

The flute brings a refreshing bit of happiness in the melody at 0:50. Now we get to hear the tune closer to how it’s normally performed: in a major key. The accompaniment, while still mostly held chords by the trombones and first clarinet, doesn’t sound as dismal as before.

The oboe takes over at 1:05 for the first line of the chorus. Listen to the horns underneath, as they play the three-note motif we heard back at 0:43. The second line is given to the clarinet (1:09), though the horn continues with the idea of the three-note motif. The flute comes back in for the remainder of the chorus, with the clarinet playing a harmonic line underneath (1:12). The horn echoes the last line of the chorus, though a bit modulated. It provides the briefest transition into the new verse.

Now the trumpet solo takes over the verse (1:24). The clarinets and saxes provide a chordal accompaniment that rises steadily upward in pitch. The horn inserts a lovely bit of suspension at 1:38 before the upper winds come in for the chorus. This is the closest we’ve come to having the full ensemble play at once. If you look at the score, you’ll see Grainger isn’t afraid of having people rest for long periods of time. (As a composer/arranger, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to do that.) The trumpet comes back in for the second line of the chorus at 1:44, then the winds play again to finish out the theme.

While the melody folks finish, the accompaniment is simultaneously building up for the final verse and chorus. Some of the winds and trumpets give us the theme and there’s a wonderful, suspended countermelody happening in some of the saxes and other trumpets, among others (1:57). There are some beautiful, squishy chords happening throughout all this in the accompaniment; try to listen beyond the melody to hear what else is going on.

Grainger generally keeps the same instrumentation throughout the chorus, adding a floating trumpet line over the melody that he marks “much to the fore” (2:12). At the end of the second line of the chorus, listen for the quick rhythm in the bass line (2:19), but keep your ears open for the continuation of the trumpet line (especially the reach up to concert A at 2:23) as the entire ensemble hits the apex of the piece. Everyone then comes back down toward finishing the melody.

At 2:29, the maiden apparently can’t handle it any more, and starts bawling. Click To TweetAt 2:29, the maiden apparently can’t handle it any more, and starts bawling. We go back to the not-so-merry version of the chorus at 2:29, this time in the bass voices. The horns get their own “much to the fore” section here as well, quoting the “oh, don’t deceive me” line at a slower pace than what’s happening below. There are some angry-sounding chords in the rest of the ensemble while this is going on. But in time, the anger subsides, and the maiden lets out a couple more sobs that resolve into a final, major chord.

Thank you for joining me, and I hope to send out my next post a bit quicker than this one. If you like my blog, please take a moment to spread the word. The individual posts have “share” buttons that can be used to send content to various social media platforms. Thank you to those who have already shared – it means a lot to me!

See you next time!

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Music Appreciation: Shepherd’s Hey by Percy Grainger

Grainger again? Yes. I do have a reason for this.

Shepherd's Hey sample page

First clarinet part of Shepherd’s Hey by Percy Grainger

The last piece I discussed was Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry, a gorgeous setting of the tune most of us know as “Danny Boy”. Those of us who have played this piece in band know it was published with a companion piece – Shepherd’s Hey. Depending on which instrument’s part you’re looking at, Irish Tune may take up just two-thirds or so of the page. The rest of the page shows the beginning of Shepherd’s Hey, with that tune continuing on to the second page of music. The two pieces weren’t written specifically to be together, like the movements in Arnold’s Three Shanties; they were just published together.

Whoever made that publishing decision way back in 1918 made a good choice, though. The two pieces do work well together. Unfortunately, not as many people get to hear Shepherd’s Hey. It is more technically challenging than Irish Tune; consequently, fewer ensembles decide to tackle it. ‘Tis a pity – I love this piece and wish I got the chance to play it as often as Irish Tune. If you’d like to see the music score, check it out at the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library (PDF).

Shepherd’s Hey is based on an old folk tune, like so many of Grainger’s other pieces. It is a Morris dance, although he makes sure to note that this setting is not meant for dancing. The main theme (A) is heard straight away in the opening few moments of the piece, with a countermelody underneath it. Those two parts get repeated immediately, though with slightly different instrumentation. We then break off into the B section with the oboe taking the lead at 0:10 and the accompaniment bouncing along below.

One thing to notice about this piece is that Grainger is relentless in repeating the A and B themes throughout, although he does introduce a new countermelody at 0:29. However, he continually changes up elements such as the instrumentation, rhythm, and mood, which helps keep the listener’s (and performer’s!) interest. We’ve learned about composers doing those things in previous posts, but I believe this is the first piece I’ve discussed where the melody is pretty much set on “repeat”. Because of that, I won’t go through the piece quite the same way as I’ve done before.

As you listen to the piece, try to identify where the melody is. It’s okay if you don’t know the name of the instruments; the idea is to listen for the change in tone color. Also listen for the countermelodies and melodic snippets that show up now and then. The horn, unsurprisingly, has a particularly juicy one from about 1:13-1:16. Yum! Speaking of melodic snippets, one thing I had not fully noticed in all the times I’ve listened to this piece is a brief quote of Country Gardens by a trumpet at 0:46. Thanks, YouTube commenter, for pointing that out! And it just goes to show that there’s always something new to learn.

For the most part, the rhythm has been pretty straightforward for the first 25 seconds or so. Grainger starts to shake things up a little at 0:27 in the clarinet melody, giving us a fun little syncopated part. At 0:48, he changes the accompaniment slightly from its regular 1-2-3-4 pattern to having rests here and there. We get some more syncopation at 1:10, leading into the next iteration of the B theme and countermelody. Then we get to one of my favorite parts – I love the syncopated accompaniment at 1:21! It’s so much fun to play, and very effective when played well (as this group does).

Grainger also keeps the mood rather lively and bouncy throughout, with instruments playing staccato (“separated”). But as with the rhythm, he’s won’t allow us to get complacent. He introduces a legato (“smooth, connected”) line at 1:03 that contrasts with the bouncy melody above. After giving us that taste, he takes the whole band into a brief legato section. It’s another effective trick, as it changes the mood completely. It’s a great example of why musicians need to pay attention to articulation marks in their music. If the players in this group had ignored the instruction to play legato, we’d miss out on this great change of mood.

During this piece, you probably heard a couple of exciting flourishes (the first one happens at 0:24). To me, they’re little flashes of brilliance – they sparkle. Can you hear where it happens again?

At 1:35, we get a brief chance to get set for the insanity that is the end of this piece. Grainger brings back the duet from the beginning plus accompaniment, though with the entire band playing. We get faster and faster (accelerando poco a poco) through the A and B themes, with a big run up to a big chord, then fly through one last thematic statement, followed by what I can only describe as a “smear” from the band. It’s quite an interesting effect – he has instruments going either up or down a scale, at different rates of speed. It’s one of those moments where you aim for your last note and pray your fingers get you there at the right time!

That wraps up my thoughts on Irish Tune‘s companion piece. See you next time!

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Music Appreciation: Irish Tune from County Derry by Percy Grainger

I know St. Paddy’s Day has come and gone, but I wanted to talk about this piece anyway. Most people know Irish Tune from County Derry as “Danny Boy” (or even “Londonderry Air”). While there are certainly some wretched versions out there that make people swear they never want to hear this song again, give this one a chance. I believe it is far and away the most gorgeous rendition of the tune.

Ireland countryside

Ireland countryside
(Used under CC0 Public Domain license)

Percy Grainger (1882-1961), an Australian composer and pianist, was quite an odd duck – he actually made a list that ranked composers, and put himself at number 9. He had some… interesting… tastes in his personal life, and tried out many new musical ideas. But behind the eccentricity was some great music. He had a love for folk music and traveled around with a phonograph in order to record ordinary people singing the music of their heritage. He focused on English folk songs.

One quirk of Grainger’s that entertains me is that he didn’t bother with using traditional Italian terminology in his music. So instead of crescendo, he used “louden” (or even “louden hugely”). My husband, the horn player, gets to play “as violently and roughly as possible” in one piece we’re playing for band! (Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away)

Enough chatter – let’s listen to some music!

The piece begins in the low brass and woodwinds, with the melody in the baritone, trombone, horn 4 (there are usually four separate-but-related horn parts in band music) and alto clarinet.  What’s interesting is that the melody is not the highest voice you hear. Grainger puts the melody in the middle and has harmonic material above it (which happens to sound quite melodic). That’s part of what makes this piece challenging to play – you have to make sure those middle voices don’t get buried during this first section. The cornets join in at 0:23 with more harmonic material, but the melody is still down in the lower voices. I do love the rising line at 0:43.

At 0:51, the melody is still in the middle, but we’ve given it to the entire horn section and most of the trombones. Listen for some juicy harmony from 1:12 to 1:15. We arrive at the climax of this first section at 1:18, then begin to quiet down through the end of the first time through the theme.

We begin the second time through with a flute solo, backed by the clarinets. The oboe joins in at 1:56, another make-it-or-break-it part, as that has a tendency to come out way too powerfully in this delicate section. The oboe in this recording has a nice, smooth entrance. The top clarinet part gets its own tricky line at 2:08-2:09. It’s a soft, but big, leap into the upper register of the instrument – it takes practice to do that without blaring the top note (I’ve spent some time on that myself recently as I’m playing that part for an upcoming concert). The horn takes over the melody as a solo at 2:11, giving the piece a bit of a woodwind quintet feel. Grainger keeps adding more instruments into the mix as we near 2:36.

Everyone enters again for the final quarter of the piece. Here we’re treated to some wonderfully lush harmonies and a full, rich sound from the band. Listen for the horns (and maybe even trombone at 2:59) throughout this last section, as they have beautiful countermelodic material. Like that rising line back at 0:43, I absolutely love the high horn line that starts at 3:25. It’s only a few notes, but it helps give the piece a satisfying ending.

Grainger uses close harmonies and suspensions liberally in this piece. I think that’s part of what makes it so gorgeous. When the piece is played well, it gives me goosebumps. The notes generally aren’t all that hard and there’s nothing tricky about the rhythm. Grainger doesn’t even change the key during the piece. But the piece is difficult to play well. Sometimes the “easy” pieces are actually the hardest ones to play.

That’s it for this installment. There won’t be a “bonus features” post for this tune; I plan to go right to the next piece I want to discuss. Those folks who have played Irish Tune in band may be able to guess which piece that is!

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