This Eerie Song Will Make You Get Into the Halloween Spirit

Gather ‘round for the tale of dear Tam o’Shanter, a farmer who spent one evening getting drunk with friends and had a night he (and his horse) will never forget.

"A Scene from Tam O'Shanter."

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

Okay, so he spends many evenings getting drunk with friends, but this piece (and the poem that inspired it) speaks of one night in particular. I’m excited to talk about this piece by Malcolm Arnold as it’s 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), which details Tam’s raucous ride home from the pub.

Tam 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…

At the pub

We begin on octave Es throughout the range of the strings, just a mysterious 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 wonderful 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 (his horse) 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).

Fleeing the storm

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 the 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 — where we hear a different version of Tam’s drinking song played by the piccolo (2:57). Perhaps he’s thinking of his wife, dear 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.

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.

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 great 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 is 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)

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. She’s wonderful!

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!

Until next time… And please do not stumble across any witches’ parties in the meantime. Or, if you do, try not to be like Tam.

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