Music Appreciation: Shepherd’s Hey by Percy Grainger
Grainger again? Yes. I do have a reason for this.
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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