About this Recording
GP702 - HAMMOND, P.: Miniatures and Modulations (McHale)
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Philip Hammond (b. 1951)
Miniatures & Modulations

inspired by the melodies collected and arranged in The Ancient Music of Ireland by Edward Bunting (1773–1843)


Edward Bunting (1773–1843) was nineteen when he was engaged to annotate and record all the music he heard at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. The organisers of the four-day event were amongst the most enlightened and culturally aware members of Belfast society, who realised that the aural tradition of Irish harp music and harp playing was in danger of being lost for ever.

“A Respectable Body of the Inhabitants of Belfast having published a plan for reviving the ancient Music of this country, and the project having met with such support and approbation as must insure success to the undertaking, PERFORMERS ON THE IRISH HARP are requested to assemble in this town on the tenth day of July next, when a considerable sum will be distributed in Premiums, in proportion to their respective merits.”

The Festival took place in one of Belfast’s most elegant public venues—the Assembly Rooms above the Exchange in Donegall Street, right in the bustling centre of the town. Each day, beneath the vaulted and classically decorated ceiling of typical Georgian style, the harpers performed the music which had shaped the very soul of Ireland for centuries past and would shape it for centuries to come.

It was an event of great significance in the history of Ireland and Irish music because it proved to be the last festival of its kind. The once flourishing tradition of the Irish bard had been in decline for over half a century since the death of Turlough O’Carolan (also referred to as, simply, Carolan), its last and perhaps most famous proponent. But notwithstanding the generous financial incentives, only ten Irish harpers could be found to take up the invitation to attend the Festival—of these, six were blind (a common trait of harpers), one was female, and the oldest was 97 years of age.

“I was appointed to attend the Festival and to take down the various airs played by the different harpers”, Bunting later recalled.

“I was particularly cautioned against adding a single note to the old melodies which would seem to have been preserved pure and handed down unalloyed through a long succession of ages.”

What the young man heard and noted down so studiously during the four days of the festival changed his life. His fascination with the long history of Irish music became the main focus of his future career and the touchstone of his immortality.

The Belfast Harp Festival took place against a backdrop of marked political and societal change in Ireland. Belfast, described contemporaneously as “The Athens of the North”, had not yet begun its rapid industrial expansion, but a small group of its citizens had become acutely aware of the town’s Irish cultural heritage and intent upon its preservation, notably through its language and its music.

Most of this group were Protestant Dissenters or Presbyterians and had been as equally discriminated against by the English ruling classes as their Roman Catholic compatriots. Political developments in the fledgling, independent United States of America, and the ideology of the French Revolution of 1789, encouraged, to some extent, the group’s own desire to assume the reigns of independent political power in Ireland.

It was at this period that the Society of United Irishmen was formed in the north of Ireland. It sought to secure a reform of the Irish Parliament in Dublin, primarily through uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in Ireland into a single political movement. It initiated the disastrous rebellion of 1798 in which over thirty thousand Irishmen lost their lives. The rebellion led directly to the Act of Union of 1801, after which the Dublin Parliament was dissolved and Ireland lost what independence it had had.

Edward Bunting was a close companion of many of the United Irishmen in Belfast but, sensibly perhaps, he himself seems to have been uninterested in politics. Born in Co. Armagh, he was trained in classical music first of all by his elder brother and later apprenticed to an organist called William Ware in Belfast. His not inconsiderable musical talents were evident at an early age and he became well known in the gentrified society of Belfast as a teacher, even of pupils two or three times his age.

He earned his keep primarily as an organist but he also took on a rôle as an enterprising concert promoter and is credited, for example, with organising a great music festival in 1813 when a large portion of Handel’s Messiah was performed for the first time in Belfast. He was in his forty-sixth year when, in 1819, he married and moved with his new wife to Dublin, where initially he was organist at St Stephen’s Church—popularly known as “ the Pepper Canister”—and later became a partner in a music warehouse. He died in Dublin, aged 70, sadly as something of a forgotten and obscure figure and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.

Bunting’s true memorial however is his three volumes of Ancient Irish Music, published respectively in 1796, 1809 and 1840. The first volume was a direct result of his annotations at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival but his newfound obsession with Irish music inspired him to travel throughout Ireland in search of other original sources of musical material. Taken together, his three-volume collection of Ancient Irish Music provides a treasure trove of well over three hundred tunes.

The origins of many of those tunes are lost in history but Bunting managed to attribute some to the more recent grandees of the great Irish bardic tradition—most notably Carolan who was considerably influenced by the Italianate style of the Baroque—in Bunting’s opinion, perhaps detrimentally so!

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Bunting’s three volumes to the survival of Irish music; there are other extant collections but his is, arguably, the most intriguing as he also included a fulsome treatise on the music and its instrumental origins. Crucially, Bunting’s collection helped to form the basis of our current knowledge of how the harp was played at the time, who played it, and what was played.

Despite his professed desire to be as authentic as possible in his annotation of the music, paradoxically Bunting saw little contradiction in arranging all of the tunes he collected for the Piano Forte. In so doing, he often adapted both the tunes and, more importantly, the accompaniments to suit the instrument for which he was writing—and indeed the stylistic expectations of his contemporary clientele, most of whom were enthusiastic, amateur piano players. My friend and fellow Belfast composer David Byers has written that “Bunting’s piano arrangements are very much of their own period; the traditional melodies are adjusted and “improved”…original harmonies are lost—replaced by the conventional ones of the time. On the other hand, but for Bunting, so much might have been lost.” (www.byersmusic.com/edward-bunting.php)

I first encountered Bunting’s collection in Belfast’s wonderful Linen Hall Library which was founded in 1788. It was not until 2009, however, prompted by my wish to mark the retirement of a colleague, Paul Burns, from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, that I began to study them seriously. Paul has a great love for Irish traditional music and I wrote a piano piece based on Open The Door Softly for him and performed it at his retirement party. This was the first of twenty-one pieces which eventually comprised my collection of Miniatures and Modulations. In each case, Bunting’s arrangement of the tune is the “miniature” and my response, or variation, or arrangement, is the “modulation”.

I wrote Miniatures and Modulations especially for three Northern Irish pianists—Cathal Breslin, David Quigley and Michael McHale and fifteen of the set were initially commissioned by the Belfast Festival at Queen’s in 2011 and premiered in the First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street in Belfast, a church which was opened in 1783 and which Bunting himself would have known well.

In 2013, I composed an additional six modulations specifically for Michael McHale. There is a noticeable progress in the ingenuity of Bunting’s accompaniments throughout the three volumes of his collection but, in terms of technical demands, none is particularly challenging—again, no doubt, in deference to the type of player Bunting was envisaging.

It was this model of contemporaneous relevancy, however, that gave me the idea to re-approach the tunes with complete freedom of style. With such divergent material in the original “miniatures”—my word, by the way, not Bunting’s—it should be unsurprising that there is an equal diversity of style in my “modulations”.

I did not conceive this as an exercise in musical authenticity by any means and I assumed great license with each of the “modulations” as a matter of course. The reasons I chose these particular tunes were equally unpredictable but the majority of them come from Bunting’s first volume. I was intrigued by some small turn of phrase in the original melody, or by the fact that the shape of the overall tune itself was so beautifully architectural in sound. Sometimes, an aspect of Bunting’s accompaniment caught my ear, or there was an appealing twist in his harmonisation or, indeed, the opposite. Other times, it was merely the title of the tune which took my fancy—who could resist, for example, The Ugly Tailor or Have You Seen My Valentine?

Without Bunting’s lifetime efforts, our current knowledge of Irish tunes and musical techniques would be considerably poorer. Thanks to him, the tunes he collected over two centuries ago will continue to fascinate musicians from all around the world in different ways.

I see my “modulations” on those “miniatures” as a small, personal tribute to his memory.

Philip Hammond

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