Ó Amhrán go Fonn — From Song to Tune

I went to the NcNeill’s session in Brattleboro this week, and a fella there played an air on his flute. Honestly I don’t remember ever hearing an air played at a session before. I’ve heard lots of them sung, along with other song types (this is common at the McNeill’s session) but never done instrumentally.

Fast forward to today–I’m listening to Macdara Ó Raghallaigh’s album “Ego Trip”–which is absolutely brilliant, by the way–and on comes an air called Bruach na Carraige Báine, or “The Edge of the White Rock.” It’s a lovely sad tune, slow and kinda painful, and a bit unresolved melodically, leaving you with a bit of an empty space inside, to good effect, I think.

For awhile I’ve been thinking about how airs generally come from songs that are sung, and I have wondered  do musicians take liberties with the melodies of songs to make them more palatable as airs? Well I’m sure it varies by musician. I have heard some liberties taken in the more modern arrangements. These songs were originally sung solo, as part of a tradition called “Sean Nós,” or old style singing, literally. The singer, or amhráiní, would use various embellishments in the melody for mood and effect, much as we do when adding ornamentation to jigs, reels and the like. However quite often nowadays you hear amhráin (songs) accompanied by guitar, or harp, or even arranged with more complexity–think of the big name “Celtic” super groups, like Altan and the like, I suppose.

So of course, I turned to good-old YouTube, and I did manage to find a nice, unaccompanied version of Bruach na Carraige Báine, and luckily, Macdara’s version is also on the Tube for comparason. In the first video, the tune in question begins shortly after the beginning, but the video goes on with other songs and stuff, so watch it through after you make your comparisons.

For the curious–the lyrics can be found HERE.

(I have not vetted the lyrics, so, here’s a grain of salt for ya’s.)



3 thoughts on “Ó Amhrán go Fonn — From Song to Tune

  1. What immediately came to my mind when I thought of instrumental “airs” are the many that come to us from Turlough O’Carolan. I was about to write something about how they aren’t tied to lyrics, but then I looked him up to be sure, and it turns out that most of his melodies started out as songs …….. with lyrics, of course.
    I haven’t been to a whole lot of Irish sessions, but aren’t his “airs” commonly played in that setting?

    • Mike, while it’s true that many of O’Carolan’s tunes are associated with lyrics, the very article you cited at the session also mentions that he never wrote the words and the tunes together–the words always came later. And yes many of his tunes are played at sessions, but they differ quite a lot from the sorts of airs I meant to highlight in this post. Many people don’t call O’Carolan’s tunes “airs,” but rather “O’Carolan tunes.” That said, read the blog I just put up! Best, Mark

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