Do Dolmen's Lament?

All good things are three – behold 'Corcoran's Law of Musical Thermodynamics'.

Dolmens don’t keen the dead. We Irish do – or did until comparatively recent times – down the long centuries since the old Stone Age food-gatherers perfected their three-note music. Seriously though, what was our early music like? If I could only get back through time.

It is neither my business nor my intention here to do a Bob Quinn, linking anatolean sean-nós with Atlantean ‘Anách Cúain’. I want to establish an archetype. I can see a structure of great antiquity and architectural strength behind the outside, framing lines of so many Irish slow airs.

Let me start with that lament-song from Carrigart, County Donegal, ‘Fill, Fill, A Rúin 0’. An eighteenth-century mother laments (keens, yes) the spiritual ruin of her priest-son who has gone over to the other side. On the face of it, this seems to have little in common with the traditional caoine. Well, let’s look again. The keening women (such as old Máire Ní Direáin of Man of Aran fame who recorded a caoine in 1953) made a kind of popped jump up to the highest tone, then recited their lament for the dead person on that reciting tone before collapsing down to a final tone with much use of ‘Móchón’ and ‘Airiú, airiú ar Maidin’. They used three elements – the jump up (or scrape or mumble), the recital-tone, and the collapsing cadence.

Now in singing ‘Fill, fill, A Rúin 0’ (Ex. 1), Máire Áine Nic Dhonnacha and many other singers would make a little jump (rhythmically always up-beat) up to the reciting tone; the melody would then embroider it before before making the elaborate, beautiful descent to the final resting-tone.

Three elements: the upbeat lep, the – bare or ornate – recital-tone, the fall to rest. This musical scaffolding is hardly a monopoly of the keening Irish. What about Gregorian chanting of the psalms? Take the traditional ‘Gloria Patri’ (Ex. 2) on the so-called ‘psalm-tone’ that I vividly remember from my Tipperary childhood:

You have the jump, held reciting tone, descent – three things. I believe this archetypal structure is behind hundreds of Irish slow airs. I can tie in this scaffolding with some of the oldest music on our island.

Now I’ll take the – for me – most interesting version of the great love-song from Lough Key and its Trinity Island, Joe Heaney’s version of ‘Á Úna Bháin’ (Ex. 3). Watch its three elements: up-beat skip to the reciting-tone, Book of Kells-ish zig-zag ornamentation, curve back down to the final cadence. Tripartite scaffold – our plot thickens.

Isn’t this deliciously interesting for a musical detective? It hit me full force as, years ago, I heard the Monks of Glenstal plus Nóirín Ní Riain recording of ‘Seacht nDolas Na Maighdine Muire’ (Ex. 4). We have the ascent, the top tone, the beautifully spun out falling line – all good things are three. Corcoran’s Law of Musical Thermodynamics: what goes up must come down.

Of course, in each individual slow air, one or other of these three elements will be individually treated. Take the up-beat approach to the top note. This can often be a mere apoggiatura, an off-the-beat scramble (as in ‘Fill, fill…’ or in ‘Seacht nDolas…’ above ). But it can be a poised, crafted ascending line of great interest in itself, e.g. in the Bunting manuscripts, Denis Hempson’s version of ‘Uileagán an Dubh O’ (Ex. 5). This ascent forms the first long phrase which requires as a symmetric answering phrase the reciting-tone-plus-descent.

In ‘Im Aonar Seal’ (Ex. 6), this first element is, unusually, an ascending jump of a sixth to the highest tone (which, again unusually, is not itself the tonic but the third of the key). This ascending sixth releases great energy:

Again, the second element in Corcoran’s Law, what I am calling the recital-tone (or highest note), appears in a large number of guises. Sometimes it comes only once, as the first down-beat of the tune, before the melodic descent begins. Often it is sung several times, ornamented by its neighbour-notes above and below. I’ll compare two very different treatments: look at ‘Úna Bháin’ and its brilliant trellis-work. As against that, in, say, ‘Carrickfergus’ (Ex. 7), this all-important reciting tone appears only once, as the first down-beat of the entire composition, a kind of launch-pad for the beautifully worked-out descent.

Then there’s my third element, the falling cadence with, again, a myriad of strategies for the anonymous composer to bring the melodic arch to its rest. Look above at ‘Fill, Fill…’ and its baroque elaboration of cadence. Both ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘Seacht nDolas…’ fall even deeper than the final tonic before they come to rest. Or a perfect ‘parent-call’ song like ‘Condae Mhuigheo’ (see below) can draw a symmetrical ascent-descent graph that sets many a musical detective muttering ‘Ah, bee-hive cell, early Celtic stone oratory…’.

Three elements. It’s already there in the Gregorian psalm-tone pattern. A musical archetype. Of great antiquity, I suspect. Why?

At this point I want to acknowledge my dependence on somebody else’s musical detective-work. In a series of exciting articles, well over twenty years ago, Professor Breandán Ó Madagáin showed how I might tie-in my scaffold-theory further with a yen for the earliest music we’ve had on this island. Ó Madagáin made his imaginative leap back to pre-famine Ireland of the eighteenth century. Ó Madagáin knew and read his Eugene O’Curry, who, in Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, left us a marvellous recollection of how his father, Eogh Mór Ó Curraigh, and his friend, Clare school-master Anthony O’Brien, would of a Sunday row out on the wide Shannon estuary – with crock of whiskey obligato in the bottom of the boat – to practise feats of Demosthenean vocal acrobatics. Now here’s the point: O’Curry remembered his father singing very often the tune of ‘a beautiful, ancient hymn to the Blessed Virgin’ – ‘Sciathluireach Mhuire’ (Ex. 8). Don’t forget my three elements. In the Royal Irish Academy library, Ó Madagáin, in a feat of brilliant Sherlock Holmesery, was able to find the eighteenth-century manuscript.

See the ascent, reciting-tone, cadencing. Now, O’Curry recognised that – to his amazement – this melody was the same line that Anthony O’Brien, the Clare school-master out in a boat on the Shannon Estuary with his father of a Sunday, would use to chant one of the Fenian lays, ‘Laoi Chnoc an Áir’ (Ex. 9), the real old stuff:

I was startled when I came across this splendidly poetic caoine from County Waterford which Liam De Noraidh collected in the forties; ‘A Mhná na Súile Bog’ (Ex. 10) pleads with the ‘women of the moist eyes’ to ‘stop your weeping, till my love is given a drink, before he enters the school where he learns neither letters nor music, but will be supporting clay and stones!’

The music of the ancient hymn to the Virgin is the music of that Fenian lay, is the music of the Waterford caoine. Very strange! In each case, the jump, reciting-tone, fall. Q.E.D. This Grand Unified Theory gives me a window into our past. Our early music was a jump (bare or elaborately composed) to the reacaire’s recitation-tone (decked out or built around or…) on which he recited, then connected to the fall. Q.E.D.

Notice I’ve said nothing about the melodic material in the centre of any AABA or ABBA slow-air structure. My archetype fits the outer phrase of the four-part composition. Suffice it to say here that, after the initial ascending-reciting-descending arch under discussion, the tendency in the middle phrase is – not unnaturally – to climb again and explore the top region with, often, staggering results… (See ‘Róisín Dubh’ and a lot more melodies).

I’ve no more space for examples; we could go on and on, illustrate the three elements, compare the artistry of elaboration, enjoy those gargoyles, false starts, cunning stunts, the wavy line as a barograph for the text’s soul. I’ve no space left for Labhrá Ó Cadhlaigh’s lament for the young girl dead in Cappaquin, Bríd Ní Mhuiríosa. Yes, Stephen Dedalus’ ‘native Doric’ has a dying fall – but only after the initial ascent. Nor will I mention the famine Caoine, ‘Sail Óg Rua’, and its wonderful rising seventh = leap up to its ‘reciting tone’. Check for yourself. Bask in Im Aonar Seal’s individual filling-out of ascent and descent.

Am I serious in this theorem that behind my tripartite structure is the psalm-tone? The caoine’s proclamation? Recital of the Fenian Laoi? See for yourself. Watch Darwinian variations of a species (e.g. the extra composed importance of the ascent in ‘Carraig Aonair’). Apparent exceptions (e.g. the opening of ‘Seán Ó Duibhir an Ghleanna’, whose up-beat is easily conceived as a mutated ascent á la Corcoran’s musical thermodynamics) only prove my point, my three points.

I referred above to ‘Condae Mhuigheo’ as a parent-cell song. Behind it are many mutants, and with the same architecture. Seán Ó Riada was the first to point to its genetic similarity with ‘John Twist’. He did not get around to trace others of its mutanta and fore-runners and spawned descendants… This, too, is not my theme here. But let me mention at least, out of Shields: ‘Our Wedding-Day’, ‘Anne-Jane Thornton’, ‘Tossing The Hay’, ‘Aisling Geal’, ‘Cad É Sin Don Té Sin?’, ‘The Bonny Irish Boy’, ‘Dónal Óg, ‘Down By The Canal’, ‘The Dark-Eyed Gypsy’. If you finger through Creighton´s Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia you can begin with: ‘Mary Nail’, ‘Mary Irish Polly’, ‘Rambling Shoe-maker’, ‘Tom O’Neill’.

I am getting dizzy fast. But my three elements, they’re there.

Published on 1 November 2001

Since 1983 Frank Corcoran has been Professor of Composition and Theory in the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Hamburg. His CDs include Mad Sweeney (BBM 1026) and Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, & 4 (Marco Polo 8.225107).Frank Corcoran is guest composer and artistic director at the Sligo Contemporary Music Festival, full details of which appear on the back cover of The JMI. Since 1983 Frank Corcoran has been professor of composition and theory in the Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst, Hamburg. His CDs include Mad Sweeney (BBM 1026) and Symphonies Nos. 2,3 & 4 (Marco Polo 8.225107)

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