25 Oct

Notes and Suggestions on a Performance of Leroy Anderson's Pennywhistle Song

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An article by William Zucker.

As this is the height of the summer season we are into at this writing, I prefer to deal with lighter forms of music, assuredly of the same quality as the best in the more serious field.

I have stated on many an occasion that this is a genre that is insufficiently appreciated, and it should be realized that there will be found in this area pieces of fully the same quality as in some of the more profound types.  In addition, it is a field that has largely fallen by the wayside, regrettably so, as the audiences for such have been reduced to a relatively small group of listeners and record collectors who have a considerable interest in this type of music, which frankly deserves the same degree of respect.

I have also often stated that in the field of light music we find pieces of quality put together with genuine skill that a classical musician would take delight in, that fully deserve attentive listening, and contrarily there is that which is a mere wash of background or wallpaper, as it is frequently described, suitable for use in restaurants or lavatories and not requiring any great degree of attention.

It unfortunately appears to be a lost art today, as in more recent decades, its surviving practitioners have been forced to commercialize or cheapen what they had to offer, before dropping out of the picture altogether.

Regarding Leroy Anderson, one of whose pieces is the subject of this essay, I have already expressed a great admiration for many of his arrangements of popular standards, the enhancements of which put them on a musical level far above what the original conceptions must have been.

I tend to give less attention to his shorter novelty numbers, but I must acknowledge that among this latter group, there are actually some very fine examples that really do deserve a degree of detailed attention regarding an ideal performance.

One such piece that has drawn my attention is a selection entitled "The Pennywhistle Song." One reason I am giving it such attention is that I sincerely feel that, given the ideal performance, more is to be had from it than is commonly realized.

For one thing, like so much else that we hear in all genres of music nowadays, it is almost always taken much too fast.  What I conceive of is a much slower presentation, emphasizing the essential lyricism. Many others might tell me that with such a tempo it would tend to plod far too much.  This can easily be avoided, if the rhythms in the ideas are very clearly articulated, and the dynamic inflections in the melody are given full attention.  But even so, any plodding that might be evidenced would still in my personal opinion by far preferable to a certain flippancy that would occur with a faster tempo, and which I feel must be avoided at all costs.  And at such a tempo, the innate charm of the conception would be quite lost.  But to sum this point up, I could simply say that such would be true in all genres of music, as I have repeatedly pointed out in my other essays.  In this case, the slower tempo would also afford the opportunity to fully savor what is being heard, with a better degree of attention.

To get on with the actual piece -- but first I have to mention, for me it lies in A Flat Major.  The reasons I would have it so, results from its placement in an album wherein it originally appeared, in which I happened to observe Mr. Anderson (on television) performing his "Blue Tango," which was a popular hit at the time, in E Flat Major (I was able to watch his fingers on the keys and saw the evidence of it).

As I have already mentioned in a previous essay, the manner in which album selections of this nature have been put together to follow in a logical manner and thus in a sense belong together, is a factor for many of the albums produced during that period.   It is a musical factor that would appear to stretch far beyond the individual items within the album.

Bearing this in mind, this will place the selection next but one to the piece I saw being performed in a key area that would perfectly match what came previously as we listen to it.  As far as the use of the flat keys are concerned, as Mr. Anderson was a bandsman of a sort, this gives him a key area that in essence he might be instinctively drawn toward.

The alternative sections, meaning the second portion of the second strain and the middle section have digressions to the allied key of C Flat Major.  A true musician should never be phased by reading music in an extreme flat or sharp key, and in my firm opinion, it is far more important that the notation used directly indicates what is really taking place in the music, and never resorted to an enharmonic notation for "ease of reading," even for only a few notes, unless the music goes farther afield tonally than takes place in this piece.

As indicated, the tempo adopted should be that of a gently walking pace or a stroll.  The melodic idea should be sprightly in its articulation, with plenty of little hairpin dynamic inflections to add to its expressivity.

The second strain has an interesting contrast in the articulation, with the first half being in a light staccato, whereas the second half is legato and more cantabile, but upon listening, the attention is or should be rather drawn to the harmonic deflection that takes place, including the return to the home dominant to once again prepare for the repetition of the main idea.

This latter, following its formal repetition, has a particularly beautiful extension toward the final cadence, with a sidestep to the subdominant D Flat Major.  All of these little felicities to be found in this piece should be brought out in performance, and may I add, they are the sort of thing that may be greatly appreciated even by a classical musician as well as one who simply has much enthusiasm for this quality of light music - it is decidedly not wallpaper or background music and should never be used or thought of as such.

The middle section, given with a greater degree of forwardness in the presentation, perhaps at a mezzo-forte, still is completely compatible with what we have had up to this point, and should be regarded altogether as a continuation despite the fact that we have had a full perfect cadence preceding.  The melody apparently consists of two elements; on the up beat leading into the next measure, and that filling the space between the occurrences of the first.  But I will always state that it is never a good thing for a melody to be presented in a very disjunctive manner, and in point of fact, it is rather simple to turn it into one line.  At the very least one instrument or group of instruments can so present it to smoothen out the effect which is always under all circumstances desirable.

There is a slight uprise on a B Flat pedal approaching our home dominant which will be the preparation for the reprise.  Even though there is a slight crescendo here, I would recommend that at the very last moment, perhaps on the last beat prior, the dynamic be pulled back to allow for a proper resolution on the E Flat which in turn will eventually return us to A Flat for the reprise.

And as a matter of fact, the reprise as I refer to it turns out to be almost a textbook term here, for the instrumentation overall is quite different from the way it appeared originally, though still recognizable.  It would still give the effect of a continuation, of passing into another phase of the piece.

The second strain is essentially the same in presentation as on the first occasion; however, on this occasion there is some byplay in the inner parts for elaboration.  It is strictly background material and needs no emphasis; in fact I would personally question the necessity for such (especially given the example that we have already had with Sleigh Ride). Therefore, I would suggest to any performer of the work to take complete discretion as to whether to include it or not.

After the main idea appears for the last time and fully cadences as before, we pass into the coda of the piece, entirely on the tonic pedal, within which a degree of earnestness creeps in, and which might be taken a hair slower in tempo.  It is based on the second strain of the main section, but does not call for the same sprightliness in presentation.  The last phrase is repeated in preparation for an upswing in the melodic line, giving us the final closure of the piece on the A Flat octave.

And though this did not occur to me when I started on this task of this essay, I must now say, looking back on the entire piece as a whole as presented in this manner, we have something actually akin to many of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte, do we not?

William Zucker.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.