Robinson McClellan ~ composer



memory study for harpsichord, violin, and bass viol.

Commissioned and premiered by Flying Forms.

Premiere February 10, 2008 at Stony Brook University.



Coraldan is designed to be easily memorized and performed without written music. To this end, it follows an ancient orally-transmitted music tradition that remains largely unknown in modern times, having completely died out except for two remnants: one in a manuscript of Welsh harp music copied in 1623 by Robert ap Huw (B. M. Addl. MS 14905), containing pieces that may date three or four centuries before that; and the other in pibroch (or piobaireachd)—a living but obscure Scottish Gaelic bagpipe tradition.

One of the fascinating things about both remnants is the intricate patterning found in their harmonic and metric structures. The Welsh harp MS gives what it calls the 24 "mesurs of cerdd dant" or "measures of string music," a formalized compositional system of patterns represented in a binary code:  "1" stands for cyweirdant, or "string of concord," and "0" for tyniad or "string of inflection"—so that the mesurs represent patterns of consonance and dissonance. The mesur usually serves as a ground bass in the lower part while the upper part repeats a melody in which continuous variation provides intrest. Thus on the surface, the music in ap Huw's MS resembles the passacaglia and chaconnes later found throughout Europe; what makes these Welsh mesurs distinctive is the peculiar sense of symmetry and inversion in their patterns: for example, the mesur called bryt odidog is written “0010 0010 1101 1101.”

Pibroch is still played today, but it predates the reels and marches most often heard on the Highland bagpipes: most pibrochs were composed between 1550 and 1750 using an oral compositional method. Pibroch makes the most of limited pitch material (nine notes on the pipes) via intricate patterns of consonance and dissonance over the drone. Some of these are very similar to the Welsh mesurs: for example, the most common formal plan in pibroch (as identified by pibroch scholar Barnaby Brown) is nearly identical to the Welsh mesur shown above.

Part of the purpose of these patterns in Welsh harp music and pibroch is to help musicians perform lengthy and complex pieces without written music. Pipers always perform pibroch from memory, memorizing at two levels: locally, a few short melodic fragments, and structurally, a larger pattern that determine the order of the fragments. This memorization process requires considerable concentration, but far less than what would be required to memorize, say, a Bach partita. To this day, pibroch teachers will give their students a new fifteen-minute piece at lunch and expect them to perform it from memory by dinnertime.

Taking up this idea, this piece borrows the mesur which the ap Huw MS calls coraldan: “1110 1001 0001.” Like the early Welsh harp music and pibroch, this piece is a set of variations. Within each, and within the theme, two distinct sonorities alternate according to the order laid out in the mesur. Likewise, the order of theme and variations follows the pattern, so that the mesur pervades the music at every level.

I have two goals in writing a piece like this: First, as a listener and player of pibroch, I find the musical effect of its patterns both hypnotic and mysteriously moving; by using them in a new piece I want to draw on their emotional power and intellectual interest, and to explore their potential in new forms. Second, I want to counter classical music's dependence the written page. Playing from memory allows a different, often deeper, kind of engagement and internalization of the music. This piece does not ask for improvisation (though many details are left to the performers' discretion); like most classical music, it is highly determined, 'composed' music. But because the music is specifically designed to be played from memory, it seeks to remove the barrier of score and music stand between performers and audience, in hopes of inspiring renewed energy and spontaneity.

I want to thank Barnaby Brown and Bill Taylor for helping to reveal to me the amazing world of early Welsh harp music.


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