O’Carolan’s Symphony

harp & winds
duration: 10:16

There is scant information known of the life and career of Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) [Irish: Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin]. What we do know consists largely of pieced-together anecdotal accounts. When he was blinded around age eighteen by smallpox, a benefactor arranged for him to be trained as a harpist. Upon completion of his training, he was awarded a sum of money, two horses, and a sighted guide to be his companion. From there, he was on his own and this was to be his only option: a career as an itinerant harpist.

In a story that might easily have ended in tragedy, O’Carolan went on to become one of Ireland’s most famous and prolific composers. For nearly 50 years he roamed the Irish countryside from Dublin to Galway and all points north composing songs, entertaining the rich and powerful in their grand homes, and subsisting solely on the generosity of his patrons.

Though there are extant books published during his lifetime which contain one or two O’Carolan tunes, volumes dedicated to his collected works did not begin appearing until the late 18th century. Most of his tunes were kept alive by the harpists, fiddlers, and flutists who taught them by rote to their students. At last count, there are 214 verified tunes attributed to him with several dozen others of dubious origin.

Unfortunately, O’Carolan’s works were preserved only as single melodic lines. How any of the tunes would have been harmonized by O’Carolan is literally anyone’s guess! To create this suite which I dubbed a symphony, I chose four of my own favorite tunes from O’Carolan’s massive catalog.

Rather than attempt recreating what O’Carolan himself might have done with these tunes, I chose to lend O’Carolan’s Symphony a style I felt would indulge O’Carolan’s notorious musical curiosity while giving a nod to the colorful anecdotes peppering the many written accounts of his life. To further the storytelling aspect, imagined the varied personalities and daily lives of the people for whom O’Carolan named these tunes.

Maintaining respect for the form and melody inherent in each tune, I incorporated modern harmonies, added countermelodies, varied textures, changed a few rhythms… ultimately scoring the entire work for instruments that either didn’t exist in O’Carolan’s day or have evolved to a great extent. I hope the work is a fitting homage to the inspiring if not legendary life story of Ireland’s last great bard.

Premiered 17 August, 2018, at the Oliver Art Center, Frankfort, MI: Manitou Winds.

O’Carolan’s Symphony: I. George Brabazon; (T. O’Carolan/arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2018 J.T. McKinney
O’Carolan’s Symphony: II. Lady Athenry; (T. O’Carolan/arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2018 J.T. McKinney
O’Carolan’s Symphony: III. Planxty Burke; (T. O’Carolan/arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2018 J.T. McKinney
O’Carolan’s Symphony: IV. Mrs. Power; (T. O’Carolan/arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2018 J.T. McKinney
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