By Robert Walton
One place my wife and I had always wanted to see was the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And conveniently now living in the Republic of Ireland, we were in the perfect position to visit this minor Wonder of the World. When we eventually did get around to catching up with the famous formation near Portrush Co Antrim we weren’t disappointed. Associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean in the Tertiary Period about 60 million years ago, this mass of basalt columns caused by volcanic activity left a lasting impression on us.
So, stimulated by Ireland’s most distinctive geological creation, my wife suddenly had a bright idea. “Let’s go to Limavady while we are in the area”. What’s so speciaI about Limavady, I hear you cry? It only happens to be the home of Danny Boy, that’s all! Knowing we weren’t a million miles from the market town, we followed the map in a southwesterly direction towards the origin of a ‘musical’ Wonder of the World... the Londonderry Air, better known as Danny Boy. Many musicologists believe it’s the world’s most beautiful melody. I wouldn’t argue with that. Certainly Mozart or Beethoven couldn’t come up with such a perfect composition.
After we parked, we were welcomed by a smiling traffic warden who assured us she had already done her rounds for the day and after our free hour we could stay as long as we liked. We were beginning to warm to Limavady! At the tourist office we received yet another greeting from a charming girl who was clearly impressed with our prior knowledge and interest in the song.
Right opposite on a pub wall was a huge picture of schoolteacher Jane Ross who first heard the tune on a market day in 1851. It was played by local blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry who was more than happy to repeat it so that Jane could write it down. The violinist was a native of a rural townland called Myroe. He used to perform outside the Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office opposite Jane Ross’s house. Some historians believe the tune was influenced by an ancient ditty known as O’Cahan’s Lament. Perhaps, said sceptics, Jane composed it herself in the same way that Fritz Kreisler had fooled everyone that some of his tunes were attributed to various 17th and 18th century composers. However the general consensus was that Jane was merely the annotator.
She apparently sent the manuscript to a music collector friend in Dublin, George Petrie, President of the Society and Publication of Irish Melodies who published it in 1855. Eventually it went viral as The Londonderry Air. The haunting tune remained wordless for many years despite attempts at finding the perfect match. The world would have to wait until 1913 when Bath lawyer Fred Weatherly wrote the definitive lyric to the tune sent from his sister-in-law in America. In fact it had been written in advance. Incredibly Fred had the title Danny Boy already in his files, whose words miraculously fitted the melody.
So if you ever find yourself in Limavady spare a thought for Jane Ross the true saviour of Danny Boy. To this day a Blue Plaque hangs on the wall of her home at 51 Main Street Limavady commemorating one of the world’s most sublime songs. Jane is buried in Christ Church graveyard just across the road. Over the years Danny Boy has been recorded by thousands of artists and orchestras from John McCormack to Elvis Presley.
But in my experience one of the most moving versions of Danny Boy was by a 90 year old resident of a Ballinrobe care home, Mary from the Irish village of Ballyfarnon. And talking of Farnon, the greatest orchestral arrangement just has to be that of Robert Farnon.
George Shearing Quintet with String Choir
Analysed by Robert Walton
Most professional singers make it a practice to do a thorough sound and familiarization check before performing on stage, especially one that’s new to them. Dame Vera Lynn was no exception and lucky enough to have the expertise of her fastidious husband Harry Lewis who always made sure that everything was just perfect. I was her pianist in the mid-60s when the three of us entered the Stoke-on-Trent venue to give it the once over.
As we walked in, the public address system was playing what I can only describe as “music from heaven”. I immediately went into a kind of trance and my goose pimples became instantly active. Vera and Harry couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I was in another world transfixed to the spot. After making enquiries the engineer in the control room informed me it was the title track of George Shearing’s album “Touch Me Softly”. Near the end of Shearing’s gorgeous arrangement, ravishing strings go literally into overdrive in what I call “tone apart” harmony. Let me explain. On the piano, the right hand plays the chord of say G, while the left hand plays the chord of F (both 2nd inversions). Play them together and the dissonance it creates is absolutely mind-blowing, especially when you move them up and down in tones. (Much more daring than say Debussy or Ravel). When I discovered these discords, I thought they were pure Bartok but a Royal Schools of Music professor insisted they were just borrowed from jazz.
Why do “far out” harmonies appeal to us? Of course, our DNA has a lot to answer for. On my father’s side, their whole passion was music. His aunt was an excellent piano teacher (she dumped me because I wouldn’t practise) while his mother was an incredible sight reader. But it wasn’t all one sided. My mother was a Chopin fanatic.
Guilt can be part of it too. After purchasing Ted Heath’s Strike Up The Band with its abrasive high brass, I remember feeling guilty (almost naughty) because my parents might object. After my classical music training, to be suddenly swept up by all this dissonance was a life changing experience. Overnight it seemed I had found the key to a new world of sound. The discords dug deep into my soul literally hurting the senses but what a discovery. At first it jars but gradually one becomes accustomed to paradise!
A brilliant solo violin begins this brief concerto-like introduction in a thrilling way that totally gripped me. The opening of Touch Me Softly is actually a trailblazer for what’s to come. As soon as the Quintet chords are sounded, you know you’re in Shearingland and when the strings enter for the first time, the nimble fingers of the maestro confirm something special is on its way. This is no Tatum or Peterson but a very gentle George with his own tasteful piano, keeping everything as musical and relaxed as possible with overall control by Milton Raskin. This section is virtually repeated with some more dreamy like doodling from Shearing.
Then what we’ve all been waiting for, the symphonic strings suddenly erupt into a dazzling display of a sort of frenzied fusion between Schoenberg and Farnon, creating one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s a sheer miracle that this very small part of the track happened to be playing that day in Stoke. The coda is an extension of the opening. I wonder how you reacted when you first encountered those Shearing strings?
“Touch Me Softly”. George Shearing
Capitol LP T1874