American Wind Symphony: The Gaels by Robert Farnon

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Earlier this year Dr. Stanley Saunders conducted the premiere performance of Robert Farnon’s penultimate composition, which he dedicated to Dr. Saunders. Hopefully one day we will all have the opportunity of hearing this work, described in detail in Dr. Saunders’ programme notes which he has kindly allowed us to publish in ‘Journal Into Melody’.

 Programme Notes : 
"American Wind Symphony: The Gaels"
by Robert Farnon

 Nowadays, the collective term ‘Gaels’ is often used in reference to a Gaelic speaking Celt in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Historical records show the evolution of the Gaels from very early times to the present. Records copied by the monks in monasteries for over 2,000 years and other accounts show that bagpipes were documented in Egypt back in 1500BC. Indeed, the cultural evolution shows that the Gaels enjoyed singing triumphant hymns and songs in their native language, beating with their feet in rhythmic jigs and other dances, clapping, and playing ‘caetras’ [bagpipes].

While many of the Gaelic words have been lost, derivatives of the original can be seen in such words as the term ‘Gael’ itself, which comes from ‘gaedel’ that has strong links to the Welsh word, ‘gwydel,’ which means foreigner, or raider. The military history of the Gaels show that they were among the best soldiers in the world, and the term ‘Gael’ designates a Highlander or Warrior. The Warriors often celebrated their military victories with bagpipe music.

The composition "American Wind Symphony: The Gaels" is dedicated by the composer to Dr. Stanley Saunders. The work was commissioned by the Roxbury High School Honors Wind Symphony, Roxbury High School, Succasunna, New Jersey, USA, Director, Mr. Todd Nichols. The arrangements were made by Professor Darryl Bott, Former Director, who now teaches at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

The work, which receives its premiere this evening, not only reflects the stirring and moving history of the Celts but also aurally depicts in a musical fashion the inhabitants of the British Isles with such sections as ‘The Warriors,’ ‘Battle Cry,’ ‘The Lassie,’ ‘The Bluebells of Scotland,’ the Lament ‘Emerald Isle,’ and ‘Scotland the Brave.’ In certain cases — programme music — the composer intends to convey specific images through music but often the composer intends the music to be nothing but — what is called absolute — music. This composition is a combination of both concepts.

The structure of The Gae!s is based on seven, continuous yet contrasting musical sections. The opening section of the composition, Introduction, starts with a crescendo roll throughout the percussion section heralding a spirited and delineated fanfare-like section in the brass that is based on a phrase from Scotland the Brave A lyrical, flowing melody is then announced by the low reed and brass instruments above which a florid woodwind counterpoint is woven that is complimented by percussion colourations.

A ‘lento’ section, featuring the keyboards and mallet instruments along with solo flute and bassoon, leads to the second section, The Warriors. A quiet, solo timpani roll introduces this ‘Allegro’ section with pyramid-like entries in the muted brass in triple metre. This triple metre passage increases in volume and intensity as other instruments make their entries. This portion of the work subsides both in tempo and dynamics with a flute solo followed by a keyboard link that transforms the mood from one of tension to a feeling of peace that continues throughout section three, The Lament: Emerald Isle. This moving melody is presented in antiphonal four-bar phrases throughout the wind ensemble. The modulating sequences played by the clarinets and saxophones continue with a quickening of pace.

This passage is followed by a sudden change of mood that illumes Farnon’ s great skill and ingenuity in orchestration as the high woodwinds float breezily along while the whole percussion section provides shimmering and scintillating contrapuntal embellishments. The whole ensemble then makes a spirited entry with staccato utterances from the low brass and tam tam [gong] leading into section four, Battle Cry. This rousing ‘presto’ section, which presents many challenges to all sections of the ensemble, depicts the Warriors as they prepare for action.

A soft roll in the percussion followed by a sustained tone in the French horns and low reeds introduces section five, The Lassie. In this part of the composition one can almost see and smell the heather of the Highlands as the solo piccolo quietly plays the main theme in brisk fashion accompanied by the rhythmic Scottish side drum. This part of the work increases in excitement and intensity as other sections of the wind ensemble join in.

At this point, section six, Bluebells, is announced but in an unusual 5/4 metre, while the contrasting The Lassie theme is continued in the piccolo, flutes, oboe, and keyboards as dancing filigree counterpoint. The main theme, Bluebells, continues but has now reverted to its more familiar quadruple metre. The Introduction music now reappears in full dress and section seven, Scotland the Brave, is announced in ‘vivace’ fashion by the trumpet section against an invigorating triplet figure in the high woodwinds, mallet, and keyboard instruments. The dance like figure makes its final, furious appearance at a ‘presto’ tempo and the thrilling build up concludes in stirring fashion with solo timpani and full ensemble in a dramatic climax.

Robert Farnon’s composition is a perfect symphonic wind ensemble setting that reflects the history of The Gaels both at Roxbury High School and throughout the ages. While the composition has programmatic aspects that are reflected in the Celtic melodies upon which the work is based, it still retains an overriding sense of formal splendour and majesty.

Programme Notes by Dr. Stanley Saunders



In JIM165 (September 2005) Dr. Saunders writes about the background to this major work in his article "Robert Farnon: Genius and Humility".

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