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English Country Dance tunes - WHY oh WHY???

Posted by Fiddler on Monday, June 26, 2017

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I have not gone to the dark side!! About 5 years ago, way back in 2012, I was invited to play for an English Country dance - my first. I am still doing it and enjoying it! But, why on earth would someone who is interested in OT fiddling even consider playing English country dance tunes? Here is my reply:

1. English Country dance music IS dance music. The fiddling is DANCE fiddling. This is the genesis of OT fiddling. If you have any doubt, listen to this clip:

The first piece is Bransle des Chevaux (Horse's Bransle), the second piece is Staines Morris (the Maypole song).

Here's a early recording of English fiddling.

And one of a more more current English fiddler. Yes, some familiar ornamentation! But, I like the description of the style even more - "lumpy"

Here's an article about English fiddling.

2. Many of the tunes are not 32 bar AABB structure tunes and many are not 2/2,2/4,4/4, or 3/4 time. There are 3/2, 6/8, 9/8, 6/4 and more - each have a different feel. So, figuring out bowings so that the phrasing is right and that the music drives the dance is critical.

3. OT music has it's roots in the traditions of  Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France. Early immigrants in the late 1600s and 1700s were listening to and playing Baroque music. The ornamentation in Baroque music is imbedded and preserved in OT music. So, current classical musicians who are focusing on "historically informed performances", are listening to Emmitt Lundy and Eddon Hammons since they retained much of this style in their playing (so say musicologists who study this stuff.) Additionally, the phrasing and many passages are also retained. So, playing English tunes informs my approach to OT. 

Here's an article about the Baroque fiddling and its relationship to OT fiddling.

4. Not much is known about English Country dancing. The tradition nearly died out had it not been for the efforts of Cecil Sharp who interviewed a few elderly folks in the early 1900 who recounted their experiences. He recreated dances and the style from these interviews. So, my understanding is that much of what we know today about English country dancing is from Cecil Sharp. The music, on the other hand, was collected (transcribed) by many, most notably John Playford. Because of the scant early field recordings of English fiddlers, there is some hint at ornamentation and phrasing for a few tunes. Today, the influence of the celtic traditions (Irish and Scots mostly) is present in many tunes.

5. The band uses sheet music - dots, danged dots. With 10-12 new tunes for each dance, it is impossible to memorize them. So, playing for the English dances is a way of improving my sight-reading skills, something that 11 years of piano lessons as a kids did not do. After 5 years, I am still crappy at it, but better. My struggle now is with phrasing and timing, especially with 3/2 tunes.

6. Improving intonation  - English music is a bit more refined than OT. Since a keyboard or fixed reed instrument (concertina) is frequently in the band, fiddles need to be played with good intonation. For me, playing this music has forced me to focus on this - something I should have done long, long ago!  And, let's not forget about those tunes in flatted keys!  - F, Bb, Gm, Dm, etc. - Still a stuggle with intonation on these, but they no longer scare me!!

7. Improving technique - many of the tunes require getting out of first position! Yes, it is possible to do it. After struggling for a while, it fell into place for me. Now, I'm working on finding the notes in the shifted positions -- and it is fun! Included in this is bowing and making the tunes expressive. As I play the tune, I ask myself "how does it make me feel?" I try to convey that when I play. I also note the dance figure that goes with the phrase. How can I drive the music so that the dancers have no choice but to move into the figure. Much of this has to do with bowing.

So, if you have read this far, thank you. If you have not tried English Country dance tunes, give it a shot - even if it is not what you want to play. Also, listen to Baroque music. Much of it music is dance music! You will hear OT fiddle tunes, of phrases of tunes, as well as cross-tuning. How cool is that?

You can also snicker at the tune names like Mr. Belvedere's Maggot or The Astonish Archeologist or The Physical Snob.

And, where else can you have a band with such a cool name as Mad Robin?


9 comments on “English Country Dance tunes - WHY oh WHY???”

Gareth Bjaaland Says:
Wednesday, June 28, 2017 @4:22:14 AM

Great post Kirk. I really love old time fiddle but can't help be drawn further back to the celtic styles that informed it also. Tis a bit daunting though -so many more tunes to learn!

Fiddler Says:
Wednesday, June 28, 2017 @7:56:11 AM

Hello Gareth, thanks for your comment. Yes, more tunes to learn and so little time! Hope you enjoy the connections as much as I have.

RichJ Says:
Wednesday, July 5, 2017 @7:36:19 AM

Hi Kirk - I detect a semi-scholarly approach here (perhaps your academic side is showing?) but, like it a lot. I've been listening to Peakfiddler for some time, but never heard these renditions of Jacob Enrico or Ironlegs. Love his description of them as "lumpy" dance tunes.

Perhaps English country dance tunes are the Roots Music of American Old Time.

Fiddler Says:
Wednesday, July 5, 2017 @8:26:04 AM

Hi Rich - Thanks for your comment. I wish I could claim even a "semi-scholarly" approach. Much of my opinions are circumstantial and speculative based on years of experiences, an encounter with a Baroque violinist and some serendipitous reading that I cannot document.

About 20 years ago, a friend (now retired prof of harpsichord and organ) invited my wife and I to a series of early music house concerts. They were intimate affairs in his small living room with about 15-20 people. During one of these first concerts the program was entirely a Baroque violinist playing along with the harpsichord. The violinist played the entire concert in cross-tuning - either in AEae or DDad. On top of that, a couple of the pieces were very familiar fiddle tunes and had that familiar drive and phrasing and ornamentation. I don't recall the composers, but one may have been Purcell. (I know it wasn't the usual suspects - Hayden, Bach, Telemann, etc.) After the concert I was able to talk at length with the violinist about the pieces, his fiddle and his bow technique. We had so much in common in our approach to music. The main difference was that I did not have formal training. Ever since, I have been hearing old time music in Baroque music along with imagining people dancing to this music.

RichJ Says:
Wednesday, July 5, 2017 @10:37:22 AM

I agree totally. Tell me you couldn't come up with some OT fiddle to put in this?

(not sure how to make the link active in blog posts)


RichJ Says:
Wednesday, July 5, 2017 @10:47:27 AM

Whoops, should have tried this before making the challenge. I think those two are using a Baroque tuning i.e.A = other than 440.

But, damn I sure love those lutes, that big one is a beast.

Surprising it took so long for the guitar to evolve from the lute... or maybe there's something here I don't know.

Fiddler Says:
Wednesday, July 5, 2017 @11:28:57 AM

Cool video, Rich. Yes, that big lute (theorbo) is big! You also reinforce my point. How could you NOT keep from tapping your foot to that?

Fiddler Says:
Thursday, July 6, 2017 @6:59:46 AM

Also consider that many composers "borrowed" melodies from folk traditions and included those in their compositions. Doesn't matter which composer you select. They all did it. Probably the most familiar example is Aaron Copeland's use of William Stepp's "Bonapart's Retreat" in the Hoe-Down movement of Rodeo.

kilpatrickbill Says:
Wednesday, May 23, 2018 @1:03:43 AM

Might be of interest - Southern English Fiddle:

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