Good morning, Bob,
I, too, love the Carolan music.
It's my understanding that many of the first standard notation
transcriptions of his music were done by Edward Bunting, a pianist who
wrote them in an expanded, piano-friendly form. It takes some analysis,
but the chords are certainly there in those collections, first published
shortly after 1800. I believe they were saying these were the first ones
with any harmonies attached to the melodies.
I glanced through the long essay portions of my edition, which contains
all 3 of Bunting's collections and prefacing essays. It's my understanding
that one of the mail goals of EB's efforts was to "flesh out" the tunes to
their more original "shape" by inserting harmonies. With that in mind,
I'd be prone to assume he used the chords he heard from the old harpers.
But, it's WAY too late to know whether Bunting was using only the chords
he'd heard, some of which were from students of students of Carolan or
whether he made some personal-taste decisions. So, my guess is that we'll
never have any certainty concerning what chords were used by the composer.
But, even if we DID know Carolan's choice, I believe that his music and
the way it was presented to listeners and students give ample authority to
make personal chord choices. I even make conscious choices about speed
that my readings suggest are "incorrect" ones. In one section of the
Bunting, it says Lamentations are by no means played slowly. In
something else I came across a LONG time ago, I read an old harper's
comment that the new way of playing the lamenting airs was slower than
they'd been played in ancient times.
When in a jam session, the Carolan tunes are limited, usually, to a few
popular titles. I just follow the "common" chords others are using.
In my own arrangements, I make whatever choices suit my own inclinations.
Most people who announce that they know the ONLY right way to play very
old music end up making some indefensible pronouncement. I suppose
there's comfort in thinking there's only one "correct" choice and you know
it. But, it doesn't reflect most of what I've seen and learned in life.
One of my grad school lit teachers made it her mission to teach us how to
avoid that mind set. I've always been grateful.
When I was first taking piano lessons, I was taught to play the RIGHT
melody along with all the RIGHT harmonies, played at the RIGHT tempo.
I assumed that would make my music totally "right" and that that was the
only goal. It didn't take me too very long to realize that doing
absolutely everything "right" didn't produce music that was satisfying to
Then, later in life, I became acquainted, simultaneously, with the
dulcimer and traditional music. I saw that the players I most admired
took tunes, either old or new, and did individual things with those
tunes---choosing their own harmonies and embellishments. I spent much
time watching them play and listening to their music, hoping to learn much
from each one while developing an individual style. I elected to continue
that tradition, so I take the tunes I find, including Carolan's, and feel
free to choose whatever chords I like when I'm playing them either as a
solo arrangement or when I'm allowed to choose the chords for the group
with whom I'm currently playing.
Hope all of you are having a lovely almost-autumn
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