As I will be heading to Ireland for vacation tomorrow, I thought it would be appropriate to share a performance of an Irish song by the classical flutist Sir James Galway. Galway, nicknamed “The Man with the Golden Flute,” is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is widely regarded as the greatest flute player in history. He regularly tours the globe, performing in the greatest concert halls in the world and completing commissions from today’s most well-known composers. (Lord of the Rings fans can also hear his playing in all three of the LOTR movies!)
In today’s performance, Galway plays “Danny Boy,” an Irish tune based on a ballad written by lawyer and songwriter Frederic Weatherly. (Weatherly, ironically, was a Brit who never stepped foot in Ireland.) The song emerged when Weatherly’s ballad was set to the Irish tune of “Londonderry Air.” Londonderry is a town in Northern Ireland that has seen many years of violence as a result of the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.
“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.
movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and
freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful
and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike
most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very
start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which
help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the
definition of Romantic-era lyricism.
We are over half-way through the Brandenburg concerti!
The fourth concerto continues our journey through the orchestra by featuring flutes as two of the three solo instruments. As you will see in the video, Bach is referring to a Baroque flute rather than the modern flutes that we see in today’s orchestras. This flute was a type of flageolet, or tin-whistle, that was used during that time to teach pet birds how to sing. It has a very shrill and high-pitched sound that is usually at least one octave above the rest of the orchestra. Most ensembles today utilize the recorder as the closest approximation of its sound.
Despite the increased role given to the flutes, this is technically still a violin concerto. You will often hear the flutes echoing the violin solo line, which is the most difficult of all of the Brandenburg concerti. The violin will occasionally respond back, but most of the time it is leading the charge rather than following. The one exception to this is in the slower second movement, where the two flutes carry the melody for most of the movement. It is thought that the prevalence of the violin in these concerti reflects Bach’s perception of it as the closest approximation of the human voice.