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By the way ...





Just as a melody like O Tannenbaum has (despite its 'Red Flag' associations) something characteristically Teutonic about it, so some of the finest British tunes have a peculiar national quality of their own. I am thinking among others of Parry's Jerusalem and the I Vow to Thee, My Country theme from Holst's The Planets. Needless to say, Vaughan Williams was also a past master at this sort of thing. His early Linden Lea, often mistakenly thought of as a folk-song, is a prime example. The second subject of The Wasps Overture is another case in point. As several observers have noted before, the shared common characteristics of all these popular melodies are two-fold - 1) they are all in triple time and 2) Nearly every bar consists of four notes. It is indeed these features that provide a certain touch of national identity (but why that should be, goodness only knows).

There are other contenders, I am sure, though I can't think of any from composed music of earlier times. The first example that I could come up with is from the world of folk-music. Remind yourself of the best-known tune to Barbara Allen - the one we older folk learned at school and used to set rude words to. However, if you can think of others, it would be nice to hear from you, so do please let us know.

But what about non-British melodies which have similar characteristics? Any offers? Are there any? The nearest I can get is the big, sweeping tune from the Interrupted Intermezzo from Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. Yes, I know that it is not strictly in triple time as the key signature changes sometimes from bar to bar. Yet if you sing the melody, the general effect is undeniably three-in-a-bar, the irregular rhythm being little more than the composer measuring the breathing places. And the other requirement is fulfilled as there are virtually always four notes per bar. In my occasional saner moments I am prepared to concede that this touch of Bartókian quasi-Britishry is purely fortuitous. On the other hand, remember that it is in this same movement that Bartók cocks a merciless snook at poor old Shostakovich. Is it too far-fetched to think that B.B. also may have been having a genial go at the whole R.V.W. contingent? Yes, probably it is.

But I wonder ...


Copyright © 22 June 2000 Richard Graves, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, UK


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