Percy A. Grainger: Children’s March (or ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’)

performed by the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble
Awesomely cool easy to follow condensed conductor’s score with notes here (PDF)
Music You Can Understand: Part 5

So this is like…. Different. 
And also, before you listen to it, in my experience and those of my classmates in high school, this piece is an earworm of the worst kind. 
In my About Me page, I mentioned band in high school. I never had any formal (or even informal, really) musical training. I remember once when our director told a percussionist to go play a C major chord and then a C minor on the piano… I thought… What if I had to do that? How does he know what that is? 
But it’s the most basic of music theory. My point behind that is that despite my gift for being on the beat as a bass-section baritone saxophone, I didn’t understand much of anything outside the scope of what was on my sheet music. I also didn’t have any knowledge of any repertoire of classical music of any kind from any era. So when it came to listening to “classical music,” for me that was anything that we played in concert band, or that any of the other ensembles in school played. 
This piece was one that the ensemble I was in during my sophomore year played in my freshman year. I never played it, but we did play some of Grainger’s pieces the following year, maybe just one. They played a lot of his pieces my freshman year, and this was one I got quite familiar with from repeated listenings.
Compared to just about anything else we’ve ever talked about here, this is absurdly small and simple, but it also still has its merits as a very nice piece of concert music. 
Grainger was an apparent genius, AND an Australian, believe it or not. He was an accomplished pianist, composer, and apparently a legitimate pervert. He had connections to famous composers and after reading all about him on Wikipedia, it seems surprising, almost disappointing and shocking, that this giant, quirky personality has mostly dissolved into oblivion. 
His love of folk song and traditional tunes seems apparent here, even though the entire piece is 100% original. The piece is also quite typical of Grainger’s writing style. It’s folksy, but not in a twangy way, woody and earthy and catchy and lilty and incredibly precise, with attention to texture and contrast. It is, after all, titled a march, and I haven’t found any program notes or anything that suggest a story or actual narrative behind this piece, but I certainly have one in mind. I’ll explain shortly.
Remember, this is a concert piece, so we don’t have strings; instead we get a small army of woodwinds like flutes and clarinets. I believe this arrangement is different from the one we played in school, but the vocal and piano parts are apparently optional. We didn’t use them in school. The point here is that as a concert band or military band piece, its sound is fundamentally different, but also distinctly NOT Sousa-esque. 
Really, have a look at the score and listen to this piece. I loved reading through the condensed score, because in this piece.. there’s not a ton of superfluous stuff going on. It’s straightforward and doesn’t need a lot of extraneous bars and explanations. 
From the first few bars of the piece, we get quite a good idea of what’s going on for the entire six or so minutes here. Everything in the piece is a play off of this opening material. The piece is called a march, with the alternate “over the hills and far away.” Thankfully, this piece doesn’t

bring to mind children actually marching off to war or anything (that would need a much more somber, tragic piece); so what are children marching off to? I associate this piece somehow with Ireland, but I suppose it could be anywhere. Since the piece makes resourceful use of orchestration during repeats, everything kind of comes in pairs. One instrument or group of instruments will introduce the theme, and after that A section is done, it’s repeated word for word, but with more or different (or both) instruments. Then there’s a transition to the next section, which always feels to be derived from the original material. It feels organic this way, and with each of the sections having its own feel (of marching, or flying, or swimming, or running), the vision I have in my mind is a teacher (or coach or parent or whatever) with a veritable troop of children marching off to a campground or picnic site or somewhere enjoyable and the leader singing a line that the children repeat, with the teacher making up the next few lines as they go. Perhaps there’s a story behind it; they’re told they’re on a mission, but the next instant they’re in the Sahara, or a Pacific island, or in the mountains. While the music doesn’t allude to any of this, children’s imaginations run wild, and the call-and-answer nature of the piece and its funness call to mind this image of marching children over green hills in the Irish landscape (more particularly where I attended a very enjoyable barbecue in Dungannon many years ago).

This kind of repetition may sound tiring, and to be honest, it would be, but remember: this is only a six minute piece. The contrasts in rhythm, orchestration, and dynamic make it new and interesting enough to last these short few minutes. Symphonic passages may go for far longer with far less variation, but those passages in and of themselves are likely contrasts to it her passages to begin with. It’s really just a matter of structure. An enormous movement of a symphony like… The final movement of Mahler’s sixth (or perhaps the first mvt is easier to grasp), has a clear structure that is able to support its own weight for the 20-plus minutes (of the first movement, observing the repeat of the exposition) so that the listener isn’t confused or “lost,” and for a smaller piece, the necessary structures are also naturally smaller. 

This little ditty, though, is short, quaint, and fun. Its brevity is part of its nature. Even with a smaller (or just less-varied) ensemble, there’s still enough interestingness to hold our attention. Listen to it a time or two, and then think of what it would be like to have to sit through rehearsals with it (or even to sit through lunch with people who had sat through rehearsals of it). While I am a sucker for big, emotional, symphonies, it’s little pieces like this that are often just as satisfying in their quaint perfectness. 

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