Grainger: Molly on the Shore

performed by the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra (or below by the North Texas Wind Symphony)

This is the second piece of the great and interesting Percy Aldridge Grainger that we’ll be discussing, the first of which was his Children’s March. 
We played this one in school as well, and it’s just so much fun. I know Grainger was Australian, but this is perhaps the reason I think of him as so Irish, because this piece is the first of his that I had any familiarity with, and it’s a setting of two Irish reels. As usual, Wikipedia serves as a nice little resource for the piece. It was originally written as a string quartet (or string orchestra), and was a birthday gift for his mother in 1907. It was later arranged by the composer for wind band. He says to Frederick Fennel of the piece (in a letter, originally from the liner notes to a North Texas Wind Symphony CD):

in setting Molly on the Shore, I strove to imbue the accompanying parts that made up the harmonic texture with a melodic character not too unlike that of the underlying reel tune. Melody seems to me to provide music with initiative, wheras {sic} rhythm appears to me to exert an enslaving influence. For that reason I have tried to avoid regular rhythmic domination in my music – always excepting irregular rhythms, such as those of Gregorian Chant, which seem to me to make for freedom. Equally with melody, I prize discordant harmony, because of the emotional and compassionate sway it exerts.

That statement may not seem too terribly related to this work, but the following is. Fritz Kreisler arranged it for violin and piano, and I haven’t heard it, but the idea seems less than fitting. Grainger was highly unimpressed, saying it:

was a thousand times worse than I had fore-weened, & I had not fore-weened anything good.

I don’t think you can listen to this and not think Irish. There are also times in the piece where I hear it and do think of the shore. It’s during one of the key changes, the quieter middle part where the clarinet gets its solo again before the brass and the whole band reenter. 
In any case, this piece, while not solely for the clarinet, features woodwinds heavily, and the clarinet has its solo to start the whole piece off. I remember in playing this that bassoon, clarinet, and possibly bass clarinet are the main characters in what does start to sound like a chorus or chamber ensemble of woodwinds. In fact, the clarinet solo (okay, so clarinet actually is featured here) at the beginning is apparently typical on auditions, as are the flute and bassoon parts. Lots of tonguing. 
Even the brass get some well-deserved attention, and saxophones get their moment with the melody. 
I don’t know if it’s actually the case, but I feel this piece to be really indicative of Grainger’s style of writing. It’s earthy, articulate, challenging, lots of woodwinds, beautiful harmonies, and somehow invoking of nature. It also has a wonderful choral nature about it, that makes it almost seem sung, a clarity and beauty of expression. It’s fun without being trite. The thing that stands out more than anything, to me though, is the apparent simplicity and treatment of themes. 
There’s really not a ton of material in this short work, but it’s never boring. Through some of the aforementioned methods the composer mentioned earlier (harmonic texture, melodic character, etc.) it always seems new and fun and interesting. Granted, this couldn’t go on for twenty minutes or anything, but it’s a simple enough musical structure, and simple enough melodies, that with changes in harmony, very simple but effective changes in rhythm and orchestration, or even just accents and phrasing, turns into a lilty, energetic, catchy little reel that always brings a smile to my face. 
Aside from the wonderful harmonies and really choral nature of the writing that shows up in lots of Grainger’s work, what really makes this piece a crunchy, crisply fun and enjoyable piece are the rhythms. The articulation of the woodwind parts gives the piece texture, and the rhythms emphasized in the background by brass or saxophones or percussion really make the whole piece come alive.
I don’t have anything really deep to say about this piece, except that it’s darling and I love it.

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