Wexford Carol Arranging

The Wexford Carol dates back to the 12th century from Wexford County, Ireland. I was first introduced to it on a little-known indie Christmas project called Blues for the Child. Originally I had planned on this being part of a larger medley of Renaissance carols, but it never really fit with the others I had picked. The major key and lilting 9/8 feel of this song didn’t mesh well.

I tend to do a lot of my best conceptual arranging when galavanting about the countryside for work performing inspections of signs, markings and other traffic control devices (for which I am responsible in my little corner of Virginia). While musing on the music one afternoon on a back road deep in Sussex County I realized that Wexford Carol would mesh quite nicely with The Holly and the Ivy, which dates from some 600 years later.

After a short piano intro the piece opens with a hammered dulcimer and recorder duet. I immediately mess with the time signature by lopping an 8th note off of the end of each measure, leaving a (3+3+2)/8 rather than 9/8 meter. The A section is restated with a low-register cello counter-melody and for the B section I trade the hammered dulcimer back for the piano.

Bodhran Drum

At the end of the first time through the song we change key and shift to a more lilting 6/8 feel, switching to a very Irish ensemble of pennywhistle, mandolin and bodhran. In the B section a string pad is added. Note that as the piece continues elements are constantly being added or removed at key points. This is an arranging technique that I have heard from numerous teachers and I find it very effective. However, it can’t be done without intention, and each element that is added or subtracted must be done for a musical reason.

Now that we have heard the Wexford Carol twice through, I switch the meter from 6/8 (1-2-3 1-2-3) to 3/4 (1 and 2 and 3 and) and bring the piano back, accompanying the hammered dulcimer on the melody. The cello joins half-way through the first verse.

The second verse doesn’t change instrumentation (aside from adding the string pad back in) but does change the harmonies significantly. The first time through is extremely simple, with the harmonies trading back and forth between two chords in an ostinato pattern throughout the verse. In the second verse the chords become much more complex, almost verging on a light jazz feel.

From here we transition into a section that came directly from my back road travels. The music trades between phrases from the two songs in a very ethereal setting. I wanted less “clean” instruments, too, to emphasize the nature of this segment. After much trial and error the Wexford Carol melody is played by a bansuri – a Japanese flute with a breathy sound. At first I thought I was stuck with my same old hammered dulcimer for the Holly and the Ivy part, but I recently downloaded a free sample pack of traditional Korean instruments that I learned about from an episode of the Samplecast.

Yanggeum Player

The Yanggeum, which is essentially a Korean hammered dulcimer, was exactly what I was looking for.

After this “mash-up” section I restate the lead in a soaring finale with pennywhistle (in it’s high register), piano, cello and strings, finally bringing it all down for a short restatement of the melody from the Holly and the Ivy with piano and dulcimer.

So far on this project as I’ve finished writing and arranging a piece I’ve been so enthused about another piece that I’ve moved immediately to writing and arranging the new one. This time I’ve decided that it’s time for me to start releasing some music, so I’m going to go ahead and move directly into recording Wexford Carol. Hopefully I will have it out before Christmas and will, of course, do a full write-up on it here. Until then, thank you for your patience.

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