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Tag Archives: Folk songs

Composer Michael Markowski (b. 1986) claims that he is “fully qualified to watch movies and cartoons” on the basis of his bachelors degree in film from Arizona State University.  Despite this humility regarding his musical training, he is gaining attention as a composer of unique and sophisticated works for wind band and other media.  His works are being performed across the United States, leading to an ever-growing list of commissions for new works.

Turkey in the Straw came out of Markowski’s early association with Manhattan Beach Music after winning the first Frank Ticheli Composition Contest.  Publisher Bob Margolis introduces the piece in the score:

When we asked Frank Ticheli Composition Contest Winner Michael Markowski to create a concert band arrangement of the fiddle tune, Turkey in the Straw, we were figurin’ to get a ‘merican-soundin’ creation.  Square dance, anyone? No way.

Instead it was “Fire up the Markowski Phantasmagoricon!” and hold on tight.

Markowski has created, in effect, Turkeys Gone Loco — music for a wild cartoon, a crazy surrealist extravaganza, an eclectic, filmic frolic.  In a work overflowing with ideas, yet tightly wound and carefully crafted, Markowski has composed a Turkey in the Straw of today’s Zeitgeist.

Markowski himself follows that with a good, substantial program note:

We all know the melody, even if not by name.  But for me, Turkey in the Straw is nostalgic, beckoning back to a childhood where grandma and grandpa would sit me in front of their TV with a bowl of orange Jell-O (in a small room papered wall-to-wall with decorative clowns), to watch old-time cartoons on VHS.  From its early days in vaudeville to its silver-screen premiere in Disney’s cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), the tune has become a staple of Americana (and my favorite — cartoons).

Most arrangements stay true to the song’s Southern roots.  But for a contemporary ensemble such as the concert band, I wanted my arrangement to be what Ivesian, and, as colleagues have described it, closer to Quirky in the Straw.  Above all, I wanted this piece to resemble classic cartoon scoring.  Rather than simply arranging a brief melody in a handful of contrasting styles (as is typical of theme-and-variations), the form instead takes on an almost storytelling narrative or three act structure.

Each successive treatment of the melody increases the orchestration and contrapuntal complexity, starting with the simplest orchestration within the first 35 measures.  The melody quickly modulates, twists and turns, loses itself and finds itself in musical vignettes (already in development by measure 36).  Each new scene seems to bring its own musical plot, orchestrational characterization, and many a custard pie in the face.

Here is the piece as realized by the US Air Force Band of the Golden West:

The piece is published by Manhattan Beach Music, which links to a preview score with a recording that is even better than the one above.  Markowski links to an EVEN BETTER recording from his website.

There far too many versions of Turkey in the Straw to list here.  Here’s one played straight on the fiddle, which is how the tune first came into being:

Here’s another old version from a black and white movie, complete with comic hayseeds and questionable lyrics:

Here’s the Steamboat Willie that Markowski mentioned above.  Its treatment of Turkey in the Straw starts around the 4 minute mark:

Disney used it again in a later cartoon (and a personal favorite of mine as a kid) to great effect:

One final bonus video: Turkeys Gone Loco!!

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a piano prodigy turned composer who was known for his strange personal habits, his colorful prose, and his equally unusual music – his many admirers today still recognize that he possessed “the supreme virtue of never being dull.”  Born in Australia, he began studying piano at an early age.  He came to the U. S. at the outbreak of World War I and enlisted as an Army bandsman, becoming an American citizen in 1918.  He went on to explore the frontiers of music with his idiosyncratic folk song settings, his lifelong advocacy for the saxophone, and his Free Music machines which predated electronic synthesizers.  His many masterworks for winds include Lincolnshire Posy, Irish Tune from County Derry, and Molly on the Shore.

Country Gardens is an English folk tune that Cecil Sharp collected in 1908 and passed on to Grainger, who played improvisations on it during his World War I tours as a concert pianist for the US Army.  According to Grainger, it is a dance version of the tune “The Vicar of Bray“.  Once published in its original piano form, the tune brought Grainger great success.  However, it was not among his favorite compositions.  To quote Keith Brion and Loras Schissel‘s score of the Sousa edition:

Later in life, despite the steady stream of income from its royalties, the fame of Country Gardens and the widespread public association of this work as being his best known piece, came to haunt Grainger.  Mentally, it became his albatross.  He came to think of his own brilliant original music as “my wretched tone art.”.  He once remarked, “The typical English country garden is not often used to grow flowers in; it is more likely to be a vegetable plot.  So you can think of turnips as I play it.”

When asked in 1950 by Leopold Stokowski to make a new arrangement for Stokowski’s orchestra, Grainger obliged with a wildly satirical version that literally sticks out its tongue at the success of the little tune.  In 1953, he rescored that arrangement for band.  Reflecting his mood at the time, it is a bitingly sophisticated parody that was to become his only band setting of the music.

Aside from that extremely worthwhile score which you should all read, you can see more about Country Gardens at Wikipedia, IMSLP (piano version), and Song Facts.

There are a great many different versions of Country Gardens, including at least four for band. Here is the bitingly satirical one from 1953 by Grainger himself:

There is another that John Philip Sousa arranged in 1925 with Grainger’s blessing:

And another that Brant Karrick arranged from Grainger’s piano version in 2013:

And yet one more arranged by Tom Clark in 1931 that is out of print and does not get played anymore.  As you can hear, all but Grainger’s treat the tune as a light romp.  But that is just the tip of this piece’s iceberg, lest we forget Grainger’s 1950 orchestral version:

Or his original piano version from 1918 (here played twice):

Or the Muppets’ 1977 four hands (paws?) piano version: – much general information on the composer with a focus on his wind band works.

International Percy Grainger Society – Based in White Plains, NY, they take care of the Grainger house there as well as the archives that remain there.  They also like to support concerts in the New York metro area that feature Grainger’s music.

Grainger Museum – in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, at the University there.

Grainger’s works and performances available at

Two interesting Grainger articles at The Guardian and WRTI.

Born in Missouri and educated at Louisiana State University and the Eastman School of Music, Herbert Owen Reed (1910-2013) served on the theory and composition faculty at Michigan State University from 1939 to 1976.  He wrote music in a variety of genres, and has especially made an impact in the wind band world, where several of his compositions are widely performed.  Among these, La Fiesta Mexicana stands out as his masterpiece.

Reed came to write La Fiesta Mexicana after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship for study in Mexico for six months in 1948-49.  While there, he heard Mexican music from the many different cultures that make up the country’s heritage, including Aztec, Roman Catholic, and mariachi music.  He used these various ideas, often quoting them nearly verbatim, and stitched them together with elements of his own contemporary style in La Fiesta Mexicana‘s three movements.  He provides conductor’s notes in the work’s score (bear in mind the composition date of 1949 while reading).  Numbers he mentions are rehearsal marks in the score:

The Mexican, as a result of his religious heritage, feels an inner desire to express love and honor for his Virgin.  The Mexican fiesta, which is an integral part of this social structure, is a study in contrasts: It is both serious and comical, festive and solemn, devout and pagan, boisterous and tender.

“La Fiesta Mexicana,” which attempts to portray musically one of these fiestas, is divided into three movements.  These movements, plus possible choreographic notes, are described below.

I. Prelude and Aztec Dance
The tolling of the church bells and the bold noise of fireworks at midnight officially announce the opening of the fiesta (opening pages of the score).  Groups of Mexicans from near and far slowly descend upon the huge court surrounding the old cathedral–some on foot, some by burro, and still others on bleeding knees, suffering out of homage to a past miracle.

After a brave effort at gaiety, the celebrators settle down on their serapes to a restless night (No. 1) until the church bells and fireworks again intrude upon the early quiet of the Mexican morn (No. 4).

At midday a parade is announced by the blatant blare of trumpets (No. 5).  A band is heard in the distance (No. 6). The attention is focused on the Aztec dancers, brilliantly plumed and masked, who dance in ever-increasing frenzy to a dramatic climax (No. 7 to end of the movement).

II. Mass
The tolling of the bells is now a reminder that the fiesta is, after all, a religious celebration.  The rich and poor slowly gather within the walls of the old cathedral for contemplation and worship.

III. Carnival
Mexico is at its best on the days of the fiesta, a day on which passion governs the love, hate and joy of the Mestizo and the Indio.  There is entertainment for both young and old–the itinerant circus (first part of the movement), the market, the bull fight, the town band, and always the cantinas with their band of mariachis (Nos. 22-28)–on the day of days: fiesta.

The score also contains a dedication: “To Lt. Col. William F. Santelmann and the U.S. Marine Band”, the conductor and group that premiered the work in 1949.  It further contains a subtitle: “A Mexican Folk Song Symphony for Concert Band”, making it perhaps the first full symphony for band written by an American-born composer.

An anonymous band performs the piece:

I. Prelude and Aztec Dance

II. Mass

III. Carnival

The mariachi episode in movement III is a direct quote of “La Negra”, played here along with old-timey mariachi photos:

The first movement uses another tune which Reed calls “El Toro”.  This is not showing up easily on YouTube (nor is it particularly easy to search, given the number of other things out there called “el toro”), so we must survive without a video for now.

Finally, here is a taste of an authentic Aztec dance:

Read more about H. Owen Reed on Wikipedia and a nice article for his 103rd birthday.  La Fiesta Mexicana is featured at the Wind Repertory Project, Wikia Program Notes,, and Alfred Music.

Educated at the University of Michigan, composer Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) has become one of the biggest names in new wind band repertoire.  Since 1991 he has been a Professor of Composition at the USC Thornton School of Music and, until 1998, Composer in Residence of the Pacific Symphony.  He is the recipient of many awards, including first prize in the 2006 NBA/William D. Revelli Memorial Band Composition Contest for his Symphony No. 2and a 2012 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Ticheli wrote Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs in 2002 on a commission from the Tapp Middle School Band in Powder Springs, Georgia, and their director, Erin Cole.  He provides extensive program notes in the score, which are also quoted on the Manhattan Beach Music website (which also features full recordings of the entire piece).  Here are the relevant bits, written by Ticheli himself (with links added by me):


The Shakers were a religious sect who splintered from a Quaker community in the mid-1700’s in Manchester, England. Known then derisively as “Shaking Quakers” because of the passionate shaking that would occur during their religious services, they were viewed as radicals, and their members were sometimes harassed and even imprisoned by the English. One of those imprisoned, Ann Lee, was named official leader of the church upon her release in 1772. Two years later, driven by her vision of a holy sanctuary in the New World, she led a small group of followers to the shores of America where they founded a colony in rural New York.

The Shakers were pacifists who kept a very low profile, and their membership increased only modestly during the decades following their arrival. At their peak in the 1830’s, there were some 6,000 members in nineteen communities interspersed between Maine and Kentucky. Soon after the Civil War their membership declined dramatically. Their practice of intense simplicity and celibacy accounts for much of their decline.

Today there is only one active Shaker community remaining, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. They maintain a Shaker Library, a Shaker Museum, and a website at

The Shakers were known for their architecture, crafts, furniture, and perhaps most notably, their songs. Shaker songs were traditionally sung in unison without instrumental accompaniment. Singing and dancing were vital components of Shaker worship and everyday life. Over 8,000 songs in some 800 songbooks were created, most of them during the 1830’s to 1860’s in Shaker communities throughout New England.


My work is built from four Shaker melodies – a sensuous nature song, a lively dance tune, a tender lullaby, and most famously, “Simple Gifts,” the hymn that celebrates the Shaker’s love of simplicity and humility. In setting these songs, I sought subtle ways to preserve their simple, straightforward beauty. Melodic freshness and interest were achieved primarily through variations of harmony, of texture, and especially, of orchestration.

The first movement is a setting of “In Yonder Valley”, generally regarded to be the oldest surviving Shaker song with text. This simple hymn in praise of nature is attributed to Father James Whittaker (1751 – 87), a member of the small group of Shakers who emigrated to America in 1774. My setting enhances the image of spring by turning the first three notes of the tune into a birdcall motive.

The second movement, “Dance,” makes use of a tune from an 1830’s Shaker manuscript. Dancing was an important part of Shaker worship, and tunes such as this were often sung by a small group of singers while the rest of the congregation danced. One interesting feature in my setting occurs near the end of the movement, when the brasses state the tune at one-quarter speed in counterpoint against the woodwinds who state it at normal speed.

The third movement is based on a Shaker lullaby, “Here Take This Lovely Flower,” found in Dorothy Berliner Commin’s extraordinary collection, Lullabies of the World, and in Daniel W. Patterson’s monumental collection, The Shaker Spiritual. This song is an example of the phenomenon of the gift song, music received from spirits by Shaker mediums while in trance (see pp. 316 ff. in Patterson, op cit., for a detailed account, and also Harold E. Cook’s Shaker Music: A Manifestation of American Folk Culture, pp. 52 ff.). Although the Shakers practiced celibacy, there were many children in their communities, including the children of recent converts as well as orphans whom they took in. Like many Shaker songs, this lullaby embodies the Shakers’ ideal of childlike simplicity.

The finale is a setting of the Shakers’ most famous song, “Simple Gifts,” sometimes attributed to Elder Joseph Bracket (1797 – 1882) of the Alfred, Maine community, and also said (in Lebanon, New York, manuscript) as having been received from a Negro spirit at Canterbury, New Hampshire, making “Simple Gifts” possibly a visionary gift song. It has been used in hundreds of settings, most notably by Aaron Copland in the brilliant set of variations which conclude his Appalachian Spring. Without ever quoting him, my setting begins at Copland’s doorstep, and quickly departs. Throughout its little journey, the tune is never abandoned, rarely altered, always exalted.

He also provides the lyrics for each song he uses:

In Yonder Valley
In yonder valley there flows sweet union;
Let us arise and drink our fill.
The winter’s past and the spring appears;
The turtle dove is in our land.
In yonder valley there flows sweet union;
Let us arise, and drink our fill.

Virgins cloth’d in a clean white garment,
How they move in a band of love,
Comforts flow in a mighty current,
We shall drink at the fountains above.

Yea, we will rejoice with freedom,
In this straight little narrow way,
Here is the fold and the lambs all feeding,
On this green we’ll skip and play.

Here Take this Lovely Flower
Here take this lovely flower
Thy mother sent to thee,
Cull’d from her lovely bower
Of sweet simplicity.

O place it near thy bosom
And keep it pure and bright,
For in such lovely flowers
The angels take delight.

Simple Gifts
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free;
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

The best YouTube performance of Simple Gifts comes in four separate videos, one for each movement, so that is how I will look at them, with the source material following each movement.  Here is the first, “In Yonder Valley”:

Like bands, choirs also love Shaker songs.  Here is a university chorus performing “In Yonder Valley”.  Listen especially for how the words fall within the melody:

Ticheli calls the second movement “Dance”:

The best you can do to hear a vocal version of this is follow this link to hear Joel Cohen and his group sing a bit of it, under the title “Virgins Cloth’d in a Clean White Garment.”

Movement III is the sweet song “Here Take This Lovely Flower”:

Again, a choir puts the words to the music for us:

The final movement is based on perhaps the most famous of all the Shaker songs, “Simple Gifts”:

Here it is again, done simply by the Phoenix Boys Choir:

As Ticheli mentions in his notes, Aaron Copland helped to make “Simple Gifts” as famous as it is by using it in his 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring.  For any composer looking to set “Simple Gifts”, Copland’s version is the elephant in the room, yet Ticheli does assert his independence quite well.  Listen and compare:

Frank Ticheli’s personal website,

Ticheli bio on wikipedia.

Frank Ticheli’s Facebook fanclub.

A video interview with Ticheli in which he talks about composing.

Minnesota native Thomas Root is the Director of Bands and Professor of Music at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.  His 23 published compositions, including 1977’s Polly Oliver, are played by bands around the United States.  See more about him at Weber State and Grand Mesa Music.

Sweet Polly Oliver is an English folk song that tells the tale of a young woman who dresses as a male soldier to follow her true love off to war.  The lyrics, from Wikipedia:

As sweet Polly Oliver lay musing in bed,
A sudden strange fancy came into her head.
“Nor father nor mother shall make me false prove,
I’ll ‘list as a soldier, and follow my love.”

So early next morning she softly arose,
And dressed herself up in her dead brother’s clothes.
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair London Town.

Then up spoke the sergeant one day at his drill,
“Now who’s good for nursing? A captain, he’s ill.”
“I’m ready,” said Polly. To nurse him she’s gone,
And finds it’s her true love all wasted and wan.

The first week the doctor kept shaking his head,
“No nursing, young fellow, can save him,” he said.
But when Polly Oliver had nursed him back to life
He cried, “You have cherished him as if you were his wife”.

O then Polly Oliver, she burst into tears
And told the good doctor her hopes and her fears,
And very shortly after, for better or for worse,
The captain took joyfully his pretty soldier nurse.

An anonymous band plays Root’s varied treatment of Polly Oliver:

English composer Benjamin Britten also composed a treatment of Sweet Polly Oliver for voice and piano.  Here it is with Britten at the piano and tenor Peters Pears:

Adolphus Cornelius Hailstork III (b. 1941) is an African-American composer whose music often blends European and African-American traditions.  He studied composition with such luminaries as H. Owen Reed, David Diamond, and Nadia Boulanger.  His compositions in several genres have won him awards throughout his career.  He is currently Professor of Music, Composer-in-Residence, and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Virginia.  See more about him at Wikipedia, Theodore Presser, AfriClassical, and Old Dominion.

New Wade ‘N Water (2000) is a characteristic marriage of African-American and European elements.  From the score:

New Wade ‘N Water is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional African American Spiritual Wade in the Water As many trained composers throughout history, Dr. Hailstork also uses folk music as his source of inspiration for his compositions.  New Wade ‘N Water opens with an introduction that is constructed using a G blues scale and mixed meter.  Throughout the piece, the material from the introduction serves as an interlude between each variation of the Wade in the Water main melody.  This melody is frequently stated in a hocket style, with fragments of the melody being passed from one section of the band to another.  Motives from the introduction are also combined with the Wade in the Water melody.  New Wade ‘N Water concludes with the same motive that began the piece.

Spirituals are one of the earliest forms of traditional folk music that once functioned within African American communities in multiple ways.  While Spirituals expressed deeply held religious meaning, they also mirrored a desire for freedom, which was often communicated through hidden messages within the text.  Wade in the Water is known for such messages that served as directions to help enslaved Africans to escape cruelty in the pursuit of freedom.  Wade in the Water was an instruction to fleeing slaves to move through rivers and streams to erase their scent and confuse the bloodhounds tracking their path.  The text also includes a reference about Moses, which refers to Harriet Tubman, and African American woman called “The Moses of her People” because of the many enslaved people she led to freedom.

With this old spiritual as a foundation, Hailstork creates an exciting new composition.  He provides musical representation of rolling water and crashing waves giving one the ominous feeling that the phrase “God’s gonna trouble the water” has come to life in the music, while maintaining some of the folk song’s original melody and form.  Here is one of the earliest written versions of the folk song Wade in the Water as documented by African American composer H. T. Burleigh (1925)

Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

verse 1:
See that band all dress’d in white,
God’s a goin’ to trouble the water,
The leader looks like the Israelite,
God’s a goin’ to trouble the water.

verse 2:
See that band all dress’d in red,
God’s a goin’ to trouble the water,
It looks like the band that Moses led,
God’s a goin’ to trouble the water.

Here it is in performance (minus a few percussion details):

There are several great vocal versions of this spiritual.  We’ll start with Sweet Honey in the Rock:

Also check out Ella Jenkins:

And this choral version:

Suite Française is a true classic of the wind band repertoire and a personal favorite of mine that I have been studying on and off for years and have conducted twice in concert.  It hasn’t appeared on this blog until now only because I have known that it would take a tremendous effort to really do this piece justice, even in my relatively un-scholarly format, as evidenced by the three days it has taken me to put this post together.  I hope that what follows proves enlightening for the uninitiated.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was a prolific French composer and teacher and a member of Les Six early in his career.  He was born to Jewish parents and grew up in Aix-en-Provence, France.  He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, graduating in 1915.  His composition career took off from there.  He traveled to Brazil (Rio) and the United States (Harlem), where he heard the uniquely New World sounds of Brazilian music and American jazz, both of which would influence his compositional style.  The Harlem experience inspired him to write the jazz-tinged ballet La creation du Monde in 1922, before even American composers were making serious efforts to blend jazz with concert music.  The Nazi occupation of France put Milhaud in serious danger: not only was he a prominent Jewish figure, he also was often confined to a wheelchair due to severe rheumatoid arthritis.  He fled for the United States 1940.  While there, he secured a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his notable students included Burt Bacharach, William Bolcom, Peter Schickele, and Dave Brubeck.  Once France was liberated, he resumed his career there, alternating years at Mills College and the Paris Conservatoire from 1947-1971.  His music further distinguished itself through its unique and unabashed use of polytonality.  Milhaud wrote two autobiographies.  The first (1953)was called Notes Without Music.  Despite having dodged Nazi persecution and spent years in pain confined to a wheelchair, Milhaud titled the second (1972) Ma vie heureuse (My Happy Life).  He died in Geneva at age 81.

There are several internet biographies of Milhaud.  See Wikipedia, Naxos, Universal Edition, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, the Music Academy Online, and American National Biography Online.  Also, Milhaud’s former student Dave Brubeck offers reflections on his beloved teacher in this movie clip and this very moving audio excerpt (the Milhaud section starts around 14 minutes in).

Milhaud wrote Suite Française in 1944 on a commission from Leeds Music, which published the piece in 1945.  They were looking for a piece fit for high school bands, and Milhaud delivered beautifully.  It was premiered by the Goldman Band in New York City on June 13, 1945.  Milhaud also created versions for orchestra and for 4-hands piano, although the wind band version came first.  Says Milhaud of the piece (from the band score):

For a long time I have had the idea of writing a composition fit for high school purposes and this was the result. In the bands, orchestras, and choirs of American high schools, colleges and universities where the youth of the nation be found, it is obvious that they need music of their time, not too difficult to perform, but, nevertheless keeping the characteristic idiom of the composer. The five parts of this Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought together with the French underground of the liberation of my country: Normandy, Brittany, Ile-de-France (of which Paris is the center), Alsace-Lorraine, and Provence (my birthplace). I used some folk tunes of these provinces. I wanted the young American to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought to defeat the German invaders, who in less than seventy years have brought war, destruction, cruelty, torture, and murder, three times, to the peaceful and democratic people of France.

In addition to the folk tunes (which I will discuss below), Milhaud provided some melodies of his own.  Each movement is uniquely of its place, as you will see in the videos below.  “Normandie” uses two lively Norman folk songs: “Germaine”, about a warrior coming home through the eyes of a young woman; and “The French Shepherdess and the King of England“, about a comic meeting between the two title characters.  Milhaud added some original material to help him depict the region where so many American servicemen landed in France during World War II:

A fog-horn announces the beginning of “Bretagne“, a province with deep ties to the sea. The movement uses the sea shanties “La Paimpolaise” and “Les marins de Groix“, as well as “La chanson des metamorphoses“, a song that imagines the singer’s lover transformed:

Ile-de-France” depicts the bustle of Paris with lively, largely carefree folk material.  It begins with “A ma main droite j’ai un rosier” (I tend a rosebush with my right hand), a children’s round that alternates bars of 3 and 2, and which Milhaud sets in 4 while still retaining the accents of the original.  The lyrical melody that soon crops up is “Voici la Saint-Jean“, a summer festival song.  “La belle au rosier blanc” (The Fair Maid of the White-Rose Tree) also make an appearance:

Alsace-Lorraine” takes a more melancholy turn, suggesting distant artillery fire around a solemn funeral procession, fitting for a region that borders Germany and was taken over during the war.  Still, the movement’s ending suggests hope and triumph to come.  The main melody is apparently a Milhaud original.  The primary countermelody that sounds so distant desolate at first is “Voici le moi de Mai” (Here is the month of May), a spritely tra-la-la of a tune.  The clarinet interlude in the middle comes from “Le mois de Mai”, a different but still spritely festival tune:

Provence“, Milhaud’s childhood home, is joyous and innocent and uses the most original material of any movement.  The only folk song is “Magali“, another story of a lover transformed:

I owe a large debt to Robert Garofalo’s fantastic study guide on this piece, without which I would not have been able to even begin identifying the folk material in the suite.  His book goes much farther than this page in giving background information and context.  Here is a look at some of the folk songs that he names:

I. NORMANDIE – Sadly, none of these songs seem to be recorded in internet form.


“La Paimpolaise”, of which Milhaud only uses the major-key refrain (presented first in this performance):

“Les marins de Groix”, which Milhaud slows down dramatically.  If you listen carefully, you’ll recognize the tune once the tempo picks up:


“A ma main droite j’ai un rosier”:

“Voici la Saint Jean” seems to be one set of lyrics with several different tunes attached.  Here is one that closely resembles that which Milhaud used.  Listen carefully to the top vocal and you’ll hear it:


Listen to a recording of “Voici le mois de Mai” in English.


“Magali” orchestrated:

Additional material on Suite Française can be found at the Wind Repertory Project, this program notes wiki, and the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra Blog.  In addition, Tim Reynish has a nice page with interpretive notes on the piece, and David Whitwell wrote a paper on it.  Finally, see the full score of the orchestral version with Leonard Bernstein’s markings at the New York Philharmonic Archive.

Dutch composer Johan de Meij (b. 1953) studied trombone and conducting at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague.  He now resides in the New York City area. He rose to international fame as a composer with his Symphony no. 1 “The Lord of the Rings”.  Written between 1984 and 1987, it was premiered in Brussels, Belgium in 1988.  It went on to win first prize in the Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition in 1989, and a Dutch Composers Fund award in 1990, and has since become a cornerstone of the repertoire for high-level bands worldwide.  His subsequent compositions have also won numerous awards.  He remains active as a composer, euphonium and trombone player, and guest conductor of ensembles on five continents.

Songs from the Catskills was completed on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011.  De Meij provides his own program notes:

The Catskill Mountains is a beautifully preserved region in Upstate New York, flanked to the east by the Hudson River. From the moment my wife and I settled in 2008 in Saugerties, a quaint Hudson Valley town 100 miles north of Manhattan, I started immersing myself into the area’s rich musical history. Discovering a fascinating mix of American, Irish and Scottish folk music, ultimately, it was not easy to choose from such abundance. I ended up using the following six songs:

The Foggy Dew – is of Irish origin, but was adopted with another text into the local folk song repertoire;
Last Winter was a Hard One – tells the story of two Irish immigrant women who complain that their husbands can not find work, and that ‘Those Italians’ steal their jobs;
A Poor and Foreign Stranger – a gorgeous, heart-breaking ballad;
The Bluestone Quarries – describes the hard work in the nineteenth-century stone quarries. This song is very similar to When Johnny Comes Marching Home;
The Arkansas Traveler – made famous by folk singer Pete Seeger (If I Had a Hammer) The music makes a side trip to The Old Tobacco Box before coming to a festive conclusion.

Songs from the Catskills was commissioned by Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) and Scott A. Jones, Director of Bands, for its 2011 Honor Band Weekend. In April 2011, the work was premiered during this event, conducted by the composer.
The work is dedicated to Marilyn and Travis Rothlein, our dear friends and neighbors in the Catskills.

Website for Johan de Meij and his publishing company. Includes an extensive bio and works list, as well as a link to the above program notes.  Also check out de Meij’s Facebook fan page and his Wikipedia entry, or follow him on Twitter.

The Rio Bravo Wind Ensemble performs the full piece:

Now to dig into those folk songs: the first, The Foggy Dew, comes with several different texts attached. A British version is about a young man trying to woo a serving girl.  The Irish version, featured in the video below, depicts a scene from the Easter Uprising of 1916 (lyrics are in the video description).  Several more versions are collected here, including several different love stories, one of which has to do with the Bogle Bo (boogeyman). Here it is as performed by Sinead O’Connor and the Chieftains:

Last Winter Was a Hard One doesn’t have any play that I can find on YouTube.  Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that, as de Meij says, it curses out “Those Italians” that steal Irish immigrants’ jobs.  Read the lyrics, see the melody, and listen to an excerpt here.

A Poor and Foreign Stranger also has a life as A Poor Wayfaring Stranger.  Here, Peter Hollens and the Swingle Singers put on a very contemporary a cappella version of it that leaves the melody and the lyrics largely untouched:

For a more authentic, unadorned take, listen to Burl Ives:

The tune that de Meij calls Bluestone Quarries is also known as Pat Works on the Railway.  The lyrics differ only in the nature of the backbreaking labor that the young Irishman is engaging in.  Listen to a performance of the Railway version below:

The Arkansas Traveler used to be Arkansas’s state song.  It’s famous now as both a fiddle tune and the children’s classic My Baby Bumblebee.  It was used to lampoon country yokels in several Looney Tunes cartoons.  Watch Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys perform it:

The Old Tobacco Box, or There Was an Old Soldier probably dates from the Civil War era, given the wooden leg of its soldier protagonist.  It can be sung to the tune of Turkey in the Straw, but has its own tune that matches another called The Red Haired Boy:

If you don’t want to read William Schuman’s bio, skip down to the bottom of the page for a video version of sorts.  For those who do: Born in the Bronx, William Schuman (1910-1992) dropped out of business school to pursue composition after hearing the New York Philharmonic for the first time.  He became a central figure in New York’s cultural institutions, leaving his presidency of the Juilliard School to become the first director of Lincoln Center in 1961.  All the while he was active as a composer.  He received the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for music in 1943.  He shared a fondness for wind music with his Juilliard contemporaries Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin, from which came many classic works for wind band.

Chester is the third movement of the New England Triptych, a collection of three pieces based on tunes by the colonial-era New England composer William Billings.    Schuman wrote the collection in 1956 on a commission from Andre Kostelanetz and the orchestra at the University of Miami.  Schuman created his own versions for band later, one movement at a time.  Chester came first, right on the heels of the original.  The orchestration of the two versions is obviously different in important ways, and unlike the other movements, Schuman actually expands his treatment of Chester in the band version.  It begins as a chorale before being broken into pieces in an intense development that comprises most of the piece.  Much later (1988) Schuman also produced a set of piano variations on the tune.

Nobody could describe the history of Chester better than Schuman himself (from the band score of the piece):

The tune on which this composition is based was born during the very time of the American Revolution, appearing in 1778 in a book of tunes and anthems composed by William Billings called THE SINGING MASTER’S ASSISTANT. This book became known as “Billings’ Best” following as it did his first book called THE NEW ENGLAND PSALM SINGER, published in 1770. CHESTER was so popular that it was sung throughout the colonies from Vermont to South Carolina. It became the song of the American Revolution, sung around the campfires of the Continental Army and played by fifers on the march. The music and words, both composed by Billings, expressed perfectly the burning desire for freedom which sustained the colonists through the difficult years of the Revolution,

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys. 

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

Billings himself is described by William Bentley, of Salem, a contemporary, as “the father of our New England Music.  Many who have imitated have excelled him, but none of them had better original power.  He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person.  Still he spake and sang and thought as a man above the common abilities.”  Billings, born in Boston in 1746, started his career in life as a tanner’s apprentice but soon gave up this trade for music in which he was apparently self-taught.  He organized singing schools, composing music for them which was all the more welcome because relations with England had reached the breaking point and the colonists were glad to have their own native music.  Billings’ many “fuguing tunes” achieved great popularity, but by the time he died in 1800 this kind of music gradually fell into disfavor leaving Billings poor and neglected.  Today given the prospective [sic] of history we see Billings as a major figure in American music.  His indomitable spirit still shines through the sturdy tunes he wrote.

The Ball State University Symphony Band plays the band version of Chester:

The orchestral version, while broadly similar in its chorale-allegro design, takes a very different form than the band version does, and it is about half as long:

Schuman appeared as the mystery guest on the game show “What’s My Line” in 1962.  Sadly, his episode of the show was removed from YouTube.  Instead, you can watch this video portrait of the composer made by his publisher:

More on Chester at the Wind Repertory Project, Wikia Program Notes, an analytic paper by Christopher Ritter, and a high school listening assignment based on the piece (try it!).  Schuman has bios on Wikipedia, his own official website, G. Schirmer, Theodore Presser, and Naxos.  And William Billings has at least one giant column of a website devoted to him and his music.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a piano prodigy turned composer who was known for his strange personal habits, his colorful prose, and his equally unusual music – his many admirers today still recognize that he possessed “the supreme virtue of never being dull.”  Born in Australia, he began studying piano at an early age.  He came to the U. S. at the outbreak of World War I and enlisted as an Army bandsman, becoming an American citizen in 1918.  He went on to explore the frontiers of music with his idiosyncratic folk song settings, his lifelong advocacy for the saxophone, and his Free Music machines which predated electronic synthesizers.  His many masterworks for winds include Lincolnshire Posy, Irish Tune from County Derry, and Molly on the Shore.

Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon is among Grainger’s many folk song settings.  He first set it for “chorus and whistlers” in 1903, and created the band setting in 1932.  The folk song comes from Scotland.  The melody first appeared in print as The Caledonian Hunts Delight in a collection of songs published by Neil Gow in 1788.  In 1792, it was paired with a poem by Robert BurnsThe Banks of Doon, and this pairing has been handed down through the generations.  The poem describes a love story around the River Doon, which flows through Ayrshire from Loch Doon in Scotland:

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fair!
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu’ o’ care!

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o’ the happy days
When my fause Luve was true.

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings beside thy mate;
For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
And wist na o’ my fate.

Aft hae I roved by bonnie Doon
To see the woodbine twine,
And ilka bird sang o’ its love;
And sae did I o’ mine.

Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Frae aff its thorny tree;
And my fause luver staw the rose,
But left the thorn wi’ me.

Read more about Ye Banks and Braes at, the Wind Repertory Project, the Percy Grainger Society program notes page (scroll down to find it), the Internet Archive, and

The North Texas Wind Symphony plays Ye Banks and Braes:

The actual folk song recorded in a studio: – much general information on the composer with a focus on his wind band works.

International Percy Grainger Society – Based in White Plains, NY, they take care of the Grainger house there as well as the archives that remain there.  They also like to support concerts in our area that feature Grainger’s music.

Grainger Museum – in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, at the University there.

Grainger’s works and performances available at