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Whiskey Before Breakfast

Whiskey Before Breakfast


Commissioned by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Premiered by the NCO with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, April 2002

Program Notes: Partita for Orchestra and Bluegrass Band

Bluegrass History in a Nutshell:

One of the most distinctly American of all forms of music, the name “bluegrass” originated with Bill Monroe’s band “The Bluegrass Boys”, and the genre had its official start in the rural south after World War II. Characterized by acoustic instruments playing most often at the speed of light, intensely tight ensemble playing, the passing of solos, and “chunking” on the offbeats, this music was the music of the common man, flourishing at church picnics, barn dances, and other social occasions, perhaps because there was no other mod of reproduction in the rural communities. Like America itself, this music was an amalgamation of gospel, folk, and tunes brought over by immigrants from the “old country”, most significantly from Ireland and Scotland. But though many of the tunes are direct transplants from the “islands” the only instrument to make the jump was the fiddle. In Ireland, the bands tended to be made up of pipes, harp, fiddle and accordion. The first fiddle contest was documented in America in 1736, and though fiddles (and their players) were considered a “mite disreputable”, they were a prerequisite any time folks got together to have a good time. In addition to the European tunes and dance rhythms, African phrasing and syncopation came into play, most significantly with the banjo, originally an African import. Guitar was a latecomer, arriving only in the late 19th century, when Sears and Roebuck catalogs made them widely accessible. From continental Europe, came the bass, the mandolin (Italy), and occasionally the dulcimer (Germany).

A rich heritage:

Bluegrass and the Scotch- Irish tradition that it grew out of it is rich in cultural continuity. Like all true folk music, this is music of the people, representing there hopes, their religion, their loves, their conflicts, and in preelectric cultures that were only marginally literate, it was immensely powerful. The bards and harpists of old time Ireland were like traveling journalists, always welcome, bringing news of other places and keeping track of an oral history. When England began showing an interest in colonizing Ireland, the political tensions were accurately reflected in Ireland’s folk music to the point that in mid 16th century Henry VIII suppressed the activities of the musicians and Elizabeth I flatly declared that harpers and bards were to be “executed whenever found”. Such legislation, however, only more sharply delineated the lines between the classes and bolstered the role of musician as a custodian of native culture. For the upper classes, there was the music of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Performed in drawingrooms by musicians in powdered wigs; for the commoners there was the vibrant folk tradition, useful for dancing, loving, drinking, mourning, and otherwise living life.

The Nashville Chamber Orchestra Approach:

As always, my interest as a composer is in the common factors rather than the differences Both were acoustic, both were rich in rhythms that substituted for the necessity of percussion, both were characterized by dances of various meters and tempos. The term partita first originated in the late Baroque era (early to mid 1800’s) most significantly in J.S. Bach’s brilliant Partitas for Solo Violin. Characterized as a suite of dance movements, I am struck by the similarity rather than the difference in the forms. While the folk tunes were called reels, jigs, and hornpipes, the more “legitimate” composers called them Sicilianos, Courantes, and Allemandes, but the result was still lively toe-tapping melodies that accurately reflected the lively culture of the time.

And now, the piece:

This is a composition in eight short movements featuring bluegrass band interspersed and blended with the classical chamber orchestra, hopefully authentically representing the colorful history of both genres.

I. Overture- Orchestral Introduction

II. “Whiskey Before Breakfast”- I thought it interesting to take one tune, the well-known bluegrass classic “Whiskey Before Breakfast”, and bring it through an evolution of sorts. Beginning with the ground bass and simple harmony characteristic of William Purcell (England- mid 1700’s), I then added the countrapuntal movement of Pachelbel (Germany- late 1700’s). The overly ornamented style of the Rococo era (early 1800’s) evolved into the lyrical charm of the classical period (mid 1800’s) before morphing into the strong offbeats and duple rhythms so characteristic of bluegrass. When the Nashville Bluegrass Band takes over the now-familiar tune in their full glory, it is my hope the listener will understand how related and interwoven these traditions really are.

III. Siciliano- “Down in the Willow Garden” An authentic fiddle tune from old-time Ireland, this is typical of the pastoral mood of a siciliano, with its simple dotted phrases and 6/8 meter.

IV. Allemande- “Widow’s Dawn” There were two typical tempos for Allemande. Though original, this movement is the haunting model adagio typical of the early Baroque era.

V. Courante- “Young Jane”

VI. Allemande- “Denver Belle” The pairing of a gentle waltz followed by a more moderate dance in duple meter was almost always a part of the instrumental suites from the 1600’s.

VII. Loure- “Cro’Chaillain” Very roughly based on a Scottish folk song (English title- Colin’s cattle), this majestic dance is essentially a slow gigue.

VIII. Breakdown- “Leather Breeches” Typically the most animated of the “old-time” dances, this is a classic bluegrass tune that really can’t go too fast. Wish us luck! And notice the typical ending, termed by those in the know, “a shave and a handshake.”