While noodling around for a cool new tune to share with readers of this column, I found myself pondering just how a Celtic tune is constructed, from a compositional point of view. I mean, tunes aren’t like songs, with rhyme schemes and verses and choruses, certainly. But a tune has an arc—a beginning, a middle, and an end—and in this it shares some essential qualities with a song. Or even a story.
Most Celtic tunes have two parts, usually eight bars each, repeated, and usually referred to as the “A part” and the “B part”. But what makes an A part an A part? Can you start and finish a tune in the middle? Does it matter? Going through the recent tunes I used in this column I quickly came to the conclusion that, Yes, it does matter. There is some essential difference and purpose in the A part versus the B part of a Celtic tune. And this difference makes for some delightful musing. So now is a good time to pull down your stack of recent Mandolin Magazine issues. Peruse with me…
The two-part jig “Paddy’s Resource” (MM Fall 2012), for example, is a great little tune that insists on starting at the beginning and proceeding all the way to the end before either repeating or ending. The B part can’t stand on its own. There’s something unsettled and incomplete about it when you play it without the A part. But somehow it becomes both settled and complete when it follows the A part. It’s not that it’s the necessary second half of a complete 16-bar thought. The A part stands perfectly well on its own. And it’s not a theme-and-variation in the classical sense. It’s more a commentary on the A part… a “Furthermore…” that expands the A part’s theme in both range and emphasis, without repeating any key phrase shapes or ending with the same pattern.
But do all Celtic tunes share this quality of definite A-ness and B-ness? Further noodling was required. “Flowers of Spring” (MM Summer 2012), another two-part jig, did indeed seem to follow the pattern. The B part mimics the note density and rhythm of the A part, while inverting up an octave, expanding the melodic idea beyond the limits set in the A part. And again, though it didn’t repeat any key patterns, it was clearly and comfortably growing out of the melody stated in the A part.
The three-part reel “Gneeveguilla” (MM Fall 2011) is a bit of an anomaly, as it’s really a two-part E-minor reel with definite A and B parts and then a third part cribbed from another tune and altered a little to echo the same final bar. The B part also echoes this final bar, while extrapolating on the A part’s theme, shape, and underlying chord accompaniment an octave higher. The third part briefly flirts with the relative G-major before re-establishing the minor for a return to the top. But still, “Gneeveguilla’s” A part stands on its own, while the B and C parts seem unsettled by themselves.
“Rakes of Clonmel” (MM Winter 2011-12) is a classic instance of a B part soaring high to comment on the A part before sliding down to an echo of the end of the eight-bar phrase. And again, try playing the B part by itself. It’s like you’re coming into a conversation mid-sentence. Weird.
So while all the Celtic tunes I tried don’t necessarily fit the observation of a subservient B part, enough of them do for me to conclude that this aspect of tune structure expresses something essential in Celtic tunes. Each tune is a little story, and one must start at the beginning to understand the plot. Perhaps the characters have to be introduced in the first eight bars for us to follow their movements in the following eight bars. Given the fondness for story-telling in every Celtic culture I’m familiar with, this idea makes perfect sense.
Here’s a new little story for you, in the form of a two-part Irish reel, “The Dawn”. The A part starts flat-footed, handing off to the B part sort of in mid-air both melodically and emotionally, to let it finish the thought and return to the start again. After revisiting so many of my old favorite tunes while working on this column, I find myself playing “The Dawn” very straight, as if at an old-fashioned ceili dance. It has a delightful lilt to it when taken at a sensible dance tempo. Enjoy the story and go investigate what stories your other tunes might be telling you.