Star of the County Down is the final offering of Gompper’s Three Irish Fiddle Tunes. The collection as a whole leads off with Finnegan’s Wake (not recorded here, but released on Albany Records TROY680), and the initial composition heard on the present CD, Music in the Glen. Both Finnegan’s Wake and Music in the Glen draw upon traditional Irish fiddle reels; arguably, however, Star of the County Down has an even richer heritage as its source material.
The origin of the melody reaches into England’s history predating by hundreds of years its appearance in Volume II of Francis Child’s (1825 – 1896) compilation The English and Scottish Popular Ballads as Ballad #56, Dives and Lazarus. The ballad relates the plight of the beggar Lazarus and his entry into heaven and that of the wealthy Dives and his banishment to hell for having denied Lazarus either food or drink. It was Cathal McGarvey (1866 – 1927), however, who provided the text overlay that converted the ballad into the Irish aire Star of the County Down. And yet the story does not stop at this point, for the melody has also been used for hymn settings such as “Come All Ye Worthy Christian Men.” Gompper’s entry into the populated scene further evokes the memory of Ernest Moeran (1894 – 1950)—who employed a portion of the aire in his Cello Concerto—and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1894 – 1950), whose orchestral Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939) has long been a concert hall favorite.
No mere historical anecdote, this information is worth bearing in mind when approaching Gompper’s 2005 composition, for the piece meets the past in another and yet related way: simply stated, Gompper’s Star of the County Down is a fantasia, a genre that has a rich heritage of its own. Improvisatory by definition, the Harvard Dictionary of Music notes that 19th and early 20th centuries fantasias “drew upon popular songs, and pseudo-folk melodies, and patriotic airs to evoke exotic landscapes” (s.v. “Fantasia” III. “The fantasia after the 18th century”). We are enjoined, then, to engage with the work in a co-creator sense while being led by David and Gompper through the many masterful adaptations of the source material.
The principal melody is present virtually from the initial to the final measures of Gompper’s fantasia, and the rhythmic vamping and contrapuntal interplay between violin and piano in the opening strain is but a harbinger of things to come. The two instruments continually trade off portions of the melody and do so in a manner reminiscent of protracted figure/ground exchanges.
The harmonic palette throughout is richly chromatic, and introduces the modal and pentatonic underpinnings of the theme to an assortment of 21st-century considerations. And yet none of this is about “musing” in the casual sense of the word. Instead, the primary concern is to instill the traditional melody with the quality of an echo: allusions to past selves though they may well be, no echo ever stands as an exact replica either of the source or, indeed, of earlier reflections. And thus it is that the farther we move into Star of the County Down, the more tightly the piece comes to inscribe itself within its own closed borders. The process is managed by Gompper’s exquisite sense of pacing. The conversational teaming of the violin and piano continues to increase in intensity until at its apex a veritable perpetual mobile emerges, the propulsive nature of which would find even Hindemith pausing to take notice. Events unwind following the climax and gradual decrease is registered in rhythmic, chromatic, and textural terms. But again there is a transparent purpose behind the strategy: it is a preparation for the total transformation of the source material presented in the ensuing—and closing—meno mosso section. Here we encounter apotheosis and irony, for our exposure to the ultimate motivic framework is unimaginable without the very past that is practically no longer recognizable in it.
Program Notes by Gregory Marion
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
The University of Saskatchewan