Reflections on The Maid of Culmore
A guest post from founding Artistic Director Joseph Gregorio
To kick off this most unusual season, we took the opportunity to bring together alumni and current members of Ensemble Companio in a virtual choir performance. We selected The Maid of Culmore because of its lasting significance to the ensemble and connection to our origins. We’re so grateful to everyone whose talent, labor, and financial support made this project possible. View the final product on our YouTube channel, and enjoy! — Emily Higgins, Communications Chair
Having helped create the group a decade ago as its founding Artistic Director, and also having welcomed two [human] children into the world – one born two years before Ensemble Companio’s launch and one born two years after it – I can confidently assert that the rewards and the stresses I perceived in parenting kids and establishing a choir were surprisingly similar. Before and during Ensemble Companio’s first season, I made lists of possible names for the group. I rejoiced over each organizational milestone – every singer we brought on, every rehearsal and performance space we secured, every cent we raised – as though they were first smiles, steps, and words. I didn’t sleep much. I worried often. Yet, seemingly improbably, sometimes miraculously, things worked out, and the group thrived; over these last ten years, Ensemble Companio has created community and meaning for its singers and brought people together through authentic, inspiring music-making. Knowing this fills me with pride, joy, wonder, and gratitude akin to that which I feel when I reflect on my kids’ lives and their own landmarks and achievements.
It was hardly my effort alone that got the choir off the ground. The group’s other co-founders and first officers – Sam Bradford, Matt Perkins, Kathrin Petzold, Greg Pratt, and Inès Thieme – along with Elena Gregorio, Julie Gregorio, Bill Meakem, Jill Ward, and Chris Wildeman, who served as the group’s earliest section leaders, deserve at least much credit as I do for the success of Ensemble Companio. They had at least as much faith in the nascent choir and its mission as I had, and spent just as many hours organizing, reading and writing e-mails, corralling singers, learning music, and traveling as I spent. I will be eternally grateful to these generous people; to all who followed in their footsteps to serve in leadership roles; to the many singers who gave freely of their time, voices, and skills to build Ensemble Companio into what it is today; and especially to the two people who have so adroitly held the musical reins after my departure: Interim Conductor Michael Weinberg and present Artistic Director Erik Peregrine.
Looking back on my time with the group, I see myself mostly as having been an enabler – not meaning that I created conditions in which singers could indulge seedy singerly habits (!), but more that I was one who facilitated the rehearsing and performing of music, which in turned allowed singers to forge friendships, enjoy meals together, and share all the sundry extramusical things that make Ensemble Companio what it was and is.
One of those things – the post-rehearsal gathering – has from the start been a time for singers to relax, laugh, build friendships, and, if they had any voice left after an all-day rehearsal, sing some more. So it surprised me somewhat when, in approaching me about leading a virtual choral performance of my setting of Irish folksong “The Maid of Culmore”, Erik mentioned that the arrangement has endured as an ensemble favorite for informal singing after rehearsal. After all, “The Maid of Culmore” is not exactly the kind of rousing, uplifting tune one would expect to hear at a party; nor do its words leave listeners feeling particularly festive! The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed.
I first heard “The Maid of Culmore” late in 2011, but I don’t recall how; it might have been a mention of it in the archives of an Irish music e-mail listserv (remember those?) that I had been perusing; it might have been by listening to the Bothy Band’s performance on their album Old Hag You Have Killed Me, or perhaps a friend shared the recording Cara Dillon made on her self-titled debut album from around that time. However it was, the song struck me immediately as having potential for an effective choral setting. My arrangement, which I dedicated to Ensemble Companio, premiered in March 2012, in the group’s debut performance.
Even by itself – that is, without text – the melody is profoundly haunting. It’s based in the plaintive natural minor (Aeolian) mode, giving hints here and there of the more hopeful relative major (Ionian) mode, but never quite getting to dwell in it. Notice the stark, despondent downward leaps by a fifth in the identical first and last phrases of the tune. These are counterbalanced somewhat by the upward turns at the beginning of the second and third phrases – also identical phrases that, at their ends, seem to leave the listener hanging. I marvel at the effectiveness of this tune’s simple ABBA structure, and how inevitable it feels.
The heartsick tune marries perfectly to its poignant, searching text:
From sweet lovely Derry to the fair London town,
There is no finer harbor anywhere to be found,
Where the children each evening they play ‘round the shore,
And the joy bells are ringing for the maid of Culmore.
The first time I saw her, she passed me by,
And the next time I saw her, she bade me goodbye;
But the last time I saw her, it grieved my heart sore;
For she sailed down Lough Foyle and away from Culmore.
If I had the power the storms for to rise,
I would make the wind blow and I’d darken the skies;
I would make the wind blow and the salt seas to roar
To the day that my darling sailed away from Culmore.
To the far parts of America my love I’ll go and see,
For it’s there I know no one, and no one knows me;
And if I don’t find her I’ll return home no more;
Like a pilgrim I’ll wander for the maid of Culmore.
The melody by itself, sung by sopranos and altos, leads listeners into my setting and prepares them better than anything else could for what unfolds after it; as American composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker writes in her book The Anatomy of Melody, “The tune itself (text + rhythm + pitch) contain[s], like a seed, all the elements needed for [an arrangement’s] growth.” The unison texture evokes loneliness, an emotion central to the song. When observed with intention and care, the rests and the breaths singers take there can have as much to communicate as the phrases they punctuate; my unadorned setting of the first verse allows those gaps to speak.
At the start of the second verse, we again hear only the melody, sung this time by basses. But one measure in, the tenors enter – their optimistic rising fourth a counterweight to the tune’s descending fifth – echoing the basses and providing the melody with its first harmonic backdrop. I wrote many suspensions into this verse – i.e. moments when a note at first sounds consonant with the others, but then becomes dissonant when another part moves above or under it, then resolves into consonance again. I think the suspensions help illuminate the speaker’s state of mind, sonically representing tension between happy reminiscence and present sadness.
I envisaged a storm gathering – both over the ocean and in the speaker’s mind – as I built the transition between the second and third verses. Altos, in the middle of a turbulent aural texture, take the melody in the third verse. They are musically windblown by the sopranos’ gusting above, and buffeted by the tenors’ and basses’ currents below: Sometimes the sopranos dip below the altos; sometimes, albeit briefly, the basses sing as high as the altos. It’s a mostly homophonic setting that I freely admit is in part homage to the chorale style of Johann Sebastian Bach. The moment of the word “roar” is the piece’s climax, when the speaker’s anguish is most intense. My favorite moment of this verse, though, is the pause immediately after that, when “roar” resounds and subsides – the storm passing.
In its wake, at the outset of the fourth verse, a new purpose rises in the speaker’s mind: “To the far parts of America my love I’ll go and see”. The melody correspondingly ascends through the choir with increasing determination: the basses, tenors, and altos each successively sing half a phrase of the melody. By the time it reaches the sopranos (who sing “and no one knows me”), though, feelings of separation set in alongside the speaker’s resolve; the basses drop out here, leaving a noticeably more forlorn-sounding trio of sopranos, altos, and tenors. Alone, the basses set out on the penultimate phrase (“And if I don’t find her I’ll return home no more;”) joined soon after by the other three parts. Highlighting here the solitude the speaker will face as a result of this choice (“Like a pilgrim I’ll wander”), the unison texture of the first verse returns.
I imagined the speaker fully realizing, after delivering all of the text, what utter isolation lies ahead. A small contingent of sopranos embodies this by sounding the tune outside of their section, outside of the use of language (they hum), and outside of the prevailing mode (in G Lydian, rather than in the B Aeolian in which the melody has appeared thus far). With the other voices sustaining the final syllable of “Culmore” underneath it, this iteration of the melody even seems to exist outside of musical time. When the lower voices stop singing, the semi-section of sopranos is left humming alone, a single thread dangling where a moment ago there hung a full sonic tapestry. In succession, all four parts then join in humming the melody’s first notes – separated by the interval of the fifth, which creates the illusion that the altos complete the sopranos’ thought, the tenors complete the altos’, and the basses complete the tenors’. The final sonority is desolate.
To recapitulate in case it is not already clear: Neither “The Maid of Culmore” nor my arrangement of it is exactly a musical pick-me-up.
What, then, might account for the continuing appeal of “The Maid of Culmore” to Ensemble Companio’s singers since 2012, especially as a vehicle for post-rehearsal singing?
I can’t know for certain. It’s counterintuitive! But I can imagine how, for this incredibly dedicated, perpetually itinerant group of singers, joining together with others after rehearsals to sing “The Maid of Culmore” is probably not to wallow in the sadness of the song, but rather to recognize collectively, possibly unintentionally, how much they all give up to be a part of the group, gathering as they do far from loved ones and from home – so far away for some that they must fly to the ensemble’s monthly meetings – and then, almost as soon as they’ve assembled, leaving it all until next month and returning home. Having served as the choir’s Artistic Director for five seasons, I remember well how that feels. It’s euphoric, but it’s tinged with longing. To be a part of Ensemble Companio is to grow accustomed to bidding many goodbyes, to sometimes having a grieving heart even while hearing joy bells, and to always being a pilgrim. Happily, it is also to have much better fortune than the poor speaker of “The Maid of Culmore” – it is to find, know, and hold onto kindred spirits in friendship and in song wherever they wander.