Pieces of the Week – folk-song arrangements

Over recent years I have written a number of piano accompaniments, mainly for the ABRSM, for songs and instrumental pieces. Sometimes these are transcriptions of existing pieces, with texture adapted but harmony unchanged, but some are arrangements of folksongs where I had a freer hand in the harmony and accompaniment patterns.

For next year’s ABRSM syllabus I have arranged folk-songs for voice, flute, clarinet and saxophone, and it has been a delight to aim to capture the essence of the song in the accompaniments. In particular, my aim has been to aid the performer to give of their best in a performance or exam situation, by helping them to capture the character of the music, and, particularly with those for singers, to help them in communicating the changes of mood within the song. Here are a few examples:

Land of the Silver Birch (ABRSM Songbook Plus, Grade 2)
I aimed to highlight the grandiose, but yet also nostalgic feeling of this Canadian folk-tune, and I hope that the accompaniment will help the singer to communicate the changing moods of the song.

The water is wide (ABRSM Songbook Plus, Grade 5)
This beautiful folk-song, which has of course been arranged many times before, is a delight for any composer to arrange. The text, which talks of the changing, and ultimately unhappy, stages of love, gives the opportunity for a range of accompaniment textures to help the singer portray the character: countermelodies suggest the flowing water, heavy chords the fully laden ship, and chromatic harmonies and key-changes help to communicate the sorrow of lost love. I’ve attached a couple of pages of the arrangement to this post.

O Soldier, Soldier (ABRSM Flute Exam Pieces 2018-21, Grade 2)
This march-like tune, which, as with many folk-songs, exists in a number of different versions. I aimed to capture the character of the military march in my accompaniment, but also to mirror what sounds like the 18th-century origin of the melody, with its clear-cut phrases involving call and response. Here’s a performance.

I love my love (ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces 2018-21, Grade 2)
A lovely expressive modal melody, which gave me the opportunity to encourage expressive playing with rich harmonies and interweaving melodic lines. Here’s a performance.

Skye Boat Song (ABRSM Saxophone Exam Pieces 2018-21, Grade 1)
A very well-known tune, of course, which must have been arranged hundreds of times, but it is great to get the opportunity to put one’s own gloss on it, and to help the player to communicate the gentle movement of water and oars as the boat crosses from the mainland to the isles of Skye. Here’s a performance – and what a lovely melody it is – a delight to arrange!

I always enjoy making these kinds of arrangements – and if they help the player to improve their performance and communication of the musical character, then they have done their job!

6 thoughts on “Pieces of the Week – folk-song arrangements”

  1. Any chance of a performance of the Water is Wide? To be assured of the tempo marking…

    1. I haven’t heard of a recording yet, but would love to hear it! The suggested tempo marking of crotchet = 120 is correct for this arrangement, though of course singers are at liberty to choose whatever speed they consider suitable.

      1. Hello! One of my Y8 boy trebles has just performed this for his Grade 5 exam. He sings it rather beautifully. If I can record him before his voice changes / after lockdown, I will!

  2. I really like your arrangement of Water is Wide. Is it possible to purchase it in a higher key than the one published in the ABRSM songbook plus please?

    1. I’m really glad that you like my arrangement of The Water is Wide. I’m really sorry, though, that there are no versions in other keys. My arrangement is copyright ABRSM so publishing it in other keys would be their decision I’m afraid. Of course there would be no objection to your transposing it yourself! Very best wishes.

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