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WASSAIL DANCES - Martin Ellerby
My Wassail Dances were written as a personal salute to the ‘wassail’ and received their first performance by the Orchestre d’Harmonie de Vichy conducted by Bruno Totaro in the Opera de Vichy, France on 2 December 2018.
Wassailing is a tradition dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. The people come together to ‘awaken’ orchard trees in the hope they will go on to produce healthy apples. Traditionally the custom is practised in cider producing regions to the south and west of the UK. Boundary Farm, on the Dunham Massey estate in Cheshire is believed to be the only place practising the tradition in the north west of England.
I attended a wassail at this north west location in early February of 2018 by invitation of Alan Hewitt and his wife, Carolyn. During the wassail, children hang slices of toast on the apple trees while cider is poured around the roots. The participants then sing a chant which is intended to awaken the spirits in the trees and ward off evil spirits. After the chant a gun is shot over the trees and those attending enjoy mugs of mulled cider and apple juice which is all produced on Boundary Farm. Later in the evening there are performances by Morris dancers and folk bands.
My set of dances is cast in four brief movements played in quick succession. The subtitles are derived from both the event and location where I experienced my first wassail and are written in celebration of this unique tradition.
1- The Bothy – the name of Farmer Hewitt’s home. A bothy is an old word for basic accommodation usually for gardeners or other workers on an estate. The music is cast in the manner of traditional English folk tunes, the first rather serious and the second happy and celebratory.
2 - Toasting Trees – the ceremony, including a reference to the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful plus a quotation from another hymn For the Beauty of the Earth. To give the music a special character it is written in 5/4 time with five bar phrases. The coda, however, is in 4/4 time enabling a more even sense to the rhythm.
3 - Harvest Hymns – this movement is built on adjusted and quoted versions of the hymn Let Us With a Gladsome Mind and the chorus from We Plough the Fields and Scatter (All Good Gifts Around Us are Sent from Heaven Above).
4 - The Boundary – the name of Farmer Hewitt’s working farm. It marks a boundary (dividing line) on the Dunham Massey estate between his and other properties. Original folk tunes provide the basic musical material. Rhythmically it is cast in contrasting sections of 12/8 and 4/4 but the basic pulse is the same. This gives both tension and excitement to the final movement for players and listeners alike.
The work has been recorded on the MER label by the RNCM Wind Orchestra conducted by Jeffery C. Mathews.
Please visit www.martinellerby.com for further information.
© 2018 MEM Publications, UK
2 B flat 1st Clarinets
2 B flat 2nd Clarinets
2 B flat 3rd Clarinets
B flat Bass Clarinet
2 E flat Alto Saxophones
B flat Tenor Saxophone
E flat Baritone Saxophone
4 B flat Trumpets
4 F Horns
3 Trombones (3rd Bass)
5 Percussion – Clashed Cymbals, Tubular Bells, Suspended Cymbal, Side Drum, Tambourine (on stand with sticks), Glockenspiel, Triangle, Bass Drum, Wood Block (on stand), Xylophone, Side Drum & Tenor Drum (placed close together), Tam-tam, 2nd Glockenspiel (optional), Vibraphone, Tenor Drum (shared)
C. 8 minutes