Unaccompanied Folk Pieces

October 28, 2017, 12:28 AM · Hi. I've been searching for some unaccompanied folk music for the violin, especially beautiful pieces that are on the slow, lyrical side. (They don't all have to be slow, however. A few moderate or faster pieces would be fine, too.) I already have lots of books with folk melodies only, but I don't want just melody. Ideally, the pieces should have some occasional double stops or arpeggiated chords for harmony. Some nice, tasteful harmonizations would be ideal. If anyone knows of a good collection for purchase, or even of things downloadable from IMSLP or other websites, please let me know.

Replies (22)

October 28, 2017, 4:07 AM · Volumes of Scottish and Irish (subtly different!) dances and "slow airs" are legion. Not to mention Welsh, Breton and Galician (the Spanish celts!).
You may have to devise double stops from chord symbols. But I find many "standard" harmonisations ruin the modal quality of many of the tunes.
October 28, 2017, 7:38 AM · For starters try the Petrie Irish Music Collections on IMSLP. I agree with Adrian's comment about "standard" harmonisations ruining the modal quality of tunes. Common modes are dorian and mixolydian, and occasionally the pentatonic or other "gapped" scale. I'd read up about it before attempting harmonising.
Edited: October 28, 2017, 12:42 PM · Appalachia Waltz by Mark O'Connor is a modern piece inspired by traditional American fiddle music, and it's quite beautiful I think. Many, if not most of the chords utilize an open string, as is commonly done in traditional music, so it's a very good introduction to chordal playing. Originally composed for unaccompanied violin (I believe), O'Connor has reworked it several times for different ensembles too.

The solo violin piece is available from his website for download, though you'll have to pay for it, around $4.00 if my memory is serving me well.

October 29, 2017, 8:26 AM · Most folk pieces will weight in at 8 to 16 measures. Even with the commonly included repeats, they are brief performance pieces.

When I find a tune I especially like, I will expand it into a simple sonata form to get something that approaches 2 minutes.

If composition is not your thing, I would suggest browsing youtube with the search terms "violin" and "folk". When you hear something you like, try a general search by the name of the tune and "sheet music". Pay sites are more likely to have the tune expanded into a performance length format.

Oboe and flute folk music will often sound good on the violin. So think about expanding your search to those instruments. Be prepared to transcribe any sheet music you find.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 10:45 AM · Paganini used folk tunes, including popular tunes of the day, in his many pieces for violin and guitar. So did Mozart, I suspect, when he was composing for village bands. In at least one set of pieces the village band in question evidently didn't have a viola, so Mozart wrote an elaborate 2nd violin part to compensate. And then there are the opening measures of the last movement of Haydn's D major cello concerto and the finale of Schubert's 3rd symphony; if they aren't folk dance music then they should be!
October 29, 2017, 10:39 AM · I like the audience in your new profile picture Trevor.
Edited: October 29, 2017, 12:34 PM · Jeff, thank you for that appreciation! See my bio for more details. The photo was taken on film (digital was expensive then). The negative has long disappeared so I had to scan the only existing print with my PC's printer.
Edited: October 29, 2017, 5:43 PM · Ashokan Farewell. If you look around you can probably find arrangements for two violins.
Edited: November 1, 2017, 11:05 AM · Though you might need to improvise the additional parts I like Erin Shore a Corrs song. A few songs written by O'Carolan have that nice slow air feel to them.

Another I personally like is Sailor's Bonnet. This is a faster tune in most of my books, but the Gloaming play it much slower with more feel, then they pick up the tempo later on.

Edited: October 30, 2017, 12:37 PM · You might take a look at the works of Darryl Scott, The Stanley Brothers, Jean Ritchie, etc.

Some beautiful slow ballads as Wayfaring Stranger, In the Pines, You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive, Barbara Allen, among others.

Since many of the traditional tunes are passed down from player to player, the sheet music versions are usually skeletons and you will need to improvise the double stops, slides, grace notes, etc.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:39 AM · I am all for using the multiple national styles of unaccompanied folk "fiddle" pieces at the beginning and intermediate levels. They are more rewarding than the typical little pieces, or simplified classical pieces in the method books. Sometimes a student will discover an alternate genre, and even start to play professionally in that genre with a technique that is lower than their advanced classical colleagues. They are easier to memorize, and don't sound incomplete when played alone. East Europe tunes are great for developing the big vibrato. The "fiddlers" can be very good orchestra second violins; they frequently have superior velocity and bow control. Consider Mark O'Conner's series, he naturally emphasizes american and british isles styles.
October 30, 2017, 3:31 PM · You pose a genuine challenge for an arranger. Folk songs are, as someone noted above, often AB form, each part 8 bars in length, each part repeated, and so we get a 32 bar composition already (almost) saturated with repetition.

To make matters worse, folkies tend to play "quickly" in the fiddle genres.

Their solution to all this is to play the 32 bars three times, and to bolt on two other similarly organsised short tunes, and so produce a "set".

With just one fiddle you might find this a demanding opportunity, for you have limited colours and other resources available.

Search You Tube for Martin Hayes in his Watermelon concert. You will get some ideas, but also note the difficulty in keeping the night alive.

In The Weaver MacFarlane Choon Book I have chosen to use two fiddle lines and a cello line, but still I have to work hard with such limited resources. Most fiddle tunes are in first position, and so I often have to resort to obligato solos to keep the texture rich enough to carry harmony.

Modal tunes need modal harmonisation. Simples.

In short, learn to arrange, or make friends with an arranger who can rise to the solo fiddle challenge; listen to people who already do what you are aiming for; accept that you will need to evolve the fiddle genre far beyond its traditional roots (trad fiddlers varied ornamentation, and bowing, but not much else -- very little improvisation, and very little ensemble work).

Oh, and don't forget to listen to solo fiddlers from central and eastern Europe, for ideas and strategies, at the very least.

Edited: October 30, 2017, 4:33 PM · "With just one fiddle you might find this a demanding opportunity, for you have limited colours and other resources available.
Search You Tube for Martin Hayes in his Watermelon concert. You will get some ideas, but also note the difficulty in keeping the night alive."

No where does the original poster indicate he wants to put on a concert hall type performance. When I see videos of performances like this one by Martin Hayes - the set up for the audience always astounds me. This is dance music - regular beat, repetitive on purpose and yet there the people sit like it is a concert hall. If a piece was slow and not an obvious dance tune usually it was accompanied by a voice.

Michael Doucet initiated a renaissance in Cajun fiddle. The fiddle had died out in Cajun music because it was replaced by the accordion which could be heard over the sound of boots pounding on the dance floor.

Perhaps my comment is out of line and this forum is only all classical all the time but I have noticed as I've lurked here the past year a really snobby tone in many, many posters to any music that is not of the classic canon.

EDIT to say: Don't get me wrong - I lurk here because I love the violin canon and want to learn to play it to the best of my ability but sometimes the elitism and snobbery on this site is really discouraging and I think I should stop readin.

October 30, 2017, 6:11 PM · Hi Ginger, keep lurking.

Last weekend I played in a tent at a folk festival, and next Saturday night I am playing for a bush dance. If I'm the snob you are referring to ...

The first public hall on the Shetland Islands was built in 1860, and within a decade the piano accordian and piano had almost entirely displaced the fiddle as the instrument for dances. As you note, the fiddle wasn't loud enough in a bigger gathering. It was a world-wide phenomenon. Is my guess.

Did you think the original post was about preparing to play for dances?

October 30, 2017, 7:36 PM · There's lots of us that dig other genres.
October 30, 2017, 7:42 PM · Graeme,
No not in particular was I considering your response elitist. It wasn't you per say but there was something about your post that reminded me of many past posts I have read here that had such a tone. And no I don't think the original poster was looking for dance tunes but I also don't necessarily think he was looking for concert performances.

Paul, I actually look forward to your posts - they usually contain gems of learning and are often funny.

Edited: November 2, 2017, 3:15 AM · Check out the playing of young Scottish fiddler Ryan Young

October 31, 2017, 2:37 PM · Some fiddle traditions, especially the Swedish routinely use the duet -"twin fiddle" format.
October 31, 2017, 7:12 PM · Sandy Herrault has some arrangements in this vein in her later volumes (Smart Violin Music). She is a member of this site.
November 1, 2017, 8:17 AM · David - it's not very clear from your OP whether you want to play folk tunes as an interesting diversion from regular classical violins pieces and exercises, or whether you'd like to play some form of folk with something approaching an authentic feel and idiom.

If it's the former, there's plenty of good suggestions above. If the latter... well, the first thing to say is that playing a folk tune off the music and applying classical violin style and idiom to it is not going to sound 'right'. Folk musicians rarely write tunes down with the ornamentation they play (exception - Alasdair Fraser and Nathalie Haas?). Way back, all musicians were expected to be able to add the decoration themselves, so e.g. some viol music appears very plain when what you'll hear on a recording of that piece is highly ornate. Often folk players don't play the note values exactly as written either - e.g. you see a 6/8 jig, with 6 quavers to the bar on the page - jjj jjj etc. Some folk musicians might look at the page and play that straight, others will play it dotted or syncopated. So the only way you're going to get that is listen to the tunes being played, and try to pick up some of the ornamentation and the feel of the tune from that.

The good news, is that there are few 'right' or 'wrong' ways to play folk tunes, with the exception that if it doesn't feel some kind of funky, you need to do something to achieve that. Standard classical arrangeent of folk tunes can be beautiful, but usually they lose the essence of the music as a folk tune because the classical arrangement doesn't swing. Same with harmonies, double stops etc. - forget the rules, just play what you can find easily that sounds cool - folk musicians rarely choose the ard ward for the sake of it. Have fun!

Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:38 AM · Well said, Max! Listen to some real fiddlers. There are some great sources on youtube.
Edited: November 1, 2017, 5:17 PM · David

You're asking an impossible question!

Imagine if someone asked "I'm looking for some nice classical music - solo or chamber would be OK". How would you begin to answer?

It's an even broader question for folk music, as there are so many distinct national and regional idioms. People spend a lifetime mastering just one or two of these styles.

So I'm assuming from your question that you're a classical player looking for folk tunes you could play without straying too far from the classical?

One option you could look at is Scottish music in the East Coast style. It's unusual for folk in that there's a strong Italianate influence - it's a kind of folk/classical fusion if you like. So classical players should find it a little less unfamiliar, though the phrasing and attack is still very different from classical and you'd have to listen very carefully to good fiddlers to even approximate to an authentic performance.

The forms mostly evolved for dance, so are short and repetitive. For dance we put together sets of tunes in the same tempo. But for listening and competition we use "listening sets" such as Air -> March -> Strathspey -> Reel, offering a more varied experience and lasting a few minutes in performance.

Here's a short listening set in the high style by the Victorian composer Scott Skinner, played by Colyn Fischer, a US classical violinist who went feral and switched to trad music. You can probably detect the classical influence:

Another alternative would be the variation sonatas that were in vogue in Edinburgh during the 18th C by composers such as McGibbon, Munro, Oswald, McLean, Dow, Mackintosh, and Neil and Nathaniel Gow. These are long variation sets in the classical style but based on traditional tunes. Your best source for these would be to borrow a copy of Johnson's "Scottish Fiddle Music of the 18th Century" if you can find a library that holds it. They are little known, so would have rarity value.

Here's Rachel Barton Pine playing in this style, with a tune that glories in the name "Hit Her on the Bum"!

And just for the hell of it, here's a glorously infectious listening set that shows how this music can be harmonised:

If this is of any interest ping me and I'll help you find something suitable.

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