Frank Corcoran

irish composer


Do Dolmen’s Lament?

All good things are three – behold ‘Corcoran’s Law of Musical Thermodynamics’.

Frank Corcoran

Dolmens don’t keen the dead. We Irish do – or did until comparatively recent times – down the long centuries since the old Stone Age food-gatherers perfected their three-note music. Seriously though, what was our early music like? If I could only get back through time.

It is neither my business nor my intention here to do a Bob Quinn, linking anatolean sean-nós with Atlantean ‘Anách Cúain’. I want to establish an archetype. I can see a structure of great antiquity and architectural strength behind the outside, framing lines of so many Irish slow airs.

Let me start with that lament-song from Carrigart, County Donegal, ‘Fill, Fill, A Rúin 0’. An eighteenth-century mother laments (keens, yes) the spiritual ruin of her priest-son who has gone over to the other side. On the face of it, this seems to have little in common with the traditional caoine. Well, let’s look again. The keening women (such as old Máire Ní Direáin of Man of Aran fame who recorded a caoine in 1953) made a kind of popped jump up to the highest tone, then recited their lament for the dead person on that reciting tone before collapsing down to a final tone with much use of ‘Móchón’ and ‘Airiú, airiú ar Maidin’. They used three elements – the jump up (or scrape or mumble), the recital-tone, and the collapsing cadence.

Now in singing ‘Fill, fill, A Rúin 0’ (Ex. 1), Máire Áine Nic Dhonnacha and many other singers would make a little jump (rhythmically always up-beat) up to the reciting tone; the melody would then embroider it before before making the elaborate, beautiful descent to the final resting-tone.

Three elements: the upbeat lep, the – bare or ornate – recital-tone, the fall to rest. This musical scaffolding is hardly a monopoly of the keening Irish. What about Gregorian chanting of the psalms? Take the traditional ‘Gloria Patri’ (Ex. 2) on the so-called ‘psalm-tone’ that I vividly remember from my Tipperary childhood:

You have the jump, held reciting tone, descent – three things. I believe this archetypal structure is behind hundreds of Irish slow airs. I can tie in this scaffolding with some of the oldest music on our island.

Now I’ll take the – for me – most interesting version of the great love-song from Lough Key and its Trinity Island, Joe Heaney’s version of ‘Á Úna Bháin’ (Ex. 3). Watch its three elements: up-beat skip to the reciting-tone, Book of Kells-ish zig-zag ornamentation, curve back down to the final cadence. Tripartite scaffold – our plot thickens.

Isn’t this deliciously interesting for a musical detective? It hit me full force as, years ago, I heard the Monks of Glenstal plus Nóirín Ní Riain recording of ‘Seacht nDolas Na Maighdine Muire’ (Ex. 4). We have the ascent, the top tone, the beautifully spun out falling line – all good things are three. Corcoran’s Law of Musical Thermodynamics: what goes up must come down.

Of course, in each individual slow air, one or other of these three elements will be individually treated. Take the up-beat approach to the top note. This can often be a mere apoggiatura, an off-the-beat scramble (as in ‘Fill, fill…’ or in ‘Seacht nDolas…’ above ). But it can be a poised, crafted ascending line of great interest in itself, e.g. in the Bunting manuscripts, Denis Hempson’s version of ‘Uileagán an Dubh O’ (Ex. 5). This ascent forms the first long phrase which requires as a symmetric answering phrase the reciting-tone-plus-descent.

In ‘Im Aonar Seal’ (Ex. 6), this first element is, unusually, an ascending jump of a sixth to the highest tone (which, again unusually, is not itself the tonic but the third of the key). This ascending sixth releases great energy:

Again, the second element in Corcoran’s Law, what I am calling the recital-tone (or highest note), appears in a large number of guises. Sometimes it comes only once, as the first down-beat of the tune, before the melodic descent begins. Often it is sung several times, ornamented by its neighbour-notes above and below. I’ll compare two very different treatments: look at ‘Úna Bháin’ and its brilliant trellis-work. As against that, in, say, ‘Carrickfergus’ (Ex. 7), this all-important reciting tone appears only once, as the first down-beat of the entire composition, a kind of launch-pad for the beautifully worked-out descent.

Then there’s my third element, the falling cadence with, again, a myriad of strategies for the anonymous composer to bring the melodic arch to its rest. Look above at ‘Fill, Fill…’ and its baroque elaboration of cadence. Both ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘Seacht nDolas…’ fall even deeper than the final tonic before they come to rest. Or a perfect ‘parent-call’ song like ‘Condae Mhuigheo’ (see below) can draw a symmetrical ascent-descent graph that sets many a musical detective muttering ‘Ah, bee-hive cell, early Celtic stone oratory…’.

Three elements. It’s already there in the Gregorian psalm-tone pattern. A musical archetype. Of great antiquity, I suspect. Why?

At this point I want to acknowledge my dependence on somebody else’s musical detective-work. In a series of exciting articles, well over twenty years ago, Professor Breandán Ó Madagáin showed how I might tie-in my scaffold-theory further with a yen for the earliest music we’ve had on this island. Ó Madagáin made his imaginative leap back to pre-famine Ireland of the eighteenth century. Ó Madagáin knew and read his Eugene O’Curry, who, in Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, left us a marvellous recollection of how his father, Eogh Mór Ó Curraigh, and his friend, Clare school-master Anthony O’Brien, would of a Sunday row out on the wide Shannon estuary – with crock of whiskey obligato in the bottom of the boat – to practise feats of Demosthenean vocal acrobatics. Now here’s the point: O’Curry remembered his father singing very often the tune of ‘a beautiful, ancient hymn to the Blessed Virgin’ – ‘Sciathluireach Mhuire’ (Ex. 8). Don’t forget my three elements. In the Royal Irish Academy library, Ó Madagáin, in a feat of brilliant Sherlock Holmesery, was able to find the eighteenth-century manuscript.

See the ascent, reciting-tone, cadencing. Now, O’Curry recognised that – to his amazement – this melody was the same line that Anthony O’Brien, the Clare school-master out in a boat on the Shannon Estuary with his father of a Sunday, would use to chant one of the Fenian lays, ‘Laoi Chnoc an Áir’ (Ex. 9), the real old stuff:

I was startled when I came across this splendidly poetic caoine from County Waterford which Liam De Noraidh collected in the forties; ‘A Mhná na Súile Bog’ (Ex. 10) pleads with the ‘women of the moist eyes’ to ‘stop your weeping, till my love is given a drink, before he enters the school where he learns neither letters nor music, but will be supporting clay and stones!’

The music of the ancient hymn to the Virgin is the music of that Fenian lay, is the music of the Waterford caoine. Very strange! In each case, the jump, reciting-tone, fall. Q.E.D. This Grand Unified Theory gives me a window into our past. Our early music was a jump (bare or elaborately composed) to the reacaire’s recitation-tone (decked out or built around or…) on which he recited, then connected to the fall. Q.E.D.

Notice I’ve said nothing about the melodic material in the centre of any AABA or ABBA slow-air structure. My archetype fits the outer phrase of the four-part composition. Suffice it to say here that, after the initial ascending-reciting-descending arch under discussion, the tendency in the middle phrase is – not unnaturally – to climb again and explore the top region with, often, staggering results… (See ‘Róisín Dubh’ and a lot more melodies).

I’ve no more space for examples; we could go on and on, illustrate the three elements, compare the artistry of elaboration, enjoy those gargoyles, false starts, cunning stunts, the wavy line as a barograph for the text’s soul. I’ve no space left for Labhrá Ó Cadhlaigh’s lament for the young girl dead in Cappaquin, Bríd Ní Mhuiríosa. Yes, Stephen Dedalus’ ‘native Doric’ has a dying fall – but only after the initial ascent. Nor will I mention the famine Caoine, ‘Sail Óg Rua’, and its wonderful rising seventh = leap up to its ‘reciting tone’. Check for yourself. Bask in Im Aonar Seal’s individual filling-out of ascent and descent.

Am I serious in this theorem that behind my tripartite structure is the psalm-tone? The caoine’s proclamation? Recital of the Fenian Laoi? See for yourself. Watch Darwinian variations of a species (e.g. the extra composed importance of the ascent in ‘Carraig Aonair’). Apparent exceptions (e.g. the opening of ‘Seán Ó Duibhir an Ghleanna’, whose up-beat is easily conceived as a mutated ascent á la Corcoran’s musical thermodynamics) only prove my point, my three points.

I referred above to ‘Condae Mhuigheo’ as a parent-cell song. Behind it are many mutants, and with the same architecture. Seán Ó Riada was the first to point to its genetic similarity with ‘John Twist’. He did not get around to trace others of its mutanta and fore-runners and spawned descendants… This, too, is not my theme here. But let me mention at least, out of Shields: ‘Our Wedding-Day’, ‘Anne-Jane Thornton’, ‘Tossing The Hay’, ‘Aisling Geal’, ‘Cad É Sin Don Té Sin?’, ‘The Bonny Irish Boy’, ‘Dónal Óg, ‘Down By The Canal’, ‘The Dark-Eyed Gypsy’. If you finger through Creighton´s Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia you can begin with: ‘Mary Nail’, ‘Mary Irish Polly’, ‘Rambling Shoe-maker’, ‘Tom O’Neill’.

I am getting dizzy fast. But my three elements, they’re there.
Published on 1 November 2001

Since 1983 Frank Corcoran has been Professor of Composition and Theory in the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Hamburg. His CDs include Mad Sweeney (BBM 1026) and Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, & 4 (Marco Polo 8.225107).Frank Corcoran is guest composer and artistic director at the Sligo Contemporary Music Festival, full details of which appear on the back cover of The JMI. Since 1983 Frank Corcoran has been professor of composition and theory in the Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst, Hamburg. His CDs include Mad Sweeney (BBM 1026) and Symphonies Nos. 2,3 & 4 (Marco Polo 8.225107)




RTÉ lyric fm CD154

Soloist Martin Johnson explores Frank
Corcoran’s writing for cello in all its
nuances, from the swagger of a concerto
and the rhapsodic polyphony of his
work for eight cellos through to the
composer’s arrangements of folk tunes
for cello and piano informed by the
rhythmic patois of the Irish language.



4 02.04.95 John Field und seine Zeit
41/42 17.10.99 Charles Ives-Porträt zum 125. Geburtstag
12 22.03.03 „Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh“ – Stille in Musik
29 19.07.03 Great Britain läßt bitten (Länderschwerpunkt SHMF)
47 22.11.03 Franz Schubert zum 175. Todestag
06 07.02.04 Eine Winterreise
20 15.05.04 Charles Ives zum 50. Todestag
24 18.06.05 Irland – die Insel der Barden
02 13.01.07 Hörschule: Franz Schubert Sinfonie C-dur D 944
52 29.12.07 Frank Corcoran hört die Sinfonie g-moll
19 10.05.08 Frank Corcoran hört die 4. Sinfonie von Johannes Brahms
46 15.11.08 Frank Corcoran hört Beethovens 7. Sinfonie
23 06.06.09 Frank Corcoran hört Haydns Oxford-Symphonie
39. 26.09.09 Frank Corcoran hört Schuberts Sinfonie C-dur D 944
02 16.01.10 Frank Corcoran hört das Klavierkonzert c-moll von Mozart
11 20.03.10 Frank Corcoran hört die „Eroica“ von Ludwig van Beethoven
03 22.01.11 Frank Corcoran hört die 3. Sinfonie von Brahms
19 14.05.11 Frank Corcoran hört die 1. Sinfonie von Mahler –
26 02.07.11 Frank Corcoran hört die Sinfonie C-dur D 944von Franz Schubert (Whlg.)
50 17.12.11 Frank Corcoran hört die 2. Sinfonie von Gustav Mahler
15 14.04.12 Frank Corcoran hört Mozarts Klarinettenquintett
18 05.05.12 Frank Corcoran hört Mahlers Vierte
06 09.02.13 Frank Corcoran hört die 2. Sinfonie von Johannes Brahms
04 25.01.14 Frank Corcoran hört das Violinkonzert von J. Brahms
25 21.06.14 Frank Corcoran hört Till Eulenspiegel von Richard Strauss
38 20.09.14 Frank Corcoran hört die 9. Sinfonie von Antonin Dvo?ák
44 01.11.14 Frank Corcoran hört Schuberts Winterreise (Whlg)
14 04.04.15 Frank Corcoran hört Mozarts Jupiter-Sinfonie
03 23.01.16 Frank Corcoran hört das Cellokonzert von Antonin Dvo?ák



( Texts by Jacopone Da Todi ca. 1303 . English Version by Frank Corcoran 2010 )

1. Chi pro Cristo va empazzato / Pare aflitto e tribulato ! / Chi pro Cristo ne va pazzo / Alla gente si par matto ! / Chi vuol entrar in questa danza / Trov´ amor desmesurata !

He who raves for Christ´s insane / Most afflicted his great pain ! / Who for Christ loses his mind / He looks lost to all mankind! / But he who begins with this dancing / Measureless

love he´s sure to find !

2. Allegom´en sseppultura / Un ventri lupo envoratura ! / E l´arliquie en cacatura / In espineta, e rogatura !

I chose for my last tomb and shroud / A wolf´s belly after he´s devoured / Me ! My last remains that wolf´s shit / In among thorns in a deep pit !

3. Che farai, Fra Jacovone ? Ei venuto al paragone ! / / Well, what now, Fra Jacovone ? Now you´ve come to your trial ! The lodgings that they gave me is a hole underground. No denial !

Una casa sotterata; aréscece una privata ! / Non fa fragar de moscone ! / / Here a stinking jakes disgorges ! It won´t smell of perfumed roses !

They placed my legs in leg-irons . These rustle like sirens ! / / Porto jette de sparveri . Sonnegliano nel mio giro ! / Nova danza ce po´odire che sta appresso mia stazone / /

Listen askance ! / – You can hear my new dance !

4. O Papa Bonifazio ! Molt´hai jocato ´l mundo ! Penso me , che jocondo non te´n porrai partire ! / Per subita ruina, Ei preso´n tua masone !! / E null´om se trovone a poterti guarire ! / /

Oh Pope Bonifazio , with the world you played : ” Peek! Oh! ” / Yet I judge that your dying / Will be more than mere sighing ! / Your ruin has reached you / In your palace it´s breached you

! No doctor can heal you ! No nurse dare feel you ! / / El mundo nunne´cavallo / Che sse lass´enfranare ! / Che´l pozzi cavalcare ! / Secondo tu´volere ! / /

This world´s not a race-horse / To goad on with your spurs ! / To rein in at your whim / Till with your desires it concurs ! / /

Dell´aneme redente / Par che ne curi poco ! / La ve´t´accunc´ il loco / Saperai lo al partire ! / /

It´s not all souls´ salvation / It´s you´ve reaped your own damnation / At your parting thus, your passing / You will find out your destination !

Reply Reply All Forward


Mad bishop, Patrick,
He baptized all iguanas,
Penguins, too; lemmings !

Sent: Fri, Mar 17, 2017 8:04 pm
Subject: Re: Frank Corcoran Sár Haikíúadóir na Sleibhte

Patrick was hard stuff
Hard his slave’s pig and sheep stick
Yet he died crying

Cruach Phádraig –
fanann na seandéithe
glan uirthi

Covered their faces
On fasting Patrick´s Mountain
Noone wants old gods

It is a black wind
High up on Cruach Phádraig
Those gods´ faces cut

Swoosh down the mountain
Cowed gods, beaten, forgotten
By the newly washed

Adze-head Patrick
Whacked the mountain with his stick
All gods ran away ( F. Mac Culo )


21. Jan. NDR-KULTUR . 20.05 ” Prisma-Musik ” . Frank Corcoran hoert Dvoraks Cellokonzert .

22.05 Frank Corcorans Cellokonzert ( NSOI / Martin Johnson. Dirigent : Kenneth Montgomery )


17. January 2016

17.00 Utrecht time.

Dutch Radio Concertzender : Portrait FRANK CORCORAN

21. Jan. 2016 HAMBURG NDR-KULTUR . 20.05 ” Prisma-Musik ” . Frank Corcoran hoert Dvoraks Cellokonzert .

22.05 Frank Corcorans Cellokonzert ( NSOI / Martin Johnson. Dirigent : Kenneth Montgomery )


17. January 2016

17.00 Utrecht time.

Dutch Radio Concertzender : Portrait FRANK CORCORAN


Oh yes, I was a Fellow at the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts. It was summer 1990.

( How distant now. How many were the roads taken or not since that hot, hot June… Oh, the mystery of it all, my

life unwinding as a film-spool. ) I remember the great heat, even of that black lake, impenetrable, where I

went swimming with friend, Eddy Clift who later became the youngest Dean, then the youngest President of a well-

known Californian Fine Arts university.

The sound of a giant turtle plopping down from a tall tree into that still water would put my heart cross-wise.

( – Its jaws could crack thick wooden branches… )

My eyes in the great sun were peeled for copper-heads . I remember the thick black snake that daily rolled up from

its tree-nest to the kitchen backdoor for breakfast from Joe, himself very black. The week before I arrived as a

Composer Fellow Joe’s brother, Jim, had died in mysterious circumstances ; while fishing from his boat in the

shallow water at the wooded end of Sweetbriar Lake; he had apparently toppled in and drowned. We Fellows, mostly

from New York and the North , didn’t believe a word of the official police version. My nose smelled racialism,

foul play. Everybody clammed up. I remember , too, of a Sunday going to a Jerry Falwell service in his church in

nearby Lynchburg. Wacky. ( Yes, ” Lynch ” as in ” they lynched blacks in the good old days… ” ). My studio , piano

and bed were almost cool. I, too, gave an evening-presentation to my fellow- Fellows of my recent Opera,

“GILGAMESH ” before I returned for ever to Europe and Hamburg, my family lapped around with great sorrow and

mental illness, total break-down.


Eheu fugaces indeed….

Great that I enjoyed it greatl, Lutoslawsky’s CELLO CONCERTO

. A great work and a great opening strategy. ( I’d got to the Warsaw Spring in 1977 – it now seems so

incredible that the

good old Roinn Oideachais let me go. – Warsaw was an incredibly gray city with gray Jaruselskian soldiers all

over the place – it appeared as if not a stone from the Germans’ onslaught on the Ghetto had been repaired yet

…. Truly awful.

And yet so many East European composers were so grateful for that glimmer of hope and

that opening to us spoiled Westerns which the Festival provided .

Lutoslawski and the Missus stood at the top of the staircase in Symphony Hall and we all shook the

heroic hand – moving stuff…. It gob-smacked me as to how hugely important new music was for the Poles.

But also to see how vibrant also the other ( half-starved ) arts played their role.

And I was also puzzled by how they all hated the Govt.. . but yet how you couldn’t say a bad word about stiff,

half-blind, old General Jarusewlski who presided over it .

And me then coming out of a little country which understood nothing of ” Irish ” composed music.