A Planxty for the Dancer

© By David Byers

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“Planxty for the Dancer was commissioned by Belfast City Council for performance at the Last Night of the Belfast Proms in the Ulster Hall on 11 June 1983 when it was played by the Ulster Orchestra, leader Richard Howarth, and conducted by Kenneth Montgomery. Much of it was worked on during a stay in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in May that year.

The music was a response to the troubled times of that period and, specifically, to a poem by the Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell (1879-1944). The Dancer is from his 1913 collection Irishry.

The dancer’s face is a white mask of death but his feet move to the merry tone of Silver Tip played by an old fiddler. The people are unanimous in their praise of the dancer’s art,

But he dances there

As if his kin were dead:

Clay in his thoughts,

And lightning in his thread.

“Planxty” was a word used by the great Irish harper Carolan as an English word:

Him, jam! Planxty merriment

Sing, dance, drink his health about!

He used it in many titles and the sense seems to be as a tribute – so Planxty Irwin is a tribute to Colonel John Irwin of Sligo. One suggestion is that planxty is a corruption of the Irish word slainte meaning “good health”.

Petrie in his Ancient Music of Ireland (1855) contends that planxties are lively in nature, are unsuitable for singing and have an unexpected irregularity in their phrasing.

After a brief opening section, much of that might apply to this short piece! Most of it is a reworking of material from the last movement of my wind band piece, Caliban’s Masque.”

David Byers (Belfast, July 2005)

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