THE ASH GROVE
Commissioned by a consortium of friends and former students,
in loving memory of Eric Hammer.
The Ash Grove Program Notes
This popular folk song dating back to John Gay's Opera “The Beggars Opera” in 1728 then later published in 1802 in a book titled “The Bardic Museum” by harpist Edward Jones has inspired many settings and lyrics over the centuries. There is a possiblity that it dates back to a 1665 dance tune titled “Constant Billy.” In the1806 Welsh version “Llwyn Onn” the lyrics tell of a love between a sailor and Gwen of Llywn which ends with the sailor mourning her death as she lies “...neath the shades of the lonely ash grove.”
The most popular setting to date features the lyrics by Thomas Oliphant. The Ash Grove has served as several hymns including a Thanksgiving hymn, a Christmas tune and was also used in a setting for a Roman Catholic mass.
The ash tree itself is heavily rooted in Celtic, Welsh and even Viking history and myths. It is the second most popular tree growing beside Irish holy wells and on the Isle of Man, ash trees were said to protect the purity of springs. It is also the most common tree in England.
This particular re-imagining of The Ash Grove introduces several thematic motifs inspired by the original melody. While this work is full of hemiolas and time signature changes, the beat stays constant. Many of the hemiola filled sections are so long, it could have been scored 3/4 time for some players while at the same time also being scored in 6/8 time for others. Since the different meters following these sections depended on one time signature over the other for a smooth transition, it is easier to read as long hemiolas.
Playful and full of folly, this Ash Grove setting does not focus on the almost always mournful lyrics but on the Ash Grove itself; a place of mystery, magic, renewal, myth and hapiness. Eric Hammer loved the idea of this setting and was happy about its origins being centered on trees. I was torn on staying with the original ideas we discussed or writing something completely different after Eric left this world. In the end, I went with our conversations about The Ash Grove and the journey we were going to take together.