The »Londonderry air«

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

To appease certain non-musical friends, I propose here to set down all I know or can deduce about the Londonderry air. I first heard the air in Stanford’s Irish rhapsody in D minor, included in the programme of a Hallé Concert at Manchester in 1904 or 1905, conducted by Hans Richter. Some years later I heard the rhapsody again at Queen’s Hall. Although the beauty of the melody was remarked at the time, nobody seemed inquisitive, and I for a little while accepted a leg-pulling suggestion of an Irish friend that it was by Stanford out of Parry. The popularity of the Londonderry air is undoubtedly concurrent with the musical activities of the BBC, whose artists have played it times without number: until now it takes an equally prominent place in the repertoire of that superb artist John McCormack and of the most lowly street singer.

Yet the origin of the Air still eludes us. My own opinion is that it is of no great age, and this because the leading note, the seventh, is sharp and not flat, as is found in most traditional airs. I have not noticed this reasoning expressed elsewhere, though the most interesting article on the history of the air, so far as is known, appears in the last issue of the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. In the article Miss Anne G Gilchrist tells us that the air was first printed in a volume of Irish Airs collected by George Petrie and published in Dublin in 1855.

It is inscribed ‘name unknown’, but Petrie in his notes says that the melody reached him from a Miss Jane Ross, of New Town, Limarady, Co Derry, who had collected others and forwarded them to Petrie. The strange thing is that she made no comment about this Londonderry air other than that it was ‘very old’. But is it, in fact, very old? What makes me and others doubt its alleged old age is that the melody comes before us full grown and developed: it has not, and to our knowledge, never has had, any variants. Of equal significance is the fact that the melody first appeared unattended by the usual story in verse; moreover, it is seen not to fit any Irish metre. Ballad writers have since endeavoured, with varying success, to set the melody to words.

The only conclusion I reach is that some person of name unknown did write the lovely and immortal melody called the Londonderry air. Such single inspirations are not unknown in music: and in this case I venture to suggest that the inspiration came to Jane Ross, and that shyness alone robbed her of fame1.

  1. No-one else appears to have advanced this theory. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, February 1935, p. 395