“There are very few concertos with bagpipes,” says Robinson McClellan, which makes sense, but then again that's exactly why the young composer was contacted by David Alan Miller this past winter. The Albany Symphony Orchestra conductor, one of the country’s leading champions of new music, called looking for a work that had something to do with the British Isles and bagpipes.
“David knew I had been quite involved with Scottish bagpipe music,” says McClellan, “but I knew I couldn’t use the Highland bagpipes because they would dominate the symphony.” So McClellan, whose work includes choral, orchestral, band, and chamber music, turned to the uilleann pipes, Irish bagpipes that have a much softer sound. Uilleann (pronounced “illian”) pipes, a kind of cross between Highland bagpipes and a concertina, are played sitting down and have a larger range of notes.
Since he was using the Irish pipes, McClellan began reading vast amounts of Irish literature in search of inspiration. He knew he had found what he was looking for when he came upon an eyewitness account of the famous Flight of the Earls.
“The Flight of the Earls is a major event in Irish history,” says McClellan. “The flight marked the end of the ancient Gaelic nobility in Ireland, and began the great migration of the English and Scots into Ireland.” McClellan’s own ancestors were among the first immigrants to move from Scotland to Ulster, and in certain circles he’s still considered an outlander. “In Scotland,” he laughs, “I’m considered Irish, and in Ireland, I’m considered Scottish.”
In 1607, a pair of powerful Irish noblemen fled Ireland to seek help against the tightening grip of English domination. They intended to travel to Spain, but never made it, stopping first in France and then in Italy. “They hoped to return at the head of a triumphant army of Irish and Spanish soldiers to take back their country and drive the English out,” McClellan relates, “but they encountered one setback after another, and they ended up living out the rest of their lives in great disappointment in Rome. They’re now considered the first Irish immigrants.”
McClellan used the earls’ travels and travails to structure his piece. “The first movement is their tragic flight and their series of disappointments,” he says. “The middle of the concerto is the gradual transformation to where Ireland is today, and the ending is an upbeat reflection of how successful Ireland is now with a booming economy. It’s now a place where people are no longer leaving, but trying to immigrate to.”
McClellan’s “Bagpipe Concerto on Old Irish Themes: Flight of the Earls” will have its world debut when the Albany Symphony Orchestra presents a “Musical Journey to Ireland, Scotland and Britain” on three consecutive nights in three towns: September 27 at the Canfield Casino in Saratoga Springs, September 28 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and September 29 at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (518) 465-4755; www.albanysymphony.com.