In 2014, a group of 35 composers and music scholars sent a letter to the Irish Times complaining about the omittance of Irish art music from a celebration of culture put on in collaboration with the Royal Irish Academy. So before we begin, as another small country with parts of its rich, cultural history that often go overlooked by the rest of the world, let us Canadians acknowledge that Ireland boasts plenty of interesting classical music.
Works by Irish composers Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, John Field, and contemporary composers Benjamin Dwyer, Arthur Duff and others find themselves frequently performed worldwide. In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, why not have Torontonians check out an Irish composer they’ve never listened to before? It’s a thought.
Art music aside, some of the most-performed Irish works (and most-beloved) consist of hundreds of beautiful folk song arrangements, with none more beloved than “O Danny Boy.” A song that can reduce even the most sober audiences to tears when used as an encore by the great divos and divas of the opera world, below we present an examination of some famous renditions of this timeless lullaby.
Placido Domingo & Itzhak Perlman
Who can resist that Spanish tinge Domingo brings to this Irish classic? The evenness of tone and passion Domingo brings to his rendition of “O Danny Boy”, with gleaming high A’s and obbligato violin played by none other than the great Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, is delightful if a bit over-the-top (and perhaps not entirely authentically Irish but so be it).
In Renée Fleming’s youtube introduction to her performance of this on her album, Guilty Pleasures, the great American diva explains that this is a piece that has always reminded her of her childhood, alluding to the nostalgia “O Danny Boy” brings so many. And with her oh-so-expressive Metropolitan Opera diction, those pipes have never called more passionately.
Matthew Polenzani and Ken Noda
All joking aside, this is the most touching rendition I have ever heard of “O Danny Boy.” Polenzani stands leaning against the piano in a live performance in New Jersey with pianist Ken Noda, who plays a delicate, beautiful arrangement of the folk song. Polenzani, a tenor of endless vocal resources, currently appearing as Idomeneo at the Metropolitan Opera, sings with touching simplicity. He flips into his voix mixte instead of belting the high notes of the folk song, capitalizing on the childish, innocent nature of this Irish lullaby. This is not only one of the most beautiful renditions of this piece you will find, but one of the most beautiful performances of anything in recent times that one can find on the internet. Give it a listen to add some heartbreak to your day.
The King’s Singers
A folk song arrangement wouldn’t be a folk song arrangement without at least one all-male British choral rendition. The King’s Singers are the crème de la crème of a capella ensembles, and their rendition of “O Danny Boy” boasts exquisite blend, diction, and heart.
This Nashville, Tennessee-born singer begins his rendition of “O Danny Boy” with a preamble about his father, demonstrating how for so many, this song evokes memories of childhood. Johnny Cash sings in his traditional speak-singing way, his low baritone rumbling peacefully along with his guitar, with female backup singers oo-ing and ah-ing behind him. Gotta love it.
For me, this is the rendition that started it all. Swedish Chef, Animal and Beaker team up as the “Leprechaun Brothers,” green berets, beige turtlenecks and all. They struggle with their text but know that the words, “Oh boy oh boy… oh Danny,” are certainly in there somewhere. Their high notes could be better, but they at least understand how effortful the range in this piece can be for untrained singers, something unusual for a folk song. By the end of the performance, the three muppets have dissolved into tears. It is a sad song, after all.