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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Comparing Arrangements of Auld Lang Syne

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

‘Tis the season for “Auld Lang Syne”! Since its literary origins in the late eighteenth century, the seasonal favorite has been performed by ensembles of all sorts, from parlors and stages to the streets of Manhattan. Comparing diverse arrangements can inspire students to explore the diverse cultural and musical contexts surrounding the piece. Prepare students to analyze the four versions highlighted here by asking them to recall personal experiences hearing Auld Lang Syne: Who performed, and where? How did the audience respond? What was the purpose of the performance?

Present students with versions of the song, beginning with this early score, from 1800, and ask them what they notice and what they wonder about. Many students will recognize that it’s notated for keyboard and voice. Why is there no composer attribution? Students with piano experience may affirm that this simple arrangement is playable by keyboardists with fairly little experience. Some will notice the penciled fingering numbers; these reminders are helpful for a developing pianist, but unnecessary for an advanced performer. Notice that the piano provides a clear introduction and interlude between verses, which can shepherd voices toward a certain tonality and tempo. The voice and piano right hand double the straightforward melody. What degree of musical training might the arranger expect from the intended performers of the work? What details in the score support students’ responses?

Auld Lang Syne, John Cole, 1800

Auld Lang Syne, J.S. Cox, 1882

In Cox’s arrangement, students may notice the flute’s virtuosic cadenza, a florid introduction, and a piano accompaniment offering little melodic support. Even non-music-readers can appreciate the comparative visual complexity. Explore the complete score to appreciate how the melody weaves through the work. How might the performance and goals of this piece differ from the first?

Instrumentation provides clues to the lifestyle and stylistic preferences of a musician; why might a nineteenth century musician choose the banjo? How do Stewart’s musical innovations make each subsequent variation unique? Students may notice the beginner-friendly fingering annotations, here printed not penciled. What might this suggest about the expected performers?

Auld Lang Syne, S.S. Stewart, 1879

Auld Lang Syne Polka, Francis Rziha, 1855

Rziha’s 1855 setting begins with melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic ideas that establish a polka style before introducing the familiar melody later in the piece. Encourage students to recall examples of a musical work reborn in a new style. What might have motivated Francis Rziha to create this arrangement? What style would inspire a student’s own “Auld Lang Syne” arrangement?

These arrangements evoke “Auld Lang Syne” performances by diverse musicians, in various performance spaces, and with distinct artistic goals. Each detail was crafted to fit a particular time, place, and community. How do these historic arrangements relate to students’ experiences with “Auld Lang Syne” today?

By thinking critically about compositional choices through a close score study, young musicians are able to perform with more sensitivity and fidelity. Such comparative studies can also help young composers make choices that align with their goals and vision for a piece. For a less seasonal exploration, trace the arrangements of several patriotic songs through the Patriotic Melodies Collection or visit the Amazing Grace Collection.

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