Slow Air and Jig:
A Winter’s Lament and The Snowshoe Hare
by Greg Hebda
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The slow air and jig comprising this set are meant to complement each other thematically as much as they contrast in their composition.
“A Winter’s Lament” takes its inspiration from the slow, flowing melodic lines of piobaireachd, the classical music of the Highland Bagpipe, a form of music tied more to musical expressiveness and the lights and shades of phrasing than to strict metronomic ideas of tempo. While attempting something of the expressiveness of piobaireachd, the structure follows that of a two-part slow air, with the repetition and call-and-response phrases.
Written in B minor, this tune exploits the unsettled harmonies of the scale against the constant A of the drones. Firmly rooted in the low, bottom-hand notes, but with sudden leaps to the top hand, it reflects the sadness and depression that so often accompanies winter’s short, grey, cold and barren days. In a season where there’s such pressure to maintain constant good cheer, it’s perhaps more important to recognize that it’s ok not to.
“The Snowshoe Hare” is a four-part jig. In part, it’s named for the animal we associate with winter for its large weight-distributing hind feet and its seasonal color change, and some of the phrases do recall the rapid scraping of rabbit paws as they burrow. In part, it’s an in-joke with my wife about her rivalry with all the furry woodland critters who wreak havoc on her garden plants.
It’s a much more lively and spirited tune than the first, each bar recalling some other part of the tune before jumping off in a new direction. If the harmonies are more consonant, that’s because it’s written in A. But as with winter, there’s a fundamental ambiguity present. Is it in a “happy sounding” major key or a “sad sounding” minor key? The scale available in A on the Highland Bagpipe is mixolydian (essentially, the major scale, but with a minor 7th). But without ever hearing the third note in the scale, it could just as well be dorian (the minor scale, but with a major sixth). “The Snowshoe Hare” uses every note in the scale but the third, and so it never resolves, never roots itself in either.
Greg Hebda lives outside of Chicago with his wife, his son, and his bagpipes.