Harry Partch

Yankee Doodle Fantasy, for soprano, tin flutes, tin oboe, flex-a-tones & chromelodeon

    Description by Joseph Stevenson

    Early in 1944, Harry Partch (1901 - 1974) learned that the League of Composers had agreed to sponsor a recital of his compositions at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in April of that year. He rented two rooms in New York for himself and his instruments and began rehearsing musicians who were well-disposed toward him and his just intonation tuning system (often described as a 43-tone-to-the-octave system).

    Partch had built a few string instruments and reed organs that were tuned in his system. While working on the concert, he heard fellow composer Henry Brant demonstrate his virtuosity on the tin whistle and on an instrument Brant had invented, a tin whistle with an oboe mouthpiece and reed. Partch decided then to develop an idea he had had in mind for some time, a fantasy on the American Revolutionary tune "Yankee Doodle." One of the inspirations was an irritated comment, by a Southern lady of Partch's acquaintance, about a mockingbird who regularly sang outside her window. This bird had learned the first seven or so notes of "Yankee Doodle" (not the South's favorite tune, anyway) and repeated it incessantly. Of course, other mockingbirds learned it from the original singer.

    Partch drew heavily on the words to "Yankee Doodle," including some that are scarcely known today, plus a few humorous asides, for his text. Two tin whistles, chromelodeon, tin oboe, and flex-a-tone comprise the ensemble accompanying a soprano voice. The high-pitched ensemble often plays chords in close intervals, resulting in nicely in-tune difference tones. Sometimes the notes cluster up very close to each other, making a pointed treble dissonance.

    There is nothing else that sounds very much like this piece, not even other music of Harry Partch. It is full of high spirits, though when one reflects that it was written and premiered in wartime, when making fun of patriotic traditions had the potential to be quite offensive, one wonders whether Partch had more than light-hearted satire in mind. Composer/novelist Paul Bowles, reviewing the concert for the New York Herald Tribune, said it sounded like " ...a phonograph... whose turntable is doing three hundred revolutions a minute." Bowles was not far wrong.

    It was first performed at the League of Composers concert on April 22, 1944, with Ethel Luening (wife of composer Otto Luening) as the soprano soloist. It was among the Partch works recorded on acetate in 1945, in Madison, WI, by Warren Gilson.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    1995 Innova INNOVA 401
    Newport Classic 85526