The Litany of the Saints: Musical Quotations and Influences in the Music of Tommie Potts.

Chopin and 'The Pigeon on the Gate'


In a letter written to me dated July 1985, Potts alerted me to a further example of musical borrowing:

Another experience which deeply impressed me was when I first heard a Chopin record. I always ‘liked’ to play an air and finish with a dance tune.

In one of his compositions (I don’t remember the title) which I understand, however, is written in G sharp major, I try to play his wondrous variations ‘running it’ into the ‘Pigeon on the Gate’ reel in G; and for me it is in order. [Potts’ Correspondence, item 12 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

Potts was unable to be more specific about the Chopin piece, and a search did not reveal the original source. For that matter, his reference to the piece being in G sharp major is an error since his introduction to ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’ is in a ‘minor mode’, and, at any rate, Chopin does not use the key of G sharp major for any of his piano pieces. The four piano pieces in G sharp minor (a Polonaise, an Etude, a Prelude, and a Mazurka) are not related to the Potts piece. The important thing here, however, is his reference to both pieces being ‘in G’. This is his way of referring to the overall ‘modal feel’ of the music, and it is evident that by playing through that Chopin ‘variation’ which attracted him initially he is inspired musically to move into his own setting of ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’ which continues to explore the same mode. We will find further evidence of this approach in a later example of musical borrowing (again from Chopin) where we will be in a position to compare the original with the Potts development. As it stands, Illustration 7 show the introductory section in ‘free rhythm’ which precedes ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’ on the ‘Domestic Tapes’ (tape 2, track 2, item 6). The extent to which such borrowings have influenced Potts’ music may be seen in the opening bar of his ‘Yellow Tinker’ reel which uses the same downward phrase before moving into a typical traditional motif with the characteristic triplet (or ‘bow treble’ as it is sometimes termed by traditional fiddlers). Illustration 8 show the relevant bars from both reels.


illustration 7

Illustration 7. Potts' 'Pidgeon on the Gate' (opening bars) with an introduction in 'free rhythm' influenced by Chopin


Before leaving this example, I wish to point out one further connection that illustrates the degree to which different pieces are related in Potts’ mind. This is something that he mentions in the same letter quoted from earlier, and he is following on directly from his reference to ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’:

Another tune to be somewhat involved in this way is - as I try to play it – ‘The Bunch of Keys’ reel. Albeit very remote, there is some link between the two ‘thinkings’. [Potts Correspondence, item 12 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

The ‘link between the two thinkings’ is indeed remote if Potts’ ‘Pigeon on the Gate’ is compared directly with his ‘Bunch of Keys’. This link is revealed to some extent, however, in ‘Domestic Tape’ 1, track 1, item 7 where he plays the air ‘An Raibh tú ag an gCarraig?’ and moves from that into the reel ‘The Bunch of Keys’ without a break. The opening of Potts’ setting of the air is given in Illustration 9, and the same motif that opens his ‘Yellow Tinker’ and his ‘Pigeon on the Gate’ (see Illustration 8) reveals itself (see the bracketed motif in Illustration 9). Interestingly enough, this motif occurs in the mainstream traditional setting of the air and is not an insert by Potts. Whether this motif simply ‘followed on’ from his Chopin-influenced introduction to ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’, or whether an actual motif in the Chopin original reminded him of a related motif within his own tradition, it is not possible to say without having the Chopin source. Nonetheless, a similar instance in another Chopin-inspired motif, which we deal with presently, indicates that the latter is more likely. At first glance, the equation of this motif in both reels and in the air may appear somewhat arbitrary, but bearing in mind the relationship noted by Potts himself between his settings of ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’ and ‘The Bunch of Keys’ along with the pairing by him of the air and the latter reel on the ‘Domestic Tapes’, the connection must appear justified. A final clue to the interconnection of such motifs with certain ‘modal feelings’ is given in his commentary on the initial draft of the ‘Catalogue of Audio-Visual Recordings’ (see Ó Súilleabháin 1987) that I gave him in July 1985. Having identified the reel as ‘The Bunch of Keys’, he remarks on the coupling of air and reel as follows:

In the key of the air, the said reel followed harmoniously from it.
[Potts Commentary, p.11 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

We will have further occasion to return to the repetition of motifs in Potts’ music and the bearing that outside influences has had in certain instances.


illustration 8

Illustration 8. 'The Yellow Tinker' and 'The Pigeon on the Gate' - the opening bars of the Potts setting compared



Illustration 9. The opening of Potts' setting of the air 'An Raibh Tú ag an gCarraig' with the possible Chopin-related motif bracketed