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

Gigli', Neapolitan Folksong, and 'New' Notes


We have already seen how at least one recording by John McCormack influences Potts’ music, but there are further examples of similar influences as the following extract from our conversations demonstrates:

POTTS: But I’ll give you an instance now of taste.  I heard James Galway playing this recently….. I forgot the name of it but it’s an Italian thing… and I heard Gigli sing this with a nice orchestral accompaniment.  It’s just to draw your attention to the ending in Gigli’s case and the ending in Galway’s.  I don’t play this thing very often – it’s like the jazz [plays].  Now you hear the ending to that.  Now all Jim Galway does is [plays].  Wasn’t that a lovely end?

MOS: Right.  But I can’t follow it completely because you understand that in a way that I don’t.  It’s a complex piece. 

POTTS: And I’ve also some of my own thing into it. 

MOS: It’s almost like an air then.  What is it?

POTTS: Its like Toselli’s Serenade.  Its one of the Nocturnes or Italian things – and another one I heard then was sung by Gigli.  It’s a Neapolitan folksong and it appealed to me – like you could say there was a similarity between the two musics… I don’t play this every day of the week, but…. [plays: see Illustration 15]

MOS: Now tell me.  Are there not pieces in those songs that you were able to work into the airs, because when you play those songs you bring in some of your own as well?

POTTS: Well I think I’ve improved on the Italian composition, putting it modestly! [Speech Transcriptions, pp10-11, see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]


Video 5. We can gain a sense of the style of Beniamino Gigli’s performance from this clip of ‘O Sole Mio’

YouTube video URL:


What is important here is the extent to which the particular idiom displayed in Potts’ ‘Gigli-inspired’ performance (Illustration 15) permeates so much of his musical expression.  I have marked particular motifs in Illustration 15, which appear in several of Potts’ airs.  One of these, ‘The Dear Irish Boy’ appears on ‘The Liffey Banks’ recording (1972, side 2, track 8) and the sleeve note by Seamus Ennis is relevant here:

‘The Dear Irish Boy’: In this well-loved old air the technique and mood-vagaries of Tommy Potts reach his peak in slow-air playing.  It will be noticed that where a phrase of the basic melody occurs plainly in its brevity it does not receive the prominence of its value as a phrase and some would therefore maintain that his music could be fully appreciated only through an acquired taste.  To my mind his is away over some of our heads and has achieved something very worthwhile.  This item is the clearest indication of that. (Ennis 1972) 


illustration 15

Illustration 15. Potts' version of a 'Neapolitan Folksong' as sung by Gigli (with borrowed motifs bracketed)


Ennis’ reference to the need for “an acquired taste” is a clear indication that he (as a traditional piper of great authority) experienced this air as being, at least to some extent, ‘outside’ of the tradition.  Certainly he would have been very familiar with the various traditional settings of this air, which was always a favourite among pipers, and he had obvious difficulty in relating the Potts setting to the traditional model.  Illustration 16 show the opening the ‘The Dear Irish Boy’ as Potts plays it on the ‘Domestic Tapes’, and Illustration 16 shows some instances of motifs from Potts’ music which may have been influenced by motifs such as those marked in Illustration 17. While these suggested motivic relationships in Illustration 17 may appear to be somewhat arbitrary – particular since Potts is not aware of any direct connection between them – the relative location of some of the pieces in question on the ‘Domestic Tapes’ may give us a vital clue to the process of inter-connected borrowing which is going on.  Tape 1, track 1, contains a sequence of pieces which includes not only ‘The Dear Irish Boy’, ‘An Raibh tú ag an gCarraig?, and ‘Julia Delaney’ (all of which figure in the motivic displays in Illustration 17), but also the ‘Neapolitan Folksong’ which we are suggesting is seminal in introducing motifs of a ‘non-traditional’ nature into Potts’ music.  Apart from that, there are also further instances of similar motivic connections on the same track, which we have not included: for example, ‘The Blackbird’.  A further point to note is that the proportion of airs to dance tunes on this track is very much different from an other track on the ‘Domestic Tapes’: while the average track might contain two or three airs, the track in question contains no less than six, excluding the ‘Neapolitan Folksong’.  In addition to that, four of these airs occur in succession, thus showing that Potts’ mood during that particular recording session was one which found expression in air-playing rather than dance tunes.  That this preponderance of airs (not to mention emotionally evocative reels such as his ‘Julia Delaney’ which breaks a succession of five airs on this track) should occur on the same track as the only occurrence of the ‘Neapolitan Folksong’ on the ‘Domestic Tapes’ is sufficient evidence to back up the suggested motivic relationships in Illustration 17.


illustration 16

Illustration 16. the opening of Potts' 'the Dear Irish Boy'


illustration 17

Illustration 17. A motif from Potts' 'Neapolitan Folksong' with some related motifs in other pieces. All references in brackets to Transcription numbers refer to Ó Súilleabháin 1987


There is, however, a second motif in the ‘Neapolitan Folksong’ that bears examination, and Illustration 18 shows a selection of possibly related motifs in other pieces.  I have demonstrated elsewhere (Ó Súilleabháin 1987, Chapter 7) how aspects of the overt ‘emotive meaning’ in Potts’ music is directly linked to specific motifs and melodic contours of a ‘non-traditional’ kind, and that these are in turn traceable to pieces of music outside of the tradition. 

Before leaving this example, however, I wish to point out that it is not just the contour or intervallic structure of these motifs which mark them apart: the matter of context is most important.  For example, in the case of the first ‘Neapolitan’ motif as show in illustration 17, I have already pointed out that its occurrence in Potts’ ‘An Raibh tú ag an gCarraig?’ is generally in keeping with a similar motif in the mainstream tradition.  As against that, the type of motivic development shown in the case of the second ‘Neapolitan’ motif (Illustration 18) introduces interval combinations that are not found in the tradition In a sense, what we have here is a slowed-up version of the type of motivic usage found in his dance tunes. 


illustration 18

Illustration 18. A second motif from Potts' 'Neapolitan Folksong' with some related motifs in other pieces


A slight digression may serve to clarify this point further.  In the 1982 video tape, Potts in talking about the ‘variations’ in his setting of the reel ‘Rakish Paddy’ referred to “those ‘new’ notes not so much in our music at all”.  Illustration 19 shows the musical context within which this comment occurred, and Illustration 20 compares the first eight bars of Potts’ ‘Rakish Paddy’ with the traditional model (as played by him).  Potts’ reference to ‘new’ notes, however, must not be taken to refer to specific notes in the examples given.  Illustration 20 shows the complex manner in which Potts keeps contact with the model, and some of these contact points have been indicated in the illustration for the first six bars.


illustration 19

Illustration 19. The reference to 'new' notes in Potts' demonstration of variation in his setting of 'Rakish Paddy'


The synchronisation of Potts’ setting with the model in the final two bars is a further example of phasing process discussed in Ó Súilleabháin (1987, Chapter 6).  There are, however, particular notes which Potts uses to open out the melodic line in such a manner as to create an untraditional sweep to the line, and these may be the ‘new’ notes to which he refers.  An example of this would be note ‘F’ in Bar 1 (Illustration 20: Potts’ setting) that occurs in the context of an F major triad shape.  A further example is the B flat in bar 2 which again occurs within a triadic pattern, this time B flat minor.  This may appear to be imposing harmonic concepts on the music, but a later discussion on ‘harmonic thought’ within Potts’ musical creativity will support the use of such terminology. 

illustration 20

Illustration 20. The first eight bars of Potts' 'Rakish Paddy' compared with the traditional model