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

Chopin's 'Funeral March' and 'Toss the Feathers'


Our final example is an important one in that it brings together several modes of influence on Potts’ musical thought.  It concerns a connection between his setting of the reel ‘Toss the Feathers’ and the ‘March Funébre’ slow movement of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata in B flat minor (opus 35). 

POTTS: There’s another one there.  It’s from Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ [plays slow introduction into reel – see Illustration 25] ‘Toss the Feathers’! It’s from Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ – so God help me!

MOS: But once you had finished with the slow beginning, did you make any use of the Chopin bits then?

POTTS: No! But the only thing is – I ask myself the question like your one there [hesitates] I don’t think it’s conceited of me, but now it did strike me that there was some affinity between myself and Chopin.  Because you see… in the band, in the full military band, like where the silver trumpets – and there’s one part in it, the trumpets, just the trumpets, play [plays - see Illustration 26 for speech/music interplay].
[Speech Transcriptions, p.13 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

illustration 25

Illustration 25. Potts' introduction (influenced by Chopin's Funeral March) to his setting of 'Toss the Feathers’


illustration 26

Illustration 26. Potts' demonstration of a motivic overlap between his setting of 'Toss the Feathers' and Chopin's 'Funeral March'


illustration 27

Illustration 27. The opening of the Lento movement (Marche Funebre) from Chopin's Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat minor (op.35) (Ó Súilleabháin 1987, p.325)


Video 6. Chopin Funeral March

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There are two separate points here: the slow introduction to ‘Toss the Feathers’ (Illustration 25) and the motivic connection within the reel itself (Illustration 26).  I will deal with the latter first by pointing out that Example 1 in Illustration 26 is an obvious reference by Potts to the Chopin motif in bars 7 and 8 of the ‘Funeral March’ (see Illustration 27), while Example 2 (Illustration 26), is Potts’ version of the main theme (see bars 3 and 4 of Illustration 27).  The connection between the motif which he plays from the reel (Example 3, Illustration 26) and the main theme of Chopin’s piece is somewhat clearer when that motif is examined in its full context within the actual performance (see Ó Súilleabháin 1987, Music Transcriptions 6, 7, 8 and 9, pp. 398-407).  The motif occurs at the opening of the turn (or second part, for example, bars 22 and 23 of ‘Toss the Feathers 2, Transcription 7, in Ó Súilleabháin 1987, 401) and in all cases it moves up to an F sharp or F natural in the second bar of the motif.  Illustration 28 shows the connection, therefore, between the Chopin motif and the equivalent motif in Potts’ ‘Toss the Feathers’ (bar 24).  The same illustration also shows the equivalent bar in five other setting of the reel as published by various collectors from O’Neill to Breathnach (see Illustration 18-22 in Ó Súilleabháin 1987 for full versions). 

It is evident from Illustration 28, therefore, that Potts is referring here to a motivic overlap rather than a motivic borrowing or influence.  How can he justify such a connection if this particular motif is, in fact, an essential ‘marker motif’ [ii] in all traditional settings of the reel examined? The answer to this question may be found in the other aspect of the Chopin motivic involvement mentioned above – the non-metrical introduction to the reel shown in Illustration 25, and it is to this that we now turn. 

illustration 28

Illustration 28. Chopin and Potts: the motivic overlap (as perceived by Potts) in the context of the equivalent motif in five other settings of 'Toss the Feathers'. details of additional settings of 'Toss the Feathers' are referred to in Ó Súilleabháin 1987


illustration 29

Illustration 29. A non-metrical introduction (ex.1) and link passge (ex.2) in two performances of Potts' 'Toss the Feathers' which are influenced by the Chopin 'Funeral' motif


Apart from the introduction noted in Illustration 25 (which arose out of our conversations: see Speech Transcriptions, p.13) two of the occurrences of Potts’ ‘Toss the Feathers’ on the ‘Domestic Tapes’ use brief introductions or link passages.  The two non-metrical passages in question are shown in Illustration 29, and a comparison of these examples in Illustration 25 shows that the common link is to be found in the harmonic motif: motif.  At first hearing, the connection between the slow introduction in Illustration 25 and Chopin’s piece (Illustration 27) seems somewhat obscure.  The harmonic link between the three introductions, however gives us a vital clue to the way Potts’ mind operates in this instance.  It was not so much the melodic or rhythmic dimensions of the Chopin piece, which impresses themselves on Potts, but the harmonic ingredients.  An examination of the harmonic structure of the ‘Funeral March’ shows that for the first fourteen bars (which cover the main theme, bars 3 to 6, and its subsidiary motif, bars 7 to 8 – both of which are mirrored by Potts: see Illustration 26, examples 1 and 2) the harmony oscillates between an open B flat chord (which rapidly acquires a B flat minor association with the introduction of D flat chord in the melody in bar 3, beat 4) and a chord on D flat giving the second inversion of G flat major.  The important pivotal movement of the F to G flat with every harmonic shift is reflected in Chopin’s chordal texture in that this is the only note doubled.  The morbid, hypnotic effect of this harmonic scheme is vital to the piece, and Illustration 30 shows how Potts has focussed on this harmonic element in his own music.  In order to demonstrate the connection more clearly, I have transposed the Chopin extract into D minor.

Apart from the obvious influence in the non-metrical example 2 of Illustration 30, there is an interesting carry-over of the motif – this time in melodic form – in the opening bar of the reel.  It is at this point that we can refer back to our earlier question – how can Potts justify the making of such a connection if the motif in question is already strongly and consistently present in all the various traditional settings of the reel?


illustration 30

Illustration 30. A harmonic-motif in Chopin's 'Funeral March' (op.35) as found in Potts' 'Toss the Feathers'


Some vital clues point us to the answer.  Every time the melodic form of the harmonic motif occurs in the reel, Potts invariably moves into a non-metrical 3/2 metrical format, and in at least one occurrence of the motivic overlap (Illustration 26) in every performance he also moves into 3/2 meter.  In Ó Súilleabháin 1987 (Chapter 4) I demonstrated how these 3/2 time bars play a vital role in the rhythmic alteration process [iii].  We have now discovered that these rhythmic alterations are directly linked to an indirect borrowing from Chopin, on the one hand, and to a perceived motivic overlap on the other.  Indeed, we have seen earlier in this essay how in no less than four instances, Potts’ innovative melodic alteration could be directly linked to outside borrowing.  In the present case, the connection is obviously much deeper, and the indications must lead us to the conclusion that Potts’ mood as revealed in his use of the Chopin motif in his non-metrical introduction carries through into the reel itself in such a way as to effect the metrical structure at precisely those points where this influence manifests itself.  Potts himself is unaware of the surface details of this influence within the reel.  His openness to outside influences allows him to take his own meaning from what in this instance is a Chopin ‘Funeral March’ – but for him the important influence is one of mood rather that of motif.


When I pressed him further for a more detailed explanation of how the Chopin piece affected his own playing, his response was particularly revealing – not just because of his inability to pinpoint the precise musical manifestation of this influence, but because of his description of the ‘moment of translation’ in his works: “and then, in this desire I have for music, I make some music for myself”.  Here we feel that we have approached the point where the outside influences become ‘translated’ into his own musical system in the deepest possible manner. 

POTTS: Being untrained, I’m so limited.  And we talked about sound.  And I like monks chanting and sad things.  I like minor keys.  And as you were putting that personally to me like that, it wouldn’t be so much, like, Chopin or that.  But I loved Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ you see.  And….the only way I can play it – it may be in that key, on the piano, per Chopin’s composition in D minor – but if not it doesn’t matter, see.  But ‘Toss the Feathers’ for me is in D minor.  And then in this desire I have for music, I make some music for myself.  The thing I loved in that composition of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’, and then it blended into my own.
[Speech Transcriptions, p.13 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]