If you listen to Henry Cowell’s The Banshee without the benefit of seeing how the sound is being produced, you might never guess that it is music written for the piano. In fact, it is a piece which requires no piano bench, bypasses the ivories all together, and moves inside the piano to reveal a haunting new sonic landscape.
At the time of its completion in 1925, The Banshee, and other works by Cowell, seemed to redefine the nature of music itself. Henry Cowell (1897–1965), an American avant-garde experimentalist, was a kindred spirit of Charles Ives, and influenced a host of composers, including Lou Harrison, George Antheil, John Cage, and George Crumb. While Ives was busy concocting his striking musical collages in New England, Cowell, a native of California, was experimenting with tone clusters (a fist-on-the-keyboard technique which European composers such as Béla Bartók and Alban Berg asked permission to adapt), and a “string piano” technique, in which the instrument’s strings are played directly.
The composer explained the title’s connection to Celtic mythology:
A Banshee is a fairy woman who comes at the time of a death to take the soul back into the Inner World. She is uncomfortable on the mortal plane and wails her distress until she is safely out of it again. The older your family, the louder your family banshee will wail, for she has had that much more practice at it.
In The Banshee, we find ourselves surrounded by a chorus of wailing, otherworldly voices. For a moment, an errant, tremolo strand seems to drift in from Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. Conceived in the early years of the twentieth century, this cinematic music set the stage for spine-chilling horror film scores to come.
- Cowell: The Banshee, Chris Brown Amazon
Featured Image: “Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland” (1825), Thomas Crofton Croker