Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee”: Haunting Sounds From Inside the Piano

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

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

4 thoughts on “Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee”: Haunting Sounds From Inside the Piano”

  1. Wow, eerie stuff. I’m always amazed at how much experimentation was going on in music in early 20th century times, Ives, Antheil, Varese, Cowell, and of course the 2nd Viennese School. Thanks for featuring experimental music.


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