The popular march tune ‘Lilliburlero’ originated in the 17th century. Henry Purcell printed it in his anthology Musick’s Handmaid (1689), calling it ‘a new Irish tune’, but the tune itself may have been around much earlier – it first cropped up in print in a collection published in London in 1661, set to the words, ‘There was an old man of Waltham Cross’. But by 1689 it had become indelibly associated with the wars between England and Ireland, after the Catholic King James II abdicated and fled England, leaving his daughter Mary and her Dutch Protestant husband William III to claim the English throne. James tried to get his crown back by enlisting the help of Catholic supporters in Ireland, but his troops were decisively defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. The original words of ‘Lilliburlero’ satirise James’s Irish Catholic supporters. The catchy tune has ever since had strong military associations. During the Second World War, it was adopted by the BBC for its programme Into Battle, and later became the signature tune of the World Service.
In 2007 Richard Rodney Bennett took ‘Lilliburlero’ as a theme for a set of variations for two pianos. This year he reworked that piece for full orchestra, especially for today’s Proms performance. The piece opens and closes with the full tune, and in between come six variations, some slow and mysterious with rippling, luscious-sounding harmonies, others faster, with ‘perpetual motion’, but the tune is always recognisable, even if it appears in distorted or fragmentary versions. Variation 3 is quite jazzy in style.
Programme note © Wendy Thompson