Carolan’s Concerto – Another Irish Tune for Mountain Dulcimer

Of all the Irish tunes which I have I have listened to, “Carolan’s Concerto” composed by the blind Irish harper, Turlough O’Caralon, is my favorite. I first heard the tune played by a pair of musicians on the Irish Uilleann pipes, termed the national bagpipe of Ireland. With the Uilleann pipes, “Carolan’s Concerto” was melodic and uplifting. The melody seemed to flow along like a meandering brook which changed course, cadence and texture as it flowed. The tune is full of surprises, and unlike most fiddle tunes played on the dulcimer, the melody doesn’t repeat throughout the song. Wow, wouldn’t it be great if I could play this tune on the mountain dulcimer. My success with arranging “Carolan’s Draught” gave me inspiration to give this tune a try. And I am pleased that my arrangement for “Carolan’s Concerto” turned out so well. It is a fingerpicked arrangement played primarily across the strings and is really not that difficult to play. It just takes practice.

Turlough O’Caralon was a blind Irish harper who lived from 1670  to 1738. Of the many tunes which he composed, my favorite is “Carolan’s Concerto,” also known as “Mrs. Power” and “Mrs. Poer” and “Mrs. Power or Coorheen.” Irish harpers, such as O’Carolan, traveled the countryside, staying in homes of wealthy landowners. The musicians often wrote tunes in honor of the occupants. One source stated that O’Caralon composed many of his tunes while fiddling around with the buttons on his coat while riding to a patron’s home. This tune is also called Mrs. Power/Mrs. Poer, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Keating. She was the wife of David Power of Coorheen and the tune was probably written when O’Carolan stayed there in the early 1700’s. O’Carolan also wrote a tune for her daughter and this tune is called “Fanny Power.” And he wrote a tune for the master of the house, “David Power,” an Irish air or planxty. This tune’s title is identified by a musicologist as David Power of Coorheen House, on the shore of lake Louhgrea, County Galway. This is the house which was rebuilt about 1860 on the property replacing the original one, according to one reference.

O’Carolan was influenced by Italian Baroque music and he was familiar with ‘modern’ Italian composers such as Vivaldi and Corelli. O’Carolan apparently admired Corelli and the tune “Carolan’s Concerto/Mrs. Power” shows the influence of this composer. In addition, O’Carolan was familiar with the music of the Italian violinst and composer Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) who was then living in Dublin. In an interesting story, according to

“as retold by Grattan Flood (1906) and Williamson (1976) among others (and critically examined by Donal O’Sullivan), of an incident between O’Carolan and the famous Italian violinist and composer Gemeniani, who was then resident in Dublin. Hearing of O’Carolan’s musical skill and wishing to test him, Geminiani sent him a piece of Italian music which he had altered to include very subtle and changes and flaws. Upon being presented with the music through an intermediary O’Carolan listened to the piece and praised it but said, in Irish, “Here and there it limps and stumbles.” He instructed the correction of the piece and had it sent back to Geminiani who is then said to have declared him il genio vero della musica.”

Playing the Tune on the Dulcimer

I first heard “O’Carolan’s Concerto” played by musicians on Irish Uilleann pipes. With these pipes, the bellows are inflated by the action of a person’s elbow rather than blowing into the pipes. The sound is sweeter and quieter than other bagpipes. The pipers played this tune at a brisk tempo; it was melodic and uplifting. I have since listened to other arrangements which were played at a slower pace.

I use a unique dulcimer for playing this tune. This dulcimer does not have sound holes on the top sound board. Instead the sound vibrations go out holes in a false bottom of the dulcimer towards the audience rather than up. Since the sound goes out, it is difficult to hear yourself playing in a crowd. But the dulcimer is great for individual playing. While this is definitely not a “jamming” dulcimer, it is wonderful for fingerpicking and, thank goodness, I have found a use for it.

The dulcimer has a shorter, ebony fretboard and individual notes sound crisp — almost like a harp. Your fingers easily slide up and down over the frets and the strings are raised slightly making it great for playing the many hammer’on’s and pull-off’s which can be incorporated into this arrangement. I use a music stand to hold the dulcimer so it doesn’t slip and slide around on my lap.

As with “Carolan’s Draught,” I arranged the tune an octave lower than the melody on the top staff. This allows me to play the tune “across the strings” going from an open fret on the bass string to the fifth fret on the melody string. I found this tune published in the Key of D in several sources so I arranged the tune in the DAD tuning, Key of D on the dulcimer. You do not need a 1-1/2 fret to play this arrangement. In fact, I found that this extra fret just gets in the way.

Since this is a fingerpicked arrangement, there is no need to strum across all the strings except in one or two places. Play individual notes. Strumming “muddies” the melody. The rhythm and tempo of the song should be consistent. However, the melody alternates between eighth notes and quarter notes — you must pay attention to the beat of the song. And I use lots of hammer-on’s and a few pull-off’s to give a smooth feel to the many “runs” of notes in the melody which are played up and down the fretboard.

The tune is so melodic, there is no need or reason to play chords. However, I added chords above the top staff so that a second person can play a back-up part. I included chords which sound pleasing to me; you might find that other ones work better for your ears. I did place the chords on the first and third beats of the tune give a sense of rhythm.

Practice and practice more

This tune requires alot of practice. Since the melody doesn’t repeat, it means learning a relatively long tune — that is for dulcimer players. I learned the song in sections, playing several measures at a time until I memorized these and then moving on to another section. And I worked on various fingerings to play smoothly. It is largely “muscle memory.”

With practice, Carolan’s Concerto is a rewarding Irish song to learn and play. Once I get started, I can play it for several hours at a time without tiring! I hope you will enjoy it, too.


This photo is somewhere in England; taking during a trip which my son took with his boy scout troop about 15 years ago. Not at all in Ireland — but I then don’t have any Irish photos. However, this stately building reminds me of the beauty of that part of the world.

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