A ghoulish duet for Halloween on Mountain Dulcimer

You may not recognize the title of this tune, “Funeral March of a Marionette,” but I bet you will know the music when you hear it. The tune was the theme music for the “Alfred Hitchcock’s Presents” television shows in the 1950’s. It is a piano suite written in 1872 by a French composer and tells the story of a marionette puppet who died tragically in a duel. I recently participated in the Nutmeg Dulcimer Festival, an on-line dulcimer festival, and took a hammered dulcimer workshop where I learned a great staccato bass line for this tune. Can’t get it out of my head. The tune is played in a minor key giving an eerie feeling which is quite fitting for Halloween. Wonder if I could arrange and play this piano suite on the mountain dulcimer? The tune is a duet, so find a playing partner and give it a try. It is a great tune with a twist in my arrangement!

Charles-François Gounod (1818 -1893) was a French composer best known for Ave Maria, based on a work by Bach, as well as his opera Faust. He wrote “Funeral March of a Marionette” as part of a suite for piano called “Suite Burlesque” while living in London 1872. It was a intended to be a satirical character parody of the music critic, Henry Chorley, for whom Gounod did not care. However the music critic died and Gounod did not have a chance to dedicate the piece to him. The work was renamed to the “Funeral March of a Marionette” with the help of his greatly amused English patron, Georgina Weldon. The piece was initially written as a solo piece for piano. Later, in 1876, Gounod made an orchestral arrangement of the piece. The “Suite Burlesque” was never completed and “Funeral March” was published as a stand alone piece.

The music tells the story of a marionette puppet who was killed in a duel (played with a dramatic roll of the piano at the beginning of the tune). A funeral procession then commences. It is a somber march played in the D minor key. During the march, some of the mourners stop off at an inn (or bar) for “refreshments” and the tone becomes upbeat and jovial. The music changes to the D major key which has a more harmonious sound. In the last part of the music, the mourners scurry and catch up with the procession just in time as the marchers make it to the “house.” The music ends with a flourish.

Playing the Tune on the Dulcimer

Although you can play the Dulcimer-1 part (DAC tuning) as a solo piece, the music is written as a duet for two dulcimer players. Dulcimer-2 or the second player has the interesting bass line — playing the notes as staccato rhythm. To accomplish this, pick or strum the individual string and then pick your left-hand finger up and off the fret to deaden the sound. It should have a hollow, clunky feeling (the opposite of everything we were taught when fretting a string). Just imagine the marionettes marching along. I tried to avoid open strings in this part of the music as it is much more dramatic when played at higher frets.

The twist to my arrangement is that one dulcimer is tuned to DAC and the second dulcimer is tuned to DAD. How is this possible? The DAC dulcimer has the melody with a mournful tone in the “First and Last Parts” while the DAD dulcimer plays the accompaniment. The DAD dulcimer player must pick only individual strings — very few chords — which match the DAC dulcimer part. In the “Middle Part” the role of the dulcimers is reversed. The DAD dulcimer carries the melody in the D Major key which is more harmonious and upbeat while the DAC dulcimer plays individual notes to match the main part. Although there is some dissonance between the two dulcimers, it largely works out. After all, it is Halloween!

A Note about Dulcimers

The music in this piece covers a very wide range of frets. It goes from the lowest note on the bass string to an “eleven” fret with Dulcimer-2 or the DAD dulcimer. With Dulcimer-1, or the DAC dulcimer, part of the tune is played at on the middle string from the sixth to ninth fret. It is very helpful to have a dulcimer which has good resonance at the higher frets. And the DAC dulcimer does not need either a “1-1/2 fret” or “8-1/2 fret.” I found that these extra frets just got in the way. However, there are plenty of “accidental” notes (sharps and flats) and you use both the “6 fret” and “6-1/2 fret.” Dulcimer-2 or the DAD dulcimer does use the “1-1/2 fret” in several places. So if you have a choice of dulcimers, I suggest perhaps selecting one which has a longer fretboard and more resonance especially at higher frets.

Abridged Music Score

The music was originally written as a solo piano piece. The Library of Congress archives the scores of old music pieces and I was able to download music arrangements for “piano with two hands” and “piano for four hands.” Both dated from the 1870’s. Both were difficult to read and also difficult to follow. Fortunately, I also located on the internet a much simpler arrangement to use for the first piece of the music. There are plenty of orchestral arrangements on the internet, too, which I skipped.

For an orchestral “movement,” the piece is considered to be a short one. For dulcimer players, however, the piece is very long. Most people are familiar with the first part of the song which is used as “Alfred Hitchcock’s Presents” theme music. The middle section of the suite is often omitted. However, this part gives contrast and character to the suite. And so, I included an “abridged” section of the music. Just enough to give a taste of what is going on. Since this is intended as a “Halloween” piece, it is not necessary to play the entire piano piece. So if you can’t quite match what I have arranged with orchestral pieces on the internet — there is a reason. I am calling it my creative license to truncate this public domain piece thus making it achievable for dulcimer players!

Here’s the music — both as jpeg images and PDF files. It is in “6/8” time so be aware of the rhythm. The tune should move along at a spritely pace, but not, too, too fast. And although the music consists primarily of individual notes, sight-reading is difficult. The arrangement does require practice. But we can do it. Perhaps later in the month our duo here in Baton Rouge might even had practiced sufficiently and aligned our schedules to record and upload a version of the music to the internet! Keep tuned! Enjoy a safe Halloween this year!

Dulcimer-1, DAC tuning

Dulcimer-2, DAD tuning

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