The Power of Theme Songs

Throughout music history, popular tunes have formed the basis of arrangements, fantasias, and variation suites.

No, this is not going to be an article about movie soundtracks. 

Throughout music history, popular tunes have formed the basis of arrangements, fantasias, and variation suites. Once a melody becomes well known, demand for it becomes widespread; however, musicians and connoisseurs alike don’t want to hear the same simple thing over and over again. Thus is born the arrangement: for the delight of the listener, to show off the technique of the performer, or the invention of the composer. Let’s look at a few examples from composers of the past 500 years.

Traditional Spiritual “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”

Instead of starting with the older examples, I’d like to showcase something that might surprise my readers: the traditional spiritual “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” Virtuosic German countertenor Andreas Scholl has recorded several stunning arrangements of this spiritual. Here you have music of the American folk tradition of the 19th century meeting a classically trained singer: in this recording, Scholl is accompanied by an early baroque style archlute but playing a very modern semi-blues accompaniment. This version uses a bit more of a traditional harmonic arrangement, with an orchestral touch—I think I prefer it.

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Modern Orchestral Arrangements of Folk Tunes

In the modern era, composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger have taken traditional folk tunes and turned them into orchestral fantasias. William’s “Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’” is a worthily famous example, while Grainger’s “Country Gardens” has a delightful fair-ground bounce and pomposity to it. A very simple example of a period arrangement of “Greensleeves” can be heard played by yours truly here.

Scholl’s rendition of the English folk tune “Down by Salley Gardens” is also a beautiful interpretation of folk pathos, albeit on much more wistful lines. Arvo Pärt’s Estonian lullaby arrangement is not to be missed either! 

“Browning,” or “The Leaves Be Green”

Ok, now jump back five hundred years to my personal specialty in music. The Renaissance was no exception. Numerous popular tunes were arranged with incredible creativity to create new masterworks with very little resemblance to the original themes they incorporated. 

William Byrd took a couple of measures of an Elizabethan tune and created a five-part viol variation on it, with the tune being repeated over and over again by different parts in different ways, sometimes as the actually melody, other times as the bass or an inner voice. The King’s Singers’ arrangement to commemorate Byrd’s 400th anniversary reintroduced the sung theme for context at the beginning so you can hear what the following music is based on. And at the end, they enter again using Byrd’s music: “The Leaves be Green” is also known as “Browning” from the lyrics that follow the title, “The leaves be green, the nuts be brown…”

“Mille Regretz”

The last piece is from the early Renaissance. Starting life as a French love song, “Mille Regretz’s” simple melody and four-voice harmony continued in countless versions, with new texts. It even became the basis of a Mass setting by the Spanish composer Christobal de Morales—see if you can spot the melody in the Kyrie! Elam Rotem has a neat episode on this piece for those interested in 20 minutes of nerdy music analysis.

So, there you have a few examples of “theme songs” which you probably were not expecting when you clicked on the title of this article. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed hearing familiar tunes in a new light; and hopefully you’ve also discovered some new tunes to keep an ear out for variations on: a little respite in this “world of woe” as we look for glimpses of “that bright world to which” we go.

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles explaining great works of music “in a nutshell.” 


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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