Reviving Eleanor Rigby

This year’s Macomber Spring Show (7pm on Saturday, April 9) reflects the diverse musical interests of our members and staff, featuring the Beatles, Taylor Swift, AC/DC, Walk the Moon, Hank Williams, and John Williams, as well as an Irish hornpipe, a jazz standard, a devotional song, several classical compositions, a camp song, two original compositions, and two ballet pieces. Most of the numbers originated directly from member interests, often with nurturing, encouragement, and inspiration from staff members. Each had its own genesis. Here is the story of the organic manner in which I, a musician staff member, worked with the talents and interests of Macomber members to help develop two of these Spring Show numbers: a “Norwegian Wood” medley, and “Eleanor Rigby.”

A few months ago, Margaret, 16, wanted to branch out from the traditional Irish music that she had been playing on the flute, often with my accompaniment on guitar. We started going through a book of Beatles songs in the music room. I played her a few songs from my favorite albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, including “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “I’m Looking Through You,” and “Norwegian Wood.”  These songs all have memorable melodies, and have been a treasured part of my musical life ever since I first heard them when I was about Margaret’s age. Margaret enthusiastically learned the songs on the flute and we have enjoyed playing them together.

As the Spring Show approached, we started thinking about whether we might like to perform one of these songs in the show. We had played a medley of traditional Irish tunes in the Winter Show, and wondered if we might be able to put together another medley including some of these Beatles songs. “Norwegian Wood” was in the same key as one of our favorite Irish tunes: “Staten Island Hornpipe.” So, we ended up combining both tunes in a medley for the show, and adding a third tune: our own variation on the “Staten Island Hornpipe” in a minor key that Margaret named “Ghost Island Hornpipe.”

Another Beatles song that Margaret and I enjoy playing is “Eleanor Rigby.” The minor key reminds me of some the Irish tunes I play on the cittern--a big sibling to the mandolin. Its tuning emphasizes drone notes, lending it an evocative archaic feeling that complements Paul McCartney’s melody. So I brought in my cittern and began accompanying Margaret’s flute on this song.

After playing “Eleanor Rigby” for a couple weeks, Margaret and I thought this might also be a candidate for the Spring Show. George Martin’s brilliant arrangement for the Beatles features only a string quartet accompanying Paul McCartney’s singing. Could we possibly add these string parts to a Spring Show performance? It wouldn’t be the first time we pulled off a Beatles instrumental arrangement: for the last Winter Show, Beatles aficionado member Ben, then 15, wrote a great arrangement of “All You Need is Love” for a variety of instruments for which we had players.

To help us figure out what we could do with “Eleanor Rigby,” Ben now brought in an amazing book containing the complete scores to every Beatles song, including the “Eleanor Rigby” string quartet parts. He also played us a recording of the string parts alone. The string parts looked doable: the violin parts are mostly repeated quarter notes, and the song has only two chords (rare for any song, especially the Beatles)--C and E minor--that vary by only a single note. Therefore, I realized that two players could play “E” and “G” throughout the entire song!

We are lucky to have a few talented string players among the Macomber members. Laura, 6, has been playing violin about a year. Maggie, 9, has been playing a little longer. Both are serious students and enjoy performing. (They are playing a duet in the show.) I asked Laura and Maggie if they would like to try playing these repeated-note violin parts. They both agreed.

We are also fortunate to have Zlatomir, an internationally acclaimed cellist, as a member. I knew that he would be perfect for the critical cello part that anchors the string accompaniment. He also eagerly agreed, saying that he loved the song and would be happy to play with us. I photocopied the “Eleanor Rigby” score from Ben’s book, cut out the cello lines and pasted up a one-page cello part for Zlatomir to play.

Mark, the staff member who does the hard work of organizing and producing our shows, was encouraging about adding “Eleanor Rigby” to the show with the three string players I had recruited. He suggested that we try to include more members as performers, and so recruited a guitar, a keyboard player, and vocalists.

Two weeks before the show, we had our first run-through with the players who were present that day, including the vocalists, Laura on violin, and the guitar and keyboard players. I filled in the cello part and some of the missing string parts on the cittern. I helped Laura as she concentrated on playing her part. Mark played another violin part on the guitar. Margaret played the vocal melody on the flute. The rehearsal went amazingly well with the parts that were there, and it sounded good.

Though I have played only a bit of traditional fiddle, a few days later, I brought in my grandfather’s violin to see if I could manage the third violin part. Even after a lesson from Laura (an exacting teacher!) it was clear that I was not quite ready to play violin in public, and that playing the cittern would allow me to better fill in some of the missing string parts.

We had another rehearsal with some of the players a few days later, adding Zlatomir on cello. With the moving cello part, masterfully played, the piece suddenly came alive, with smiles all around! In subsequent rehearsals, various players participated as available, with Mark now playing the third violin part on the violin! It was really coming together.

We are all looking forward to the Spring Show on Saturday. Mark decided that “Eleanor Rigby” would be the show closer. As of today, the day before the show, members’ schedules have not allowed us to rehearse this number with the entire string ensemble, but the all parts are there. We will not hear it with all performers until the show. We hope you, too, get to hear it at the Spring Show. (If you’re reading this after attending the show, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed playing!)