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A Song of the Road


Listen to a performance by the Manchester Choral Society, Dan Perkins, conductor:



  • Score: $1.50 (for reproduction rights; minimum purchase of 10 required; additional charge for hard copies)
  • For SATB chorus, trumpet, and piano four hands
  • Secular text (Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • 3:30
  • Difficulty rating (1-5): 3
  • View a PDF score excerpt
  • Purchase, request full review copy or more information, etc.

Song of the Road was commissioned for the Manchester Choral Society, Dan Perkins, conductor, in honor of Myfanwy Morgan. MCS premiered by them on May 20, 2006. It has also been performed by high school honor choruses at Plymouth State University and the University of Alabama.

When the Manchester Choral Society approached me about writing a piece for a concert with the theme “Songs of Travel,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful poem “A Song of the Road” seemed like a natural text to set. For the concert, I had a solo trumpet available, rather than the flute mentioned in the poem; the trumpet’s first entrance in the piece states the English folk song “Over the Hills and Far Away,” which forms an important part of both the poem itself and my setting of it. The four-hands piano part was written in honor of the Society’s long-time accompanist, Charles Blood, and was premiered by him and his daughter, Elizabeth, also an accomplished collaborative pianist.

A Note on the Text

Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “A Song of the Road” was published in his collection Underwoods in 1887. In an earlier publication, his Edinburgh Picturesque Notes (1878), Stevenson tells the story behind this poem. Please note that a gauger or officer of excise is a tax assessor.

Below, over a stream, the road passes Bow Bridge, now a dairy-farm, but once a distillery of whisky. It chanced, some time in the past century, that the distiller was on terms of good-fellowship with the visiting officer of excise. The latter was of an easy, friendly disposition, and a master of convivial arts. Now and again, he had to walk out of Edinburgh to measure the distiller's stock; and although it was agreeable to find his business lead him in a friend's direction, it was unfortunate that the friend should be a loser by his visits. Accordingly, when he got about the level of Fairmilehead, the gauger would take his flute, without which he never travelled, from his pocket, fit it together, and set manfully to playing, as if for his own delectation and inspired by the beauty of the scene. His favourite air, it seems, was 'Over the hills and far away.' At the first note, the distiller pricked his ears. A flute at Fairmilehead, and playing 'Over the hills and far away?' This must be his friendly enemy, the gauger. Instantly horses were harnessed, and sundry barrels of whisky were got upon a cart, driven at a gallop round Hill End, and buried in the mossy glen behind Kirk Yetton. In the same breath, you may be sure, a fat fowl was put to the fire, and the whitest napery prepared for the back parlour. A little after, the gauger, having had his fill of music for the moment, came strolling down with the most innocent air imaginable, and found the good people at Bow Bridge taken entirely unawares by his arrival, but none the less glad to see him. The distiller's liquor and the gauger's flute would combine to speed the moments of digestion; and when both were somewhat mellow, they would wind up the evening with 'Over the hills and far away' to an accompaniment of knowing glances. And at least, there is a smuggling story, with original and half-idyllic features.

A Song of the Road

The gauger walked with willing foot,
And aye the gauger played the flute;
And what should Master Gauger play
But Over the hills and far away?

Whene’er I buckle on my pack
And foot it gaily in the track,
O pleasant gauger, long since dead,
I hear you fluting on ahead.

You go with me the self-same way—
The self-same air for me you play;
For I do think and so do you
It is the tune to travel to.

For who would gravely set his face
To go to this or t’other place?
There’s nothing under heav’n so blue
That’s fairly worth the travelling to.

On every hand the roads begin,
And people walk with zeal therein;
But wheresoe’r the highways tend,
Be sure there’s nothing at the end.

Then follow you, wherever hie
The travelling mountains of the sky.
Or let the streams in civil mode
Direct your choice upon a road;

For one and all, or high or low,
Will lead you where you wish to go;
And one and all go night and day
Over the hills and far away!

—RLS

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Jonathan Santore
Plymouth, NH
info@jonathansantore.com

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