The Banshee

Henry Cowell

The Banshee


About this work

In the late 1910s and early to mid-'20s, Henry Cowell made a study of extended techniques and sounds available on the piano, and incorporated these in a series of short compositions. One of these, The Banshee (1925), has become one of the composer's best-known works; it also manifests Cowell's longstanding interest in Irish mythology. The banshee (or banshie) is a female spirit who alerts a family to the impending death of one of its members by making a wailing sound underneath the windows of the family home. Cowell evokes this wailing sound, called "keening," by having the a pianist directly manipulate the strings of the instrument with his/her hands, at times scraping a fingernail along the strings to create an unearthly cry. Some have said that the result of this inside-the-piano technique is reminiscent of electronically generated sound. As was so often the case with him, Cowell returned to The Banshee in 1928-1929, rearranging it for piano and orchestra as the first movement of his Irish Suite.

Two players are required, one standing at the piano's crook and the other holding down the damper pedal throughout. The music, written an octave higher than it sounds, requires the player standing at the crook to stroke and pluck the interior strings in one of 12 specified ways using either the flat of the hand, the fingernails, or the flesh of the fingers. Although all the notes are indicated and the piece is in rough ABA form with specific tempo instructions, these are not easily perceived by the listener, who hears only an eerie, otherworldly shrieking and wailing.