Tam O'Shanter Overture

From Wind Repertory Project
Malcolm Arnold

Malcolm Arnold (trans. John P. Paynter)

This work bears the designation Opus 51.

General Info

Year: 1955 / 1991
Duration: 8:20
Difficulty: VI (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Orchestra
Publisher: Carl Fischer Inc.
Cost: Score and Parts - $95.00   |   Full Score - $20.00


Full Score
C Piccolo I-II
Flute I-II
Oboe I-II
English Horn
Bassoon I-II
E-flat Soprano Clarinet
B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III
E-flat Alto Clarinet
B-flat Bass Clarinet
E-flat Contra-Alto Clarinet
B-flat Contrabass Clarinet
E-flat Alto Saxophone I-II
B-flat Tenor Saxophone
E-flat Baritone Saxophone
B-flat Cornet I-II-III
B-flat Trumpet I-II
Horn in F I-II-III-IV
Trombone I-II-III
String Bass
Percussion I-II, including:

  • Bass Drum
  • Bells
  • Crash Cymbals
  • Snare Drum
  • Suspended Cymbal
  • Tam-Tam
  • Tenor Drum
  • Triangle
  • Vibraphone
  • Whip
  • Wood Block
  • Xylophone


In Parts:

  • Piccolo, m.154: Quarter notes should be dotted
  • B-flat Tenor Saxophone, m.286 (at square BB): Missing time signature

Program Notes

Tam O'Shanter (not to be confused here with the Scottish woolen cap) is the title and hero of a 1790 poem by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). He is a drunken farmer who, while riding home late from Ayr, in a stormy night, disturbed a witch's party in the haunted church of Alloway. The hags pursued him to the keystone of the bridge over the Rriver Doon, but had to stop there as they could not cross running water. One witch, however, plucked the tail from his mare, Maggie. The poem concludes with the following admonition:

Now, wha' this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o'er dear.
Remember Tam o'Shanter's mare.

- Program Note adapted from Wikipedia

Tam O’Shanter Overture is based on the famous narrative poem by Scotland’s Robbie Burns. While the hero, a hard-drinking farmer from Shanter is in town one market-day, wags clip the tail of his horse. To explain the missing tail to his superstitious wife he concocts a wild story.

This overture, written in 1955, depicts Tam imbibing to excess in Ayr. Eventually he climbs on his horse Maggie for a desultory ride home in the pre-dawn dark. He happens upon a lighted church and secretly watches a band of witches cavorting to their master’s bagpipes. One, wearing a too-short shirt (cutty-sark), pleases Tam so well that he cries out “Weel done, cutty-sark!”, voiced here on solo trombone. Instantly all is dark, and the hellish legion pursues him. If he reaches the bridge he is safe, for fiends cannot cross running water. He spurs Maggie toward home at top speed, but the vengeful hags are close on his heels approaching the middle of the bridge over the River Doon. In the furious climax, a witch springs to seize him, but too late -- all she gets is Maggie’s tail. Tam arrives safely at home, but faces one last peril, heard in the four closing measures, when his shrewish wife reacts poorly to his account of the evening.

- Program Note from The Desert Winds concert program, 17 December 2016

Tam o’Shanter is dedicated to Michael Diack, one of the composer’s publishers, and was completed in March 1955. The composer regarded Robert Burns as one of the greatest of poets and expressed the hope that his own enjoyment of the work of the remarkable Scotsman, as reflected in this music, will encourage others to read him. The overture has a well-defined program, though one’s response to it is by no means wholly dependent on the literary background. Commonly accepted as one of the poet’s finest works, Tam o’Shanter is the grimly humorous legend of a hard drinker who ignores his wife’s warning that he will one day be “catch’d wi’ warlocks” for his misdeeds. Late one momentous night, in tempest and roaring thunder, he sets out recklessly from the inn and drives his mare, Meg, on the homeward road. When they reach the haunted church, they witness a wild party of witches and warlocks. In an instant all is dark, and the hellish legion pursues him. If he reaches the bridge he is safe, for the fiends cannot cross running water. He narrowly escapes, but his gallant mare loses her tail, which had been grasped by a witch.

The overture begins slowly with string unison, forming a background for characteristic woodwind and brass quips that establish the atmosphere. Clarinets put in a “bagpipey” drone fifth; piccolo whistles a fragment of melody with a Scottish flavor; bassoons with inebriated rhythm and copious “Scotch snap” amble along; muted brass slithers in glissandi (a recurring device). Soon, with growing velocity, Tam is on his wild ride into the storm. Lightning flashes and thunder roars, with gong, cymbals, and drums much in evidence. Tam gallops harder and harder, cracking his whip. Brass and drums suddenly lead to shivering tremolos, and Tam watches the sacrilegious dance. Burns tells us that this is no new cotillion from France, “but hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels.” The Scottish character of the music is evident. “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” cries Tam, in a trombone solo that all but articulates the words -- and the devilish hunt is up. It comes to a sudden end, and there is a short scud of woodwind solos (Tam disappearing in the distance) ending in a high trilling note in the piccolo. Woodwinds, perhaps sarcastically, point to the moral of the story, and with a terrific flurry, the overture ends.

Tam o’Shanter was first performed at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert on August 17, 1955, with Malcolm Arnold conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was received with tremendous enthusiasm, and was, without doubt, the most popular novelty during the 1955 season of Promenade Concerts. The composer was at pains to point out that, whereas the earlier overture Beckus the Dandipratt is not descriptive but merely a musical impression, Tam o’Shanter is very definitely program music. John Paynter, legendary Director of Bands at Northwestern University, created the band adaptation of this work, which was published in 1991 by Carl Fischer.

- Program Note from Baylor University Wind Ensemble concert program, 1 February 2019


State Ratings

  • Florida: VI


To submit a performance please join The Wind Repertory Project

  • Georgia Tech (Atlanta) Symphonic Band (Benjamin Diden, conductor) - 5 October 2023
  • La Crosse (Wisc.) Wind Symphony (Jack C. Krauklis, conductor ) - 23 April 2023
  • Purdue University (West Lafayette, Ind.) Wind Ensemble (Jay S. Gephart, conductor) – 18 February 2022
  • Texas A&M University (College Station) Wind Symphony (Timothy Rhea, conductor) - 14 March 2021
  • Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) Symphonic Band (Kirt Saville, conductor) - 24 February 2021
  • Central Michigan University (Mount Pleasant) Wind Symphony (Christopher Chapman, conductor) - 12 November 2020
  • West Virginia University (Morgantown) Wind Symphony (Scott Tobias, conductor) - 12 November 2020
  • Ithaca (N.Y.) College Concert Band (Benjamin Rochford, conductor) – 14 October 2019
  • Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) Symphonic Band (Shawn Vondran, conductor) – 15 March 2019
  • Baylor University (Waco, Texas) Wind Ensemble (Eric Wilson, conductor) – 1 February 2019
  • Lakeshore Symphonic Band (Cedarburg, Wisc.) (Michael Zens, conductor) – 20 October 2018
  • Los Angeles (Calif.) Symphonic Winds (Stephen Piazza, conductor) – 7 October 2018
  • Concordia University (Chicago, Ill.) University Band (Richard Fischer, conductor) - 28 September 2018
  • Ohlone Wind Ensemble (Fremont, Calif.) (Tony Clements, conductor) – 6 May 2018
  • University of Iowa (Iowa City) Symphony Band (Aileen Sullivan, conductor) – 5 April 2018
  • Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisc.) Symphonic Band (Nick Keelan, conductor) – 3 March 2018
  • University of Nebraska (Lincoln) Symphonic Band (Anthony Falcone, conductor) – 7 December 2017
  • Arkansas State University (Jonesboro) Wind Ensemble (Timothy Oliver, conductor) – 28 September 2017
  • Indiana University (Bloomington) Symphonic Band (Eric M. Smedley, conductor) – 7 February 2017
  • The Desert Winds (Las Vegas, Nev.) (Thomas G. Leslie, conductor) - 17 December 2016 (2016 Midwest Clinic)
  • State University of New York, Potsdam, Concert Band (James T. Madeja, conductor) – 19 November 2016

Works for Winds by This Composer