Three Kentucky Sketches

By John O’Reilly

If you are looking for a piece for your second-year band students that is not on the festival repertoire list but has the musical quality to be, Three Kentucky Sketches is a great choice. It is easily accessible to young players, but musically sophisticated enough to be challenging for any performer or conductor and engaging for any audience, making it an ideal choice for a young band to take to festival.

When I found this piece buried in my school’s music library, I noticed that it was not on any repertoire lists that I knew of. I was unable to find as much as a vague program note while researching it, so I did a little research on the history of Kentucky instead and found a perfect story that pairs well with this piece. Almost everything in the analysis below is my interpretation of the piece with no direct knowledge of John O’Reilly’s inspiration or intent that went into the composition.

I find this exciting because another conductor might have an entirely different idea of what this piece means. I see the movements as three chapters in story of old Kentucky. Another conductor might see them as three pictures. They might even choose a painting or photograph to represent each movement (this could be a fun activity for students). Any interpretation can be just as good as long as there is a distinct image in the mind of the conductor and performers for each distinct movement. One thing that O’Reilly is very clear about is that there are three separate movements, not one continuous piece. Three sketches, not one picture.

About the Composer

John O’Reilly is a prolific composer with a gift for writing quality literature for all levels of difficulty. He has published more than 380 compositions and contributed to the Accent on Achievement and Yamaha Band method books. O’Reilly attended the Crane School of Music, State University of New York at Potsdam, and he studied composition with Robert Washburn, Arthur Frackenpohl, Charles Walton, and Donald Hunsberger.

About the Music

An opening fanfare announces the arrival of the first pioneers to the Kentucky frontier, a rhythmically interesting second movement meditates on the untouched wilderness, and an adventurous closing movement captures the spirit of brave pioneers like Daniel Boone. Three Kentucky Sketches is a concert band work packed with colorful imagery that is enjoyable for the audience and appropriately challenging for second year band students.

Historical Background

The following excerpt from Stories of Old Kentucky by Martha Grassham Purcell describes the adventurous spirit of Daniel Boone when he explored the Kentucky wilderness, witnessed its dangers, and then brought his family to settle there anyway:

Boone was in every way a typical backwoodsman. His education was limited to an imperfect knowledge of the “three R’s,” gained in the rude school cabin of round logs, puncheon seats, and dirt floor. Ever the solitude of the sylvan forests was far more enjoyable to him than the refinements of civilization.

In 1755 he was married to Rebecca Bryan, who with him shared much of the danger and hardships of frontier life.

In 1769, yielding to the siren song sung by John Finley of the far-famed cane land with its fertile soil, towering mountains, limpid streams, and rich meadowlands where the spoils of the chase were venison, bear, and buffalo, Boone left his family and friends on the Yadkin in North Carolina and came with Finley and four others to explore this marvelous land of “Kentuckee.”

Reaching the Red River, five miles from its junction with the Kentucky, these pioneers pitched their camp and from June until December reveled in the delights of hunting and exploring in this Eden of the wilderness; but one day, near Christmas, Boone and a companion named Stewart, while out hunting, were captured by the Indians and for six days and nights were marched and guarded. At length, believing their captives were contented, the savages relaxed their watchfulness, yielded to sleep, and Boone and Stewart escaped. Upon their return to camp they found it plundered and their companions gone. What became of them Boone never knew.

Soon after, Boone and Stewart were surprised by meeting Squire Boone, a brother of Daniel, and another man from North Carolina. A few days later Stewart was shot and scalped; the man who came with Squire Boone tired of the perils and returned home. The two brothers were left alone in the vast wilderness, hundreds of miles from any settlement and with no weapon but the trusty rifle and tomahawk to protect them from the cunning savage, the ravenous wolf, and the crafty panther. When their ammunition began to run low, Squire Boone retraced his steps to Carolina for a fresh supply, while Daniel remained alone until July, when his brother returned. Together they roamed at will, tracing the streams, hunting game, and enjoying this romantic woodland.

Having been absent from his family for three years, simply for the joys of the frontier, and having lived upon the meat of wild animals, the fruits and roots of the forest without either bread or salt, Boone returned in 1771 to the Yadkin and so thrilled all with his glowing description of this land of promise that, when two years later he started with his family to this forest, five other families and forty men accompanied them. The women riding, the children driving the cattle and hogs, with bedding and baggage strapped on pack horses, the men with trusty rifles forming both advance and rear guards, this little cavalcade started forth to conquer the wilderness. All went well for a while, but, when near the Cumberland Mountains, they were attacked by Indians, and six men were killed, among them Boone’s oldest son. Yielding to the others, Boone returned with the party to the Clinch River in southwestern Virginia, where they remained until 1774.

For twenty years Boone was a notable figure in this untried forest, prudent, calm, honest, courageous, cunning; a stranger to fear, a devotee to duty, an honored leader, he has so left his impress upon our state that the record of this period of his life is Kentucky history.

Analysis, Interpretation, and Performance Considerations

Think of the opening movement of this piece as a fanfare announcing Daniel Boone’s first arrival as an explorer in Kentucky. The brass should play with plenty of separation between notes unless slurs are written. The brass will need to balance with the woodwinds, especially in measure 4. Save some room to present a higher dynamic level for the last four measures. The final chord is a great opportunity for a young band to work on balance and tuning.

Movement II is a moderato with a completely different rhythmic feel from the Movement I maestoso. It is important that it is not taken too quickly and that the articulations are less separated than the maestoso. Think of this movement as a meditation on the wilderness of Kentucky and the spirit of the native tribes who lived there before the arrival of white settlers. Think about how the music can portray the serenity and tranquility of an untouched, undisturbed wilderness. Do not let the time signature changes in this movement scare you! Think of it as a slow 3/4 feel, occasionally dropping out the 3rd beat. If a band has worked on waltzes before, they should have no trouble playing this. The dance-like feel of this movement is part of the reason that tempo can drastically affect its feel and interpretation.

Movement III captures the adventurous spirit of Kentucky’s early pioneers, who risked their lives for the dream of being the first to settle the frontier’s fertile lands. It is a fast-moving allegro and should have a higher volume and shorter articulations like the first movement. Everyone in the band has the melody at some point. The melody parts at measure 6 and measure 13 are exactly the same, so the upper woodwinds can practice measure 6 simultaneously with the brass and low woodwinds playing measure 13. This allows the whole band to practice playing the tune with a consistent style. O’Reilly gives a hint at his intent for the phrasing of the Movement III melody in his editing. There is a little 8th note rest 4 bars into the melody, suggesting that 4-bar breathing should be used. The band should practice this melody frequently with focus on breathing, rhythm, and articulation.

Measure 22 of Movement III presents a new theme and a softer scene with pretty woodwind chords. It will be tempting for the performers to slow down the tempo here. Keep that quick allegro tempo all the way through so that the band can get a strong finish. Those pioneers didn’t retreat or disappear after all. They chartered the territory which became the “Commonwealth of Kentucky” America’s 15th state. It’s a state with a rich history and culture including Henry Clay, bourbon whiskey, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Kentucky Derby, two legendary college basketball teams, and plenty more. O’Reilly provides a lively ending with exciting rhythms, harmonies, and dynamics that would make any Kentuckian proud, so finish it strong!


Teaching Materials

Related Works

  • Jefferson County Overture by John O’Reilly
  • Kentucky 1800 by Clare Grundman
  • Kentucky Harmony by Donald Grantham
  • Nathan Hale Trilogy by James Curnow
  • Songs of Old Kentucky by Brent Karrick

Repertoire Lists

  • “Enrich the Repertoire of Your Mid-Level Band” by John Grashel, Music Educator’s Journal, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Oct., 1989), pp. 45-47. Listed as “medium” difficulty.