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Composer offers orchestral take on 'Oil Thigh'

The “Oil Thigh” will be sung numerous times during Homecoming weekend, but only once will proud alumni have orchestral accompaniment.

[John Burge]
John Burge, a professor in the School of Drama and Music and a Juno Award-winning composer, has created an orchestral arrangement of the "Oil Thigh". The Queen's Symphony Orchestra debuted the piece on Oct. 23 at the Homecoming showcase concert at the Isabel. 

John Burge’s classical treatment of the university’s long-time fight song, performed by the Queen’s Symphony Orchestra, made its debut during the School of Drama and Music’s Homecoming showcase concert at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday night.

“The idea was to give the song a rather obvious orchestrated climax,” says Dr. Burge, a Juno Award-winning composer who has taught at Queen’s for nearly 30 years. “After a big introduction, the first verse is sung with just some of the orchestra playing. For the second verse, I add a few more instruments, and then the entire orchestra joins in the final verse and it gets rather huge at the end. There are interludes between the sung verses that modulate to different keys making the middle verse a bit lower to sing and the final chorus higher and with a more triumphant flavour.”

The idea of an orchestral arrangement of the “Oil Thigh” came up back in May as a unique addition to the Homecoming showcase concert. Dr. Burge volunteered, coming up with a three and a half minute version that now includes an introduction, interludes and a coda in addition to the traditional three verses. As he sat down to write the arrangement in the summer, Dr. Burge set out to add something original to this ubiquitous ditty.

“The actual tune is often referred to as 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' and it is one of those annoying earworms. Once you sing it a few times, it’s really hard to get it out of your system,” he says. “I didn’t want to set it so that people could sing along when they had accompaniment because that’s in fact what the Queen’s Bands already does. So I came up with a couple of additional ideas to give the accompaniment more resonance and there is a big build up before each verse is sung so you really know when the 'Oil Thigh' is coming.”

Dr. Burge dedicated the arrangement to Daniel Woolf as a small way of acknowledging the accomplishments of the current principal and vice-chancellor over the past six years.

“I just felt that as he moves into his second term, he should be really proud of where things are with Queen’s,” he says. “With the recent announcement of the $50 million endowment for the Smith School of Business and the Nobel Prize in Physics for Art McDonald, it’s just a great time to be at Queen’s.”

Dr. Burge anticipates the Queen’s Symphony Orchestra will play his arrangement of the "Oil Thigh" at future Homecoming showcases and possibly at formal events like installations. The new arrangement might also be included in events planned by the School of Drama and Music to mark Queen’s 175th anniversary.