A Lament for Arthur O'Leary

A Lament for Arthur O'Leary

The first composition teacher of Charles Villiers Stanford, the ‘father’ of the renaissance in English classical music, came from Tralee. In a review of a new book on Arthur O’Leary (1834–1919), Raymond Deane argues that a new assessment of Irish classical music history is an urgent necessity.

 width=339 height=313 /> </p><p>Bob Fitzsimons, <em>Arthur O’Leary & Arthur Sullivan: <br />Musical Journeys from Kerry to the Heart of Victorian England</em>, <br />Doghouse, €12  </p><p>Arthur O’Leary was born in Tralee in 1834, the grandson, son and nephew of Catholic music teachers and organists. In 1844 he came to the attention of the barrister Wyndham Goold, who subsidised his further musical studies for two years in Dublin, and subsequently for five years at the Leipzig Conservatory, recently founded by Felix Mendelssohn. </p><p>As well as making the latter’s acquaintance, O’Leary met Robert and Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim, while studying with Moscheles, Louis Plaidy, and Moritz Hauptmann – a remarkable compendium of the great and the good in German musical life.</p><p>On receiving his diploma from Leipzig, he went to London where he studied with William Sterndale Bennett and Cipriani Potter at the Royal Academy of Music. Goold’s sudden death in 1854 terminated his studies, obliging him to embark on a teaching career which lasted for well over half a century. In 1860 he married another musician, Rosetta Vinning, who bore him two daughters. Arthur O’Leary died in 1919, just short of his eighty-fifth birthday; he and his wife are buried in Aghadoe, Co. Kerry.</p><p>As the first composition teacher of Charles Villiers Stanford, the Anglo-Irish composer who taught Holst and Vaughan Williams and has been dubbed ‘father’ of the renaissance of English classical music, O’Leary’s historical importance is by no means negligible – yet he has vanished from <em>Groves’ Musical Dictionary. </em>A Symphony in C was performed in London in 1853 and again in 1865, but appears to be lost. His surviving piano pieces and a handful of songs might as well have been lost, given the absence of performances throughout most of the twentieth century. </p><p>Enter Bob Fitzsimons, a paediatrician with a love of music. In 1997 his interest was piqued by an account of a concert given by Arthur O’Leary in London in 1858. Further research in the Royal Academy of Music and the British Library brought to light a variety of O’Leary’s compositions, and a memoir of his German studies. Fitzsimons arranged a performance of several O’Leary pieces by the pianist Philip Martin at the Tralee Easter Arts Festival in 1998, subsequently enlisting Anthony Byrne to record a CD (<em>Piano Music from the Victorian Age: Arthur O’Leary</em> – see <a href=http://www.iol.ie/~anthonybyrne/Recordings.htm target=_blank>iol.ie/~anthonybyrne/Recordings.htm</a>). </p><p>Now comes this little book, subtitled <em>Musical Journeys from Kerry to the Heart of Victorian England</em>. Fitzsimons is no musicologist, but an enthusiastic and gifted researcher. Alas, he also has the enthusiast’s weakness for excessive detail. Endearingly, he twice admits this, referring to ‘information that, on the face of it, has very little to do with the subject’ and conceding that ‘perhaps too much detail is given....’ In his Preface he laments that the discovery of ‘a probable family connection with Sir Arthur Sullivan at a relatively late stage of this book’s gestation has caused many difficulties.’ While the putative kinship certainly deserved mention, Sullivan is a red herring, and the difficulties could have been profitably avoided.</p><p>This is not to suggest that Fitzsimons’ digressions are merely self-indulgent. He gives us an excellent account of the Kerry Philharmonic Society which was founded in 1839 and expired in 1843, suggesting that nineteenth-century provincial Ireland was by no means innocent of classical music. Fitzsimons comments that ‘had not the famine intervened, [the provincial musical flowering] might have picked up again’. He attributes O’Leary’s posthumous obscurity to ‘the complete rejection of the Victorian value system’, the rise of Irish nationalism, and evolving musical taste and style. The links between these factors need to be teased out, but that is another story.</p><p>Whatever the book’s foibles, Fitzsimons is to be congratulated for having embarked on this ‘salvage operation’ (his own phrase). The point is not that O’Leary was the equal of Wagner or Liszt but, quite simply, <em>that he existed</em>. Throughout the nineteenth century there was a plethora of Irish composers active in Britain and the European mainland, yet few of their names or works are remembered. Worse: it has become a commonplace that Irish classical music really only came into existence in the twentieth century, with earlier figures like Thomas Roseingrave, John Field and Vincent Wallace grudgingly acknowledged, but denied any valid claim to ‘Irishness’. Such national essentialism has been debunked in every other area, yet remains sacrosanct within classical music. </p><p>More recently, through the efforts of musicologists like Axel Klein and scholarly performers like Una Hunt, a concerted effort has been made to salvage ‘our classical heritage’ (the very phrase sounds oxymoronic). Hunt, who has issued two CDs of nineteenth-century Irish piano music on the RTÉ lyric fm label, discovered that the National Library of Ireland’s music collection could ‘form the basis of a national music archive... This collection would be of great benefit to performers and researchers alike, and help to dispel the myth that there was no art music in Ireland before the 20th century.’ (Submission of the Forum for Music in Ireland to the NLI Strategic Plan, 2007–9). Unfortunately, the Arts Council of Ireland decided not to offer financial support for such a worthy venture.</p><p>Concerning the bequest that the NLI received from Dr Jasper Joly in 1863, consisting of several thousand items of musical interest including works by forgotten composers, it appears that ‘[a] significant proportion of this seminal sheet music collection was published in Ireland.’ (NLI booklet issued to accompany its 2007 <em>Musical Reflections</em> concert series.) Clearly, while the establishment of a music archive is an urgent necessity, it is equally important to make this music accessible in modern performing editions. It is remarkable that in their time these forgotten composers fared better than our contemporaries, who have to make do without an Irish publishing company! </p><p>Once again, it’s not a question of unearthing masterpieces (although who knows?), but of filling in at least some of those ‘great gaps in Irish song’ of which Thomas Davis wrote in 1845. Until quite recently, I would myself have dismissed such research as a waste of time when contemporary music is still comparatively neglected. I now see both tasks as complementary. We must avoid extending ‘the honour of non-existence’ retrospectively to composers of earlier epochs on the basis of our national inferiority complex, revisionist neurosis, the delusion that Ireland is a predominantly literary country, or a persistent confusion of the concepts of history and tradition. (I have previously dealt with these issues in ‘Exploding the Continuum: The Utopia of Unbroken Tradition’, <em>The Republic</em>, June 2005; see <a href=http://www.raymonddeane.com target=_blank>raymonddeane.com</a>. I now think I dealt a little unfairly with Stanford’s symphonies in that article.)</p><p><img src=/sites/default/files/images/inline/thejmi_9_1_deane_2.jpg alt= 

Finally, is Arthur O’Leary’s music of any interest? At the very least, he was a superior drawing-room composer who occasionally touched deeper chords. Piano-pieces like Twilight Shadows, Valse heureuse, Scène rustique, and Les Pèlerins (the remarkable conclusion of which – pianissimo treble and fortissimo bass – Anthony Byrne rather shirks in his recording) are closer to the Lyric Pieces of Grieg than to such trivial salon classics as Badarzewska’s The Maiden’s Prayer (1856). They are eminently suited as encores, or as set pieces for competitions and examinations. The Toccata and Variations in C minor are more substantial works, clearly intended for professional pianists, and would grace any recital. The latter, indeed, has something of the structure of a sonata and its slow movement has movements of real power. His substantial song Nacht, to a poem by Eichendorff, is formally interesting (the music is continuous, but each verse is set in an independent tempo and style) and emotionally expressive.

Admittedly, despite the acquaintance with Wagner displayed by his 1870 transcriptions of Wagner’s Favourite Airs, O’Leary’s harmonic language never – to my knowledge – strays beyond that of Schumann. Undoubtedly the Hanoverian influence on British society infected all composers on these islands until Elgar confronted Hanover with Bayreuth and transcended both. Nonetheless, it’s surely perverse for us nowadays to condemn an Irish composer – a Catholic to boot, like Elgar – for conforming to the aesthetic mores of the society in which he functioned, although we may naturally regret it.

Bob Fitzsimons’ attempts to salvage Arthur O’Leary fully deserve to be crowned with success, and this book is well worth reading.

To purchase this book, send cheques or postal orders to Doghouse, PO Box 312, Tralee GPO, Co. Kerry, Ireland or PayPal to doghousepaypal(@)eircom.net
A MySpace page containing tracks of Arthur O’Leary’s music exists here.

Published on 1 January 2009

Raymond Deane is a composer, pianist, author and activist. Together with the violinist Nigel Kennedy, he is a cultural ambassador of Music Harvest, an organisation seeking to create 'a platform for cultural events and dialogue between internationals and Palestinians...'.

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