An Olympic Lament

Ina Boyle, 1889—1967.

An Olympic Lament

At the 1948 London Olympic Games, when the competition still awarded medals for music and other arts, 'gentle Miss Ina Boyle' narrowly missed out on a bronze medal. Ita Beausang traces the story of the composer from Enniskerry and her as yet unperformed work.

‘…gentle Miss Ina Boyle from Enniskerry obtained a diploma in the music section for her ‘Lament for Bion’.  The only higher award in her section was a bronze medal to Italy.’ 

So wrote Máirín Allen, Honorary Secretary, Arts Section, Irish Olympic Council, in her account of the 1948 London Olympic Games. Since 1912 artists had competed in the Olympic Games for ‘art’ medals in five categories: architecture, music, literature, sculpture and painting. The awards were established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, who sought to promote both intellectual and physical prowess, as practised in ancient Greece. According to the rules of the competitions only works relating to sport could be submitted. The music section, unlike the other categories, did not attract many well-known entrants, apart from Josef Suk, who won a silver medal for a rousing march, Towards a New Life, in 1932, and Werner Egk, who won a gold medal with Olympic Festive Music in 1936. Prizes were often withheld, and in 1924 when Stravinsky and Bartók were members of the jury no medals were awarded.

In London in 1948 there were 400 entries from twenty-seven countries in the art competitions overall. There were thirty-six entries in the music section, with three categories — choral/orchestral, instrumental/chamber and vocal. Since 1932 a new classification of ‘Honourable Mention’ had been added for works that in the opinion of the jury deserved a commendation. The Chairman of the Music Committee was Arnold Bax, and a total of six medals were awarded to Poland (Gold), Canada (Silver), Finland (Silver), Denmark (Bronze), and Italy (two Bronze). None of the names of the prize-winning composers are familiar today, although one in particular, Erling Brene from Denmark, had an impressive output of orchestral and choral music.  

In the vocal section, a bronze medal was awarded to an Italian composer, Gabriele Bianchi (1901—1974), who had already received ‘Honourable Mention’ in the 1936 Olympics for an instrumental work.  Ina Boyle’s entry, ‘Lament for Bion’, for tenor solo and string quartet or string orchestra, was the only work to receive an ‘Honourable Mention’ in the music section. She had composed it in 1945 and had made several unsuccessful attempts to have it performed in Dublin and in London before she sent it in for the Olympics competition. The text, attributed to Moschus (c. 150 BC), was translated from the Greek.

Two other Irish entries were selected for awards in the art competitions. Laetitia Hamilton’s bronze medal for her oil painting, ‘Meath Point-to-Point Races’, was the only medal won by Ireland in the 1948 Olympics, and the writer Stanislaus Lynch received ‘Honourable Mention’ in the literature category for his piece, ‘Echoes of the Hunting Horn’. The presentation of awards took place in Dublin at a ceremony in the Royal Hibernian Academy.

The Olympic art competitions were subsequently discontinued, on account of problems with the amateur status of artists, and were replaced by art exhibitions and festivals. At the London 2012 Olympics, the Cultural Olympiad serves the purpose of highlighting artistic and cultural practice, side by side with athletic and sporting events.

The name of Ina Boyle is as unfamiliar as her music today, although she composed a substantial amount of orchestral, chamber, vocal and choral music. From 1923 she had travelled to London from her home in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, for lessons with Vaughan Williams, until the Second World War intervened. 1948 was a significant year for her as Ireland began to recover from the ‘Emergency’, and musical life in Dublin was invigorated by an influx of European musicians. Her ceaseless efforts to have her compositions performed were rewarded by performances in Dublin of two of her orchestral works by the expanded Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra. In January 1948 her sketch for small orchestra, Wildgeese, conducted by Edmond Appia, was played in the Capitol Theatre, and in February her Concerto for Orchestra, conducted by Jean Martinon, was played at a Studio Concert in the Phoenix Hall. Meanwhile she composed a setting of ‘Still falls the rain’ for contralto solo and string quartet, and she was also working on her third symphony, From the Darkness, for contralto and orchestra which she completed in 1952.

The manuscript score and parts of Ina Boyle’s ‘Lament for Bion’, together with the ‘Honourable Mention’ Certificate from the London Olympics, are located in the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library, Trinity College, Dublin (MS4145-4150). The work still awaits its first performance.

Published on 30 July 2012

Ita Beausang’s research interests include music education and contextual studies of music in Ireland. She is an Advisory Editor for the forthcoming Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (UCD Press). Her biography of the Irish composer, Ina Boyle, is scheduled for publication in the Field Day Publications series.

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