Letters: Looking for the Irish Bartók

David Flynn, London, writes:In his letter in the last issue of JMI, Raymond Deane claims the Irish Bartók I described in ‘Looking for the Irish Bartók’ is an ‘inward-looking sleeveen’, but he missed an important part of...

David Flynn, London, writes:

In his letter in the last issue of JMI, Raymond Deane claims the Irish Bartók I described in ‘Looking for the Irish Bartók’ is an ‘inward-looking sleeveen’, but he missed an important part of my article where I state that composers who engage with traditional music could ‘merge their studies of traditional music with their studies of classical and other music genres’. There is nothing inward-looking about this. I am suggesting that composers could do as Bartók did. I don’t need to explain exactly what Bartók did because in his letter Mr Deane eloquently explains how Bartók did exactly what I suggest.

Mr Deane also claims I demand that all Irish composers ‘should’ and ‘must’ get a ‘Guaranteed Irish’ seal for their music. However, let me draw the reader’s attention to where I write, ‘Maybe most Irish composers don’t want to be part of such a movement’. I don’t demand anything of any composer other than myself; I just wish more Irish composers were engaged with traditional music.
Incidentally I only used the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ once each. These words were only in reference to composers who wish to engage with traditional music or who wish to be identifiably Irish.

Regarding Fergus Johnston’s letter, to me the most contentious remark is the following: ‘a colleague told me that he didn’t use Irish idioms in his own music because he was interested in rhythm and he didn’t want to spend his life writing in 6/8, He has a point…’.
No he does not have a point! I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds these comments to be insulting to traditional music. There is so much more to Irish traditional music than 6/8 rhythms, many tunes actually have odd rhythms for instance. Anyway, I don’t see anything wrong with writing a piece entirely in 6/8. Is it not possible to write new, innovative music using fundamental rhythms? I can think of a few living composers who do exactly that.

Mr Johnston also asks what is so desirable about an ‘Irish school of composition’. Well, most countries with strong classical music traditions have had such schools. I think we need to ask ourselves why Ireland hasn’t. Composers rarely define themselves as being part of a school, except the very one Mr Johnston mentions – The Second Viennese School. Schoenberg, Berg and Webern may have individual styles, but they clearly came from the same line of thinking. Schoenberg often said his ideas were in a direct line with the first Viennese School, which incidentally I see as their traditional music. Much traditional Irish music was written around the same time as Mozart and Haydn. The Austrians have their tradition to turn to. Where is ours? It is not in Vienna, it is in Clare, Donegal, Sligo, and so on.

Mr Johnston compares my call for ‘Irishness’ in music with saying that an ability to speak the Irish language should be an essential characteristic of someone wishing to be considered Irish. Can he not see the irony in what he says? Imagine what France would be like if English was their main language; the mere thought probably horrifies most French people! To me it is a terrible shame that most Irish people can’t speak Irish, just like I think it is a terrible shame that most Irish contemporary classical composers don’t understand or speak the language of traditional Irish music. Both are clear indications that our colonial past still haunts us.

Finally, Mr Johnston refers to composers such as Peadar Ó Riada and Donal Lunny. I have nothing but admiration for these composers, and would feel honoured to have my music performed alongside theirs; however this is unlikely to happen at any Irish contemporary classical event because neither they nor any other composers who work primarily with traditional music have thus far been accepted into
the contemporary classical scene. Whether this is a reflection of their compositional styles or a reflection of elitism in the contemporary music scene I’ll leave to others to debate.

Overall, the main point I was trying to make in my article is that in traditional Irish music we have a wonderful source of inspiration and that perhaps the reason why Ireland has consistently failed to produce classical composers of international stature is that composers have ignored or misunderstood this musical tradition, which is part of the heart and soul of the nation.

I will leave the final words to the great fiddler and composer Tommy Peoples. His thoughts on traditional Irish music sum up how I would like to feel about contemporary Irish music: ‘…The music expresses joy, terrible loss, hope, love and defiance. It has stayed with us when we had our own people crushed by oppression, our language killed by force and intimidation… Irish music was a joy to me… it spoke to me of the people who bore all this hardship and came through singing.’ 

Published on 1 November 2005

David Flynn is a composer and musician from Dublin

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