A Century of Irish Classics?

Composers Andrew Hamilton, Jane O’Leary and Brian Irvine during ‘Composing the Island’.

A Century of Irish Classics?

On 7–25 September, the National Concert Hall hosted 'Composing the Island', a major series of concerts spanning one hundred years of Irish classical music. Featuring over 80 composers, 27 concerts, and almost 200 works, Barra Ó Séaghdha explores its achievements as well as the musical questions it raises.

A Rhapsody by Charles Villiers Stanford (1913); a large-scale choral work, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking (1923), by Rhoda Coghill; and Four Romantic Songs by Frederick May (1933)… Or something a little different: a string quartet by E. J. Moeran; Herbert Hughes’ version of ‘She Moved Through the Fair’; a Fantasia for guitar by Brian Boydell. Something more contemporary perhaps? In that case: Irene Buckley’s Only such ice could be so fair (for piano); Stephen Gardner’s concerto for orchestra Never… Never… Never… ; Gráinne Mulvey’s string quartet Entropy… These and many dozens of other works were among those offered within the space of three weeks by the National Concert Hall and RTÉ. How often are we invited up the highways and byways of a century of Irish classical music? How often are we offered multiple opportunities to test our prejudices and assumptions regarding earlier generations of composers?

This kind of concentrated attention is so rare that standard grumpiness gave way to something strongly resembling good will among those with an interest in Irish classical music. Where some of the older music of the revival and Free State periods was concerned, Composing the Island must also have been a journey of discovery for the many musicians involved. Commitment was not lacking in any case. And, before going any further, it would be appropriate to light a slow-burning, aromatic briquette of gratitude here in honour of Bord na Móna, which backed and enabled the whole project.

One of the challenges of the project was to create and sustain an audience for a programme that ranged from pieces solidly rooted in the nineteenth century to examples of ironic postmodernism. Some of the initial PR material was not very promising. Why use the phrase ‘by his own admission’ regarding the unionist politics underlying the straight-talking Charles Villiers Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No. 4? Why give the impression that it was as ‘master of the king’s music’, a position he would not hold till decades later, that Arnold Bax engaged with Ireland? We can agree that Stanford ‘found inspiration in Irish folk-song and landscape’ but why the ‘yet’ (suggesting contradiction or paradox, where there is none) preceding the information that he is also ‘regarded as a father-figure of British music’? (Stanford would have seen little or no difference between his own interest in folk music and dedication to the cause of British music and those of his fellow-eminence, the Scot Alexander Mackenzie.)

And why, possibly in the belief that the film music of Mise Éire was representative of his own compositions, perpetuate a common error regarding Ó Riada? No, it is not true that ‘[h]e sought various ways in which to bring Irish traditional music together with forms and idioms associated with classical music and [this next part of the sentence may be true but the piece does not in any way bear out the description] Hercules Dux Ferrariae is a tantalising glimpse of his unique talent.’ Fortunately, very little of this survived into the programme booklets (one for each week), which were substantial, properly informative and clearly written.

Educational role
Composing the Island did not of course downplay or dismiss the music that it presented, but it could not claim to be presenting a sequence of lost masterpieces, though it did throw light on works from the first half of the twentieth century that usually dwell in shadow. Its purpose was, then, in the broad sense, educational as well as musical. And that the festival avoided facing up to its educational role must be balanced against its many achievements. Wasn’t there a failure of imagination, of nerve or even of duty in not providing a forum for discussion and reaction around this little-known music? Yes, The Invisible Art (more brick than briquette, despite its Bord na Móna logo), was available for those who wanted a survey of this century and of some of its key figures in book form, but that had little to do with the experience of the music, or with immediate curiosity and reaction. The NCH was creating an event that would earn it the gratitude and (however temporarily) the good will of musicians, composers, academics and critics. Why not avail of this good will and allow some spontaneous reaction and opinion into the mix?

Let us take Ina Boyle as an example of what this might mean. On 7 September, her Symphony No. 1, ‘Glencree’ was part of a programme presented by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (a concert I missed) while her Quartet in E Minor (of some interest, though not overwhelming) was played by the Vanbrugh on the following Sunday. On the Thursday, however, the Vanbrugh (with the tenor Robin Tritschler) also gave us her Two Poems by John Donne – for many who heard it, one of the revelations of the festival. The idiom may have been less advanced than in some other of her works but there was no straining after effect; the voice and strings combined beautifully; and the work unfolded with serene confidence, coming to an undramatic but perfectly judged end. In the same concert, we heard works by Harty, May, Moeran, Stanford and Bax – all of whom featured several times in the festival. Thus we had multiple experiences of composers both from the Revival period and from the Free State – and much to talk about.

We could have had a conversation between Ita Beausang (who probably knows more about Boyle than anyone) and one or two of Boyle’s successors – Gráinne Mulvey and Siobhán Cleary, for example. Most Irish composers today do not primarily situate themselves within a generations-long Irish music history. How many feel an affinity with Stanford, Harty, Esposito or Larchet? But in the case of the recovery of a lost voice (Frederick May is another such case) the relationship between today’s composer and a forebear may be different.

In addition to immediate reactions to the performances, there would have been much to discuss here where background, personality, levels of support (Vaughan Williams and Aloys Fleischmann), prejudice and ideology were concerned. Indeed, two or three such open discussions a week might have created a greater sense of connection between concerts, incited curiosity about later concerts, and provided feedback that could be useful in plannin3g future events. 

Defence Forces
Though there seemed to be limited overlap between the enthusiastic audience it drew and the rest of the series, a concert that featured Larchet, Harty, T. C. Kelly, A. J. Potter and Gerard Victory among others was quite rewarding. If the less successful chamber and orchestral works of some of the late romantic to pastoral to mildly modernist composers began to exasperate as they laboured diligently towards inglorious climaxes, there was something refreshingly tidy, unpretentious and sheerly enjoyable about the music played by the Band of the Defence Forces School of Music. The first piece was, admittedly, a somewhat thumping homage to General Mulcahy, the founder of the Army School of Music, by Col. Fritz Brase, the German who was brought to Ireland to run the school – and, it appears, did a very good job. Brase’s version of the jig ‘The Frost is All Over’ also involved some heavy wallop and crash; in contrast, his arrangement of John F. Larchet’s Lament for Youth was quite subtly coloured. From T. C. Kelly’s Wexford Rhapsody through A. J. Potter’s Finnegans Wake and Blackthorn Wattle to Gerard Victory’s Marche Bizarre, there was nothing dutiful in the composers’ engagement with traditional material or the task of producing what used to be called light music.

T. C. Kelly again featured in a recital by his granddaughter, mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, with her mother, the pianist Úna Hunt, that brought family and Irish musical history together. If not every item deserved resurrection on purely musical grounds, the exploration of the repertoire was worthwhile and the performances irreproachable – down to the singer’s sensitive transition from the drama of the last line of ‘The Mother’ to a listening role as the piano worked to a close.

It was important that we should be offered music by figures such as Aloys Fleischmann, Brian Boydell (his solid In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi, for example) and A. J. Potter (the Sinfonia ‘de Profundis’ becoming so relentlessly brassy and almost hilariously over-the-top as to verge on the wonderful). Likewise, it was important to hear or re-hear composers who emerged in the 1960s and 70s: Kinsella, Bodley, Barry, Buckley, O’Leary, Deane and others. Roger Doyle’s apprentice piece for orchestra was interesting only as a road not taken, but his appearance in this mode pointed to the weak presence of experimental, electronic or improvisational work overall.

Somewhat younger composers like Kevin O’Connell, Gráinne Mulvey, Stephen Gardner, Donnacha Dennehy, Ian Wilson, Deirdre Gribbin and Siobhán Cleary (her Alchemy a particular delight) were solidly represented, but let us simply register the mysterious absence of Benjamin Dwyer (who had premiered several large-scale works at the NCH) until he was manoeuvred into the Crash Ensemble’s New Music Marathon on the closing weekend. And if we look to solo guitar work, most of the pieces in John Feeley’s recital on the same day came across as dutiful – Jerome de Bromhead’s Gemini (1969) and John Buckley’s Guitar Sonata No. 2 (the last movement especially) being among the exceptions.

Though the operas of the Revival and Free State periods (whether in English or in Irish) were not rescued from the fog of history, there was nonetheless a certain diversity of genre and artistic affinity to what was selected for us. As there was no clear statement of the musical goals of Composing the Island, and of the logic (aesthetic or otherwise) behind its choices, composers who engage with traditional music, from Shaun Davey to Bill Whelan to Dave Flynn, could legitimately wonder why what diversity there was in the selections from recent decades was within the strain of music deriving from European (or Euro-American) modernism.

Where those young or youngish composers in the third week were concerned, it might be asked if Composing the Island was being encouraging or if it simply lacked the courage to choose? In the Saturday afternoon Crash Ensemble New Music Marathon, for example, the desire to include as many composers as possible may have accentuated an aspect of Crash practice over the decades: the prevalence of either short, seemingly obsessional but highly controlled work-outs, on the one hand, or, as in this case, short single-mood pieces. Individual voices – from Judith Ring and Barry O’Halpin to Linda Buckley, Deirdre McKay and Jonathan Nangle – seemed to blend into one. Would it have been better to give a smaller number the opportunity to stretch themselves – as was the case with Andrew Hamilton, who sometimes at least tosses the over-used Holland/New York/Ireland instruction manual out the window, and seems to have taken from Gerald Barry a refreshing willingness to disregard preconceptions and follow his intuitions about where the music should go.

Speaking of courage… Composing the Island, as its subtitle, ‘A century of music in Ireland 1916–2016’, suggests, had some theoretical connection with the centenary of 1916. Ian Wilson’s note to the premiere of Wayfarers (a new commission for mixed choir and string quartet) operated a separation (in itself political) between the ‘human’ and the political dimensions of 1916. Both Wayfarers (to texts of the 1916 period) and Stephen McNeff’s A Half-Darkness (to a strong text by poet Aoife Mannix) were solid enough but in neither case did the musical intensity fully justify the length.

A landmark event
Our imaginary series of discussions might have gone back to the lead-in to 1966 and explored issues raised by recordings such as Ireland, Mother Ireland (which featured Bernadette Greevy and two Radio Éireann ensembles), From 1916: The Best of Ireland’s Music and Let Erin Remember. We did get to hear Gerard Victory’s 1966 commission, In Memoriam James Connolly from 1966, but it was hard to see how what the composer did with the melody of Patrick Galvin’s ballad ‘James Connolly (‘Where, oh where…’) in any way rivalled the directness of the original. Or indeed the power of another ballad specifically written to indict independent Ireland, Liam Weldon’s powerful ‘Dark Horse on the Wind’ – but this might bring us back to what was lacking in the Easter series at the NCH, as previously discussed in The Journal of Music.

Arguments will go on, but it is only right to conclude by praising the whole Composing the Island venture, the NCH, Bord na Móna, RTÉ (in its musical and organisational guises), and the many musicians and composers (many not mentioned above) who made this a landmark event.

A review of the The Invisible Art, the book that accompanied the Composing the Island series, will be published shortly in The Journal of Music. 

Published on 10 November 2016

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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