Honouring Deane

A review of a new book by Patrick Zuk on composer Raymond Deane, part of the new Field Day Music series, and the first biography to be published in an Irish composer's lifetime.

In 1995 Raymond Deane wrote an article entitled ‘The Honour of Non-Existence. Classical Composers in Irish Society’ which appeared in volume 3 of Irish Musical Studies (ed. Gerard Gillen and Harry White, Irish Academic Press). Whatever about the wider question of the ‘honourable non-existence’ of Irish composers and their music and the extent to which that position may have improved since Deane’s gloomy assessment over a decade ago, Patrick Zuk’s new book on Raymond Deane firmly establishes honourable existence in print for one of Ireland’s most significant composers. This is the first comprehensive study of a modern Irish composer to appear in his lifetime and the second volume, after Séamas de Barra’s Aloys Fleischmann also published in 2006, in what promises to be an important series of books on Irish composers published by Field Day under the editorship of de Barra and Zuk. Further volumes on Seóirse Bodley, Ina Boyle, John Buckley, Michele Esposito and James Wilson are currently in preparation, and I understand that others are planned.

Patrick Zuk explains that his aim is to present a ‘sympathetic introduction’ to Raymond Deane’s compositions ‘that reflects as closely as possible the composer’s own understanding of his creative enterprise’ rather than a critical evaluation. The book thus presents a descriptive account of the composer and his work, focussing in greater detail on selected compositions, but it avoids a critical stance, letting Deane’s creative achievement speak for itself through the text.

In the Introduction Zuk outlines Deane’s life and development as a composer. He notes the impact on the young composer, born in 1953 and brought up in Achill, of the Dublin Festivals of Twentieth Century Music from 1969 (as a fifteen-year-old he played a piano piece, Format 1, in a concert showcasing young Irish composers in the 1969 festival). In 1969 Deane visited Darmstadt and between 1970 and 1974 he studied music at UCD where he was a fellow student with Gerald Barry, found Seóirse Bodley one of the few older Irish composers with whom he felt any affinity, and during which years he was closely involved in the establishment of the Association of Young Irish Composers. He subsequently studied with Gerald Bennett in Basel, Stockhausen in Cologne, and Isang Yun in Berlin. Following his return to Ireland and his being awarded the Varming Composition Prize in 1978 and the Macaulay Fellowship in 1980, Deane began to attract high-profile commissions and establish a growing reputation for himself, a reputation which nevertheless stood in marked contrast to the possibility of making a reasonable living from composition. While his election to Aosdána in 1986 and receipt of a cnuas alleviated his financial difficulties as a composer, Deane has been a vocal and important critic of the place and recognition (or non-recognition) of art music and the composer in modern Ireland, as evidenced not only by his article mentioned above, but also in the course of many articles and other contributions to the pages of JMI and elsewhere. Although, as Zuk comments, Deane’s music defies easy categorisation, he outlines some of the main characteristics of his musical style which typically explores conflicts of one type or another, whether of textures, pitches or harmonic materials. This is a lucid discussion which prepares the reader for the ensuing chapters focussing in detail on Deane’s music under the successive headings of keyboard works, chamber works, works for chamber and symphony orchestra, concertante works, and vocal and dramatic works.

In the absence of any significant secondary literature Zuk has worked closely with the composer for detailed information about his career and his compositions. The works examined in more detail in the relevant chapters are largely those regarded by the composer as being ‘particularly important’ or ‘especially significant’. The reader is considerably assisted in this regard by the fact that a number of these works have become available on commercial recordings in recent years, most notably on the Marco Polo CD of Deane’s orchestral works (8.225106) and the Black Box CD of solo and chamber works (Seachanges, BBM1014). Analyses and discussions of the individual works gain considerable authority from their often drawing closely on Deane’s own programme notes or comments made to the author. However, the composer does not always provide the answers: when discussing the Violin Concerto (2003), for example, the significance of the reference to Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’ – the bleak, final song from Winterreise – remains unanswered, Zuk commenting that ‘Deane refuses to be drawn on its precise significance and confines himself to remarking that the melodic construction of the song … suggested various creative possibilities to him from a purely musical point of view’. The author does maintain an independent voice and there is certainly no sense of his having in any way ghost-written the book on the composer’s behalf. Most of the works discussed in more detail are illustrated with musical examples (with few exceptions these examples conclude inappropriately with ‘final’ double-barlines suggesting the end of a piece, where single barlines or open-ended bars would be more suitable) and the use of technical language is kept as far as possible to a minimum.

The text ends somewhat abruptly with a brief, five-and-a-half-line concluding paragraph at the end of the chapter on the vocal and dramatic works. Zuk averts here to Deane’s ‘rich and distinctive’ creative achievement which ‘undoubtedly deserves to come to wider international attention’, but a more extended conclusion drawing together aspects of Raymond Deane’s music discussed over the previous chapters with a fuller assessment of his place in contemporary Irish, and indeed international, music might better have drawn this study to a close. In the final analysis the book presents a clear, detailed and indeed perceptive description of Deane’s compositions and his musical language, but is very much less forthcoming about where he stands within contemporary Irish music beyond the positive climate of discussion and the fact that he has been chosen as the first living Irish composer to be featured in this new series (and thus evidently the first choice of one of the co-editors, as author).

The volume ends with appendices giving a catalogue of Raymond Deane’s compositions, a discography, and a list of his published writings, an area in which he has established himself as an important voice for contemporary composers. Deane’s broad creative interests are reflected also in his having published one novel, Death of a Medium (1991), not to mention his having written the libretti for his two chamber operas The Poet and his Double (1991) and The Wall of Cloud (1997).

The book, in paperback only, is simply but attractively presented with a minimalist, matt black cover. At scarcely over 120 pages in length it may literally appear to be a slim volume but this is deceptive: if I have one quibble it is that the print size is very small, the actual content corresponding to something normally of somewhat greater page-length and easier certainly on this reader’s eyes. It is exciting to be able to welcome the beginnings of a series of monographs planned on Irish composers, both contemporary and of the past, an area which has, to say the least, been poorly served. On the evidence of this volume Field Day Music promises well.

Patrick Zuk, Raymond Deane
Dublin: Field Day Publications, 2006
€25.00/£17.00. ISBN-10 0-946755-29-9; ISBN-13 978-0-946755-29-5

Published on 1 March 2007

Barra Boydell is Senior Lecturer in Music at NUI Maynooth and currently holds a Senior Research Fellowship from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. He is Hon. Secretary of the Society for Musicology in Ireland and has published widely on the history of music in Ireland. He is general editor, with Harry White, of the Encyclopedia of Music in Ireland to be published by UCD Press, Dublin. 

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