Missing Pieces

Missing Pieces

Niall Ó Ciosáin reviews a new book on music in nineteeth-century Ireland, and revisits the controversy regarding the influence of nationalism on the development of Irish music.

Michael Murphy & Jan Smaczny (eds), Music in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2007, 336pp.

The history of music is not the prime concern of the JMI, or presumably of its readers, but some very fine pieces of writing on the subject have appeared in its pages. Many of them have concerned music in nineteenth-century Ireland, in particular the relationship between nationalism and the composition of art music in that period, which has been the subject of articles and letters by Patrick Zuk, Barra Ó Séaghdha and others. These contributions were all responding to, and critical of, a view of Irish musical history put forward by Harry White and Joseph Ryan during the 1990s. White and Ryan were attempting to explain what they saw as the relative underdevelopment of art or classical music in Ireland. Their analysis was framed principally in political terms, and White and Ryan suggested that nationalism, the dominant ideology of nineteenth-century Ireland, demanded that music be at the service of ideology or text, and consequently had a stifling effect on music. Moreover, Irish nationalism found its most powerful expression in literature, and White saw the energy of music being displaced into literature, with the literary idea of music becoming more important than music itself.

Readers of the JMI will be familiar with this debate, but that familiarity is almost entirely through the criticism of the thesis. Neither White nor Ryan has responded to the considered and persuasive criticisms of Zuk and Ó Séaghdha, let alone defended their interpretation, despite the fact that the JMI is unusually open to this kind of dialogue. On the contrary, they have restated it in a variety of places, including works of reference, to the extent that it could easily be taken by an outsider to be the standard view of the subject. Indeed, a recent article by White, surveying musicological writing on nineteenth-century Ireland, does not mention any criticism of his thesis.

The first article in this new book – on opera in Ireland and the Irishness of opera during the nineteenth century – is by White, and it repeats some of the ideas which have been called into serious doubt, or even refuted, by Zuk and Ó Séaghdha. These include the suggestion that creative energy in Ireland was displaced from music into literature, that ‘opera in Ireland found its terminus in fiction and drama’, specifically in Joyce and Shaw. For Zuk, this type of argument is ‘intellectually lax to an inadmissible degree’, and it is hard to disagree. White’s essay, however, gives the reader no idea that this might be a contested or controversial issue. Taken all together, this is a remarkable resistance to the normal openness of academic debate, and is why a review of this new book of essays about music in nineteenth-century Ireland needs to begin by going over this well-trodden ground.

Filling in the Gaps
Music in Nineteenth-Century Ireland is the ninth volume in the series Irish Musical Studies, which since 1990 has built up a substantial body of work in musicology. It was in an earlier volume in the series, Music and Irish Cultural History, published in 1995, that I first came across the views of White and Ryan. At the time, their arguments seemed to me incomplete and fairly problematic. Most obviously, there was almost no explicitly comparative dimension. The relationship between nationalism and composition was, as far as I knew, more fruitful in places like Finland, Bohemia or Hungary, whose relationship with larger neighbours (Russia and Austria) had some similarities to Ireland’s relationship with Britain. The British dimension was also lacking. Britain did not produce major ‘serious’ composers during the nineteenth century either, despite the strength of cultural nationalism in Scotland and Wales, and this suggested that there might have been something in the role of art music in the British cultural area, to which Ireland, particularly urban Ireland, belonged, which inhibited the emergence of such composers. The other type of comparison that was missing was with other artistic media within Ireland. Were the visual arts also inhibited by the dominance of verbal forms?

Then there was the problem of arguing from the absence of something. How is that absence defined – relative to what presence? That is to say, how much music should there have been, and what kind of music? White’s essay in this new book quotes Ryan: ‘The study of Irish opera offers a good example of the gap between what one might reasonably expect and what actually occurred’. To my mind, the ‘reasonable expectation’ needs as much analysis as the ‘gap’, but it doesn’t receive it. White quotes Axel Klein’s estimate that some 280 operas by Irish composers were produced between 1780 and 1925, of which 30 were on Irish subjects. How reasonable is it to expect more?

And finally, it seemed to me that there was a tension between the avowed project of both White and Ryan, which was to write a more musicological and less narrowly disciplinary history, and their view of the role of ideology or politics. They seemed to see ideological conflict as ipso facto detrimental to musical composition, inasmuch as music would be subordinated to other concerns. According to Ryan, ‘persistent discord is inimical to creative endeavour’. This did not allow much space for a composer to have a creative engagement with politics, and it amounted to an insistence on the autonomy of the musical sphere. Thus, although they claimed to be getting away from an essentially internal and formal history of music, their approach did not encourage the exploration of the wider social context of music to which they aspired.

The book under review begins to fill some of the gaps in the White/Ryan analysis. Some of the articles contain a lot of primary research and new material, some tackle issues that have been preoccupying social and cultural historians more generally, and one pursues a comparative analysis.

This last is an article by Jan Smaczny, which examines the contrast between musical nationalism in Ireland and in the Czech lands. This particular comparison has a good deal of potential, as some of the parallels between the politico-cultural histories of the two countries are striking. Both were conquered in the seventeenth century by an aristocracy which was different in religion and language to the mass of the population. Dublin and Prague were both ‘second cities’ of multi-national empires. Nationalism, largely produced by these circumstances, was a powerful ideology in the politics of both countries in the nineteenth century. Irish nationalism, however, produced no Smetana or Dvořák. Smaczny sees the difference as being partly due to the more prominent role of the Czech language compared to Irish. An industrial revolution, accompanied by large-scale rural-urban migration, meant that cities such as Prague shifted linguistically from German to Czech, and that Czech was the language of the urban elites who dominated nationalist movements.

However, the dynamics of the relationship between language and musical composition are not specified by Smaczny, and I found myself at a loss to understand them. In fact, pursuing this particular theme further, one could point to the case of Wales, where the industrial development of South Wales led to the growth of large Welsh-speaking cities, accompanied by a cultural nationalism which emphasised both language and music, institutionalised in the Eistedfodd. However, there was no Smetana or Dvořák in Wales either.

This suggests to me that a focus on nationalism is inadequate as an explanatory strategy in this area, or perhaps that the question of nationalism needs to be more broadly conceived. One fact, mentioned almost in passing by Smaczny, suggests a possible avenue of exploration. The Czechs were slow to collect folk song, and in fact the earliest collections were done with the encouragement of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (‘Society of Music Friends’) in Vienna, ‘which charged provincial governments in all parts of the Austrian empire with the fostering of folksong collecting’. I don’t know of any such official or semi-official initiative in the musical sphere in Ireland. Michael Hechter, a prominent theorist of nationalism, has recently argued in Containing Nationalism that nationalist movements are to a large extent produced and shaped by the states against which they are directed. If that is so, it may be that there was something about the United Kingdom state which influenced the absence of nationalist art music in Ireland (and in Scotland and Wales) compared, for example, to areas of the Austrian empire.

At the other end of the spectrum, some of the gaps in empirical content in the White/Ryan thesis are filled by articles in this collection. Some authors are concerned with cataloguing and listing music, musical performances and other data. Anne Dempsey’s article on the 429 volumes of music in the Armagh Cathedral collection uses the collection as a guide to performance in the city, while Paul Rodmell’s study of the Society of Antient Concerts in Dublin reconstructs the concert repertory of that society. Michael Murphy’s analysis of musical criticism in Irish newspapers gives samples of contrasting commentary about selected musical events during the century. Despite its title, it deals exclusively with Dublin papers, but has an informative introduction on the role of the newspaper critic. These three pieces look like work in progress, and don’t suggest any significant conclusions. (Murphy’s short conclusion, that newspaper criticism formed a substantive part of musical life rather than being a simple reflection of it, is not at all justified by the body of the article, which treats criticism precisely as a reflection of musical activity.)

These articles begin to give a sense of the material context of musical life at the time. The article which most successfully accomplishes this is Roy Johnston’s drily titled ‘Concert auditoria in nineteenth-century Belfast’, an ingenious exploration of the social and economic history of Belfast through its successive concert spaces. The main eighteenth-century music room was built by the aristocracy who dominated the small market town, only a tenth the size of Dublin. In contrast, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Belfast was an industrial city, and as Johnston puts it, ‘the big secular, centrally placed hall was an important feature of the mature town of the Industrial Revolution’. Belfast had to have one, and in 1859 the Ulster Hall Company (Limited) was founded, and the hall itself opened in 1862, with an organ provided by the largest linen factory owner of the city.

Three of the essays could be said to deal with a single more general issue in cultural history, the attempts by elites to reform the behaviour and beliefs of the majority of the population. All three discuss the use of music within what could be called ‘the civilising process’ being undertaken by churches, the state and a range of private groups. Marie McCarthy looks at the use of music in the curriculum of the national schools, Maria McHale at the use of music in the Temperance campaign of the 1840s and Lisa Parker at the public lectures on music given by Robert Prescott Stewart, professor of music in Trinity College. In all three cases, however, the discussion of the ideology of music consists to a large extent of discussion of the words that accompanied them. In the case of Stewart, this is inevitable, since it was the lectures themselves, according to the Irish Times, which were ‘not merely to amuse the public, but to make them better’. In the schools, however, school songs were to supersede street ballads, and the temperance songs extolled the virtues of abstinence. What precise role music itself had, over and above being a vehicle for words, is not entirely clear. I imagine that part of the answer could be found in the inculcation of discipline which singing or playing together involves, and the way in which this created an esprit de corps, in a manner similar to the physical ‘drill’, deriving from military practice, which was becoming a feature of both educational curricula and social movements throughout Europe at the time.

Represenations of Life
Other essays reflect the preoccupations of recent social and cultural history in Ireland. Studies of nationalism and state formation have focussed on collective memory and commemoration as the basis of identity. Here Ita Beausang traces some of the musical manifestations of this trend in Irish nationalism, looking at the tradition of the annual Thomas Moore commemorative concert, St Patrick’s Day concerts and other memorial events. The most interdisciplinary essay in the book is by Barra Boydell, who considers the literary and visual representation of harpists and pipers in the nineteenth century. The literary representation is a novel, Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl, whose heroine plays the harp, and which has been very much in fashion within literary criticism recently as emblematic of early romantic nationalism in Ireland. The visual images are genre paintings, and Boydell argues that while the depictions of musicians, specifically pipers, are accurate, the contexts in which they are placed are not, but represent idealised visions of peasant life. This article complements a recent book about genre paintings of domestic life, Claudia Kinmonth’s Rural Interiors in Irish Art (2006). Kinmonth demonstrates the accuracy with which nineteenth-century artists rendered material objects, but at the same time shows that the situations in which those objects are put were constructed by the painters, who often assembled the tableaux themselves in their studios rather than painting from life.

Collecting tunes from folk musicians and rendering them in standard notation is another form of representation, and that practice is analysed by two essays in this collection. Jimmy O’Brien Moran contrasts the collecting and notating practices of three collectors who all used the same source, the renowned Galway piper Paddy Conneely, whose three-page profile in the Dublin Penny Journal in 1840 made him ‘the best known piper of his time’. David Cooper traces the shifts of style in the piano arrangements of traditional music, from the collection of Bunting in the early part of the century, which are close to contemporary art music practice, to those of P.W. Joyce and others in the second half of the century, in which the demands of the tune are paramount and the harmony is often spare.

Although the essays in this volume are very varied, there are ways in which they interlink which suggest possibilities for further research. Henry Hudson, for example, appears in O’Brien Moran’s article as a collector of folk tunes and in Murphy’s as a writer for The Nation. He also organised a festival of music in Dublin in 1831 at which Paganini played. Perhaps a biographical study would give a fresh perspective on how the different musical spheres at the time interreacted. Another example would be Smaczny’s mention of ‘one of the most prominent Czech musical periodicals, Hudební listy’. Murphy’s discussion of the Irish musical press, however, only discusses newspaper criticism. One wonders if there were any Irish musical periodicals at all, and what this might imply about the differences between musical life in the two countries discussed by Smaczny.

What this suggests is that the book needs a general introduction. The articles all deal with an area which, in the broader scheme of things, is well-defined and relatively narrow, but they are presented as self-standing and have little cross-referencing. In a case like this, I would suggest that the editors have a responsibility to bring the results together, to give readers, particularly non-specialists, an overview of the subject, an idea of how the volume contributes to it, and to suggest directions for future research. Beausang’s and Cooper’s essays, to take just two, seem to me to have direct implications for the White/Ryan thesis, but neither essay addresses the issue directly. Instead of an informative synthesis, however, this book has a short preface of quite painful confusion. It begins by attempting to justify the use of a chronological unit of analysis, the century, rather than a stylistic one:

Matching up the musical baroque with the architectural or religious baroque is problematic, and attempting to align musical romanticism with literary romanticism is an activity almost doomed to failure. Better to put our editorial hands up and admit that music with its natural tendency to relate to religion, philosophy, literature, social history and politics will never happily be shoe-horned into a portion as bite-sized as a century.

The bizarre terminology matches the weird logic in this passage. Whose bite is the size of a century? What kind of ‘natural tendency’ does music have? In any case, the argument is impossible to follow. The last sentence is a non-sequitur, and contradicts the previous one. The task of producing a survey of music in nineteenth-century Ireland, a synthesis to replace the premature and superficial views of White and Ryan, is clearly for another day, but will be made immeasurably easier by the essays in this collection.

Published on 1 March 2008

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