'Octets have a habit of growing into symphony orchestras'

A review of Richard Pine's book Music and Broadcasting in Ireland.

Richard Pine, Music and Broadcasting in Ireland
Four Courts Press, 2005, 640pp, with CD-Rom. ISBN 1-85182-842-7, hbk €55. ISBN 1-85182-843-5, pbk €29.95

When Radio Éireann (as it then was) was preparing to open studios in Cork in 1954, pressure was mounting for the establishment of a resident broadcasting orchestra based there, or at the very least of a ‘station Octet’. Maurice Gorham, Director of Broadcasting, wrote to Erskine Childers, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs with responsibility for broadcasting (and an enthusiastic supporter of music and the arts during his various periods in office) warning that ‘Octets have a habit of growing into Symphony orchestras’. Gorham’s comment is in many ways an apt précis of the evolution of the ‘Station Trio’ which broadcast live on the opening night of 2RN on 1 January 1926 into the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, RTÉ Cór na nÓg and RTÉ Vanburgh Quartet of today, not to mention the various other ensembles, vocal and instrumental (including the RTÉ Singers between 1953 and 1984), with which R(T)É has been associated over its eighty-year history.

This history of music in RTÉ is to a large degree a history of the state’s support (or lack of it) for music during the same period. But it presents an ironic, at times enigmatic picture: almost despite a succession of governments displaying at best an ambivalent approach towards its support, music within RTÉ has evolved to the present situation in which RTÉ supports directly (or in the case of the NSO now less directly) a number of outstanding orchestras and ensembles of which this country can be justly proud, while also running a dedicated classical music station in the form of RTÉ Lyric FM.

This evolution could not have occurred were it not for the persistence and energy of so many individuals: to name but a few, Vincent O’Brien as the first Music Director; Fachtna Ó hAnnracháin as Music Director in the late 1940s and 1950s who, with the unusually sympathetic support of P.J. Little, Minister for Post and Telegraphs, oversaw the establishment of both the RTÉ Symphony and Light (later Concert) orchestras in 1948; Tibor Paul who, as both principal conductor of the RTÉSO and Director of Music (a disastrous combination of the two posts under the one person) in the 1960s both raised the orchestra’s standards and international recognition and at the same time caused profound problems within both RTÉ and the orchestra due to his autocratic nature (now that the heated emotions of those years are long past, access to the RTÉ archives allows for a clearer account of that difficult era); or Albert Rosen, regarded by Pine as one of the orchestra’s outstanding conductors, not to mention the conductors, other musicians and those many others within RTÉ without whom there would be no story to tell.

These and others people the pages of this substantial but very readable (if at times dauntingly detailed) book. The RTÉ archives and those of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, personal contributions from many of those central to this story, the writings (published and private) of Charles Acton who, as music critic of the Irish Times for so much of the period was a central player in and commentator on Irish musical life, these and more have been consulted. Pine also draws on a wide and up-to-date range of secondary sources which, with his own insights having worked as Concerts Manager in RTÉ between 1974 and 1983, results in an authoritative account which makes an important and significant contribution to the history of music in Ireland in the twentieth century.

Music and Broadcasting in Ireland comprises seven chapters with (an encouragingly optimistic) Postscript, and including a CD-Rom listing all recordings of works by Irish composers in the RTÉ Sound Archives, in itself a fantastic resource. Four of the chapters present a detailed historical account focussing mainly on the station’s primary ensemble and its evolution into the symphony orchestra we know today. Of the remaining chapters, ‘Musical life in Ireland in the 1920s’, and ‘Composers at work’ step back somewhat to look at the broader contexts, while ‘Backbone’ examines the wider musical activities of RTÉ, including its other ensembles, which have led to its becoming ‘the backbone of music-making in Ireland’, to cite RTÉ’s own literature.

Throughout there are regular listings of works by Irish composers performed by the orchestras and of the members of the orchestras at selected points in time. While the Symphony Orchestra commands the centre role, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (formerly the Light Orchestra) emerges almost as the unsung hero. From its inception it was enormously successful, above all because its repertoire was essentially popular, in the 1950s broadcasting each week programmes devoted to classical music, to Irish music, to ‘popular old-style’ music, and to jazz and contemporary pop. Pine notes that ‘politicians, in particular, acknowledging their own general lack of appreciation of symphonic music, chose to single out the RÉLO, especially when it offered an “Irish” alternative to the increasing attractions of “pop”’, citing the Labour leader Brendan Corish who praised it in 1958 for encouraging audiences ‘away from canned music, hot music, real jazz music to decent [sic] music’ (p. 152).

Conflict between culture and economics
Music goes back to the very beginnings of broadcasting. Pine reminds us that in the political climate at the time, 2RN (which became Radio Éireann in 1937 and RTÉ in 1966) avoided potentially divisive or inflammatory programmes such as news and current affairs, the schedule being dominated by music programmes. The initial ‘Station Trio’ comprised a salon band of two violins and cello which entertained customers in the tea-rooms of Clery’s department store. Used for sound tests in the months before broadcasting started, they soon became the basis of the ‘Station Orchestra’. Vincent O’Brien, the first Music Director, organist of the Pro-Cathedral and a noted composer, oversaw the establishment of a music schedule which embraced not only traditional but art music, including opera. Within a week of the commencement of broadcasting, realising the necessity of complementing the sound of a string trio, application was made to the Dept of Finance (which directly controlled the purse strings) to grant the additional cost of a pianist. As Pine comments ‘This addition represented the beginning of the process in which the ball would be tossed backwards and forwards between the two departments on the issue of what had or had not been authorised in relation to the orchestra and what was, or was not, a musical necessity […] thus occasioning an inaugural row between [2RN] and P&T that would continue for decades’ (pp. 43-4). This ongoing struggle between those with artistic vision and ambition for music and the more limited vision of administrators and politicians who so often could not see beyond the immediate budgetary concerns, underlies this whole book.

The conflict between culture and economics was compounded by the prevailing nationalist climate which made its presence felt with depressing regularity whenever the question of standards arose. It was a long time before this country could provide sufficient orchestral players of adequate standard, a question to which Pine devotes a particular sub-chapter (pp. 172-86) within the context of the establishment of both the Symphony and Light Orchestras in 1948. We now recognise the influx into the RÉSO of many first-class orchestral musicians unable to secure jobs in post-war Europe (or in 1953 when there was a mass defection to the West of musicians from the Prussian State Orchestra based in East Berlin) as a significant stimulus to Irish musical life: musicians such as Gilbert Berg, Maurice Meulien, Arthur Nachstern, and André Prieur (to name but a few, almost household names to those of us whose concert-going memories stretch back).

Contemporary opinions were however often far from positive. A low point was surely reached in 1953 in the Dáil when James Everett, back in opposition having been Minister for Post and Telegraphs in the previous government (and thus responsible for funding the orchestra), publicly expressed contempt for the Symphony Orchestra as a body full of ‘foreigners’ which it would be ‘torture’ for him to listen to (p. 121).

The debate (if it can be called that) focussed on jobs for Irish musicians, but artistically it was a question of standards. Foreign orchestral members from continental Europe showed up the shortcomings of the locally-trained musicians whom political interests favoured. The irony is that when the RTÉSO began to make concert tours overseas it was perceived by foreign audiences and critics to be predominantly if not wholly Irish in make-up. Reflecting a racial prejudice which was perhaps an apt counterpoise to those at home who sought to keep foreign musicians out of the orchestra, the Guardian critic Edward Greenfield commented after the RTÉSO’s Royal Festival Hall concert in December 1965: ‘you might expect an orchestra with the name “Radio Telefís Éireann Symphony Orchestra” […] to nurture a race of wild Irish musicians, but in fact […] this is a highly civilised, stylish body well capable of taking virtuoso scores by Bartók and Mahler in its stride’ (pp. 451-2)!

While these questions which once recurred so often have long lost their relevance, others relating to the conflicting roles of the orchestras as primarily broadcasting or as concert-giving bodies, the engagement of conductors, the relationship between the positions of Principal Conductor and Director (or Head) of Music, policies relating to the commissioning and performance of music by Irish composers, the funding of the orchestras and other ensembles, these and many more have dominated the history of music in RTÉ and are recounted here in detail.

Composers at work
Pine uses the opening chapter ‘Musical life in Ireland in the 1920s’ to describe the musical climate against which 2RN was established. Underpinning this chapter is the ongoing debate about the place (or non-place) of music of the European tradition within the nationalist ethos of post-Independence Ireland, a debate first articulated in the writings of Harry White and Joseph Ryan and which has generated sometimes animated discussion in the pages of this journal. Pine is not afraid to add his voice to this debate, putting his finger on the pulse when he comments that ‘Much lip service has been paid in Ireland to […] inculcating an awareness, even a love, of music by means of the folk songs of one’s own country, but the effective refusal to implement it, despite the availability of radio […] as a vehicle for its dissemination, mounts to a display of post-colonial embarrassment at the expense of Irish heritage’ (p. 13). He later unambiguously states the situation as it then was, noting ‘the absence of political stability, financial security and an educated audience [which are] necessary for music to thrive and develop’ (p. 15). I was interested to learn from this chapter of the extent to which symphony concerts were given in Dublin between the later 1920s and the 1930s by the Dublin Philharmonic Society Orchestra under J.F. Larchet (often featuring international soloists) and by an enlarged 2RN/ orchestra under Vincent O’Brien, and later with a series of Public Concerts by the orchestra inaugurated by Michael Bowles in 1941. These orchestras may often have been small, semi-professional and not of the highest standards, but I had not realised that audiences did in fact have such access to the symphonic repertoire in Dublin at this time.

One of the most substantial chapters is ‘Composers at work’ which uses Denis Donoghue’s essay ‘The future of Irish music’ (Studies, 44. Spring 1955) as a starting point for a discussion of the question of identity in the music of Irish composers of the second half of the twentieth century. Two series of radio broadcasts lie at the heart of this chapter. In 1958 ‘Composers at work’ featured seventeen Irish composers, each being invited to comment on their compositional interests and on the problems facing Irish composers at the time. Pine cites and discusses each in detail, ranging from established composers like Larchet, Fleischmann, Boydell and May through to the rising generation of Bodley, Victory, Ó Riada and Potter. The 1988 series ‘Composers in conversation’ interviewed sixteen composers (only four of whom – Bodley, Boydell, Fleischmann and Victory – had appeared in the 1958 programmes). The changes in attitudes over thirty years, in particular in relation to the earlier preoccupation with ‘Irishness’ in music, reflect the emergence from the former isolationist mentality with its preoccupation with trying to ‘be’ Irish.

This chapter contains some penetrating evaluation of composers within this context of ‘identity’ and I welcomed in particular a re-evaluation of Ó Riada which bravely comments: ‘It seems that the “centrality” of Ó Riada in the consciousness of Irish musicians and musicologists is unquestioned [not, I must say, in the consciousness of this particular musicologist!], yet to what was Ó Riada central? – to the cause of traditional music? – to that of classical music? – or even to the evolution of RTÉ as a channel or conduit of musical transmission? To view Ó Riada as the central figure is absurd. There is no central figure’ (p. 255). Pine goes on to comment that ‘Ó Riada did not, in fact, reveal to Irish listeners the Irishness of Irish music, but that version of Irishness which his persuasive voice and passionate manner were capable of advocating’ (p. 271). This chapter raises the larger question of the extent to which the political elements within RTÉ as the ‘national broadcaster’ contributed to the obsession with ‘Irishness’ with which composers were obliged to engage. As Pine concludes, ‘There is no “school of Irish composition”; instead there has been a preoccupation with the “Irishness” of composition that has been more instructive than it has been productive’ (p. 288). I wonder might ‘destructive’ perhaps be substituted here for ‘instructive’, so much energy having been expended over so many years in what was ultimately an ‘unproductive’ enterprise?

If I must level one criticism at this otherwise excellent book, it relates to its title: Pine is concerned almost exclusively with R(T)É and art music, in particular (though certainly not exclusively) the Symphony Orchestra. ‘Music’ encompasses more than ‘art music’, even if one extends that to include the many orchestral arrangements of Irish tunes commissioned by (as it then was) particularly in the 1950s and early 60s or the varied programming of the Concert (Light) Orchestra. Equally, ‘broadcasting in Ireland’ has for many years no longer been limited to RTÉ and its various stations. A specific discussion of ‘Traditional Music’ is accorded but one fifteen-page section within the 129 pages of the chapter ‘Backbone’ (although it is mentioned elsewhere). This will surely disappoint those familiar with RTÉ’s engagement with traditional music which, as we have seen, goes back to its inception. If your interest lies in art music, or more broadly in Irish cultural history, this book is an absolute ‘must’. If your interests lie more in traditional or popular music or in jazz, you will not feel so well served. But one way or another, this book certainly represents a most significant contribution to the growing literature on Irish music in the twentieth century. Richard Pine is to be congratulated for documenting this story with such clarity and perception.

Published on 1 March 2006

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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