Recorded: Seóirse Bodley
The third volume in RTÉ’s Composers of Ireland series turns the spotlight on Seóirse Bodley with three works drawn from separate performances at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, in June 2001 (A small white cloud drifts over Ireland), January 2002 (Chamber Symphony No. 1) and December 2003 (Symphony No. 2).
The earliest work, the four-movement Chamber Symphony No. 1, dates from 1964 and was, at the time of composition, an Irish entry in a UNESCO-organised International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. Preceded by a darkly shimmering Largo, its four movements, pushing determinedly forward in a wilful juxtaposition of serialism and free composition, provoked contemporary consternation and seem to remain, for some at least, decidedly problematic. At a time when classical orthodoxy was determinedly resisting the accommodation of the new and the other, the Chamber Symphony was accused of a double crime: referencing traditional Irish music elements and occupying the middle ground between tonality and atonality.
A compact work for eleven players loosely anchored in the questing agitation of a string quartet, it begins with vividly delineated contrasts between measured lyricism and unfettered drama and concludes with those same impulses refracted into dancing effusiveness and an animated rhetoric that borders on delirium. The journey from one to the other is mediated by movements that are, by turns, vigorous and violent, tense, taut and elegiac.
For all the argumentative heat the work has generated, in retrospect, the attempt to inject a belated degree of modernity into Irish orchestral music seems an admirable reflex, not least when it is expressed, by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with Robert Houlihan at the helm, with appropriately nervous energy, if never quite the biting conviction it properly needs.
Bodley’s ability to position himself away from musical polarities and to occupy, instead, a median – and melting – point between apparently contrary positions found an expressively provocative outlet in 1976’s A small white cloud drifts over Ireland. In a single, continuous movement, it collides new-minted signatures drawn from Irish traditional music – in fragments of a freshly composed jig, reel and slow air – with defining tenets of the mid-twentieth century European avant-garde. The result is a kaleidoscopic work in which strongly contrasted musical shards slide against, crash into and rebound off each other to often purposeful (and occasionally inconsequential) effect.
By the time of the second symphony (I have loved the lands of Ireland), five years later, Bodley’s fusing of traditional Irish folk idioms with the mainstream language of the symphony orchestra was clearly in step with the earlier aspirations of Seán Ó Riada.
Composed in memoriam Pádraig Pearse, Bodley says the symphony ‘evokes three aspects of Ireland: reality, experience and myth’ and as each folds one into the other, it attempts to simultaneously offer forward-moving narrative and reflective commentary. So, striving strings, ebullient woodwind, impatient percussion and noble brass trip over each other in thrusting rhythms and luminous melodies to describe a series of incidents and images that evoke a picturesque and sentimental experience.
Robert Houlihan delivers lightly structured, relatively pacy, approachable accounts in surprisingly good sound for live recordings. The composer provides his own notes.
Published on 1 April 2009
Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.