Letters: Looking for the Irish Bartók

Dear Editor,David Flynn asks why has there not been an Irish Bartók and bemoans the lack of an Irish school of composition. If you were to ask, why has there not been an Irish Bach, or an Irish Beethoven, or an Irish Mantovani for that matter, perhaps...
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Dear Editor,

David Flynn asks why has there not been an Irish Bartók and bemoans the lack of an Irish school of composition.

If you were to ask, why has there not been an Irish Bach, or an Irish Beethoven, or an Irish Mantovani for that matter, perhaps the redundancy of the question would be apparent. Bartók wrote superb music not because he was Hungarian, or because he used Hungarian idioms, but because he was Bartók. Likewise Bach wrote superbly not because he used Lutheran hymns (folky by definition) but because he was Bach! Taking the mantle of Irish music and cloaking oneself in it will not significantly improve one’s ability to compose good music. One has to be a good composer.

Here’s another angle on it: a colleague told me that he didn’t use Irish idioms in his own music because he was interested in rhythm and he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life writing in 6/8. He has a point: triplet rhythms are one of the most obviously idiomatic features of traditional music (and yes, my colleague and I both know they are often played not as triplets but with some unequal weighting depending on the context). Four-square phrase structures are another, at least in the dance music (the concept of which in any case was imported, by all accounts).

For myself, maybe the idea of sean-nós pulselessness is an influence which lies behind a lot of the textural music which I write, but it doesn’t sound particularly Irish when I do it. Perhaps I’m doing something wrong.

And what is it about an ‘Irish school of composition’ that is so desirable, in any case? A school in this sense is only seen in retrospect, and then usually by one with imperfect, even blinkered vision, and in any case it is no indication of homogeneity of aesthetic: you have only to consider the so-called Second Viennese School of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern, three composers whose musical styles are completely different from one another, to grasp my point. Composers compose the music they want to compose, not the music someone else wants them to compose so that they can be neatly packaged into a ‘school’ or style.

The question of style also arises in David Flynn’s statement that any efforts so far made by Irish composers to use traditional idioms in concert music composition have been attempts to turn their hand to dominant European and American ‘schools’ in the absence of ‘a school of their own’. I will leave it to Eric Sweeney and Seóirse Bodley (as the two composers cited) and perhaps to Bill Whelan and Donal Lunny (as two composers not) to respond to this as I am sure they will have something to say about Mr Flynn’s admonishment that ‘such composers must engage with traditional and contemporary music in a way that has not been done before’, as though they hadn’t.

Finally, if I were to write that Irishness should be an essential characteristic of the speech of any person wishing to be identified as Irish, or more extremely, that being able to speak in Irish should be an essential characteristic of any person wishing to be identified as Irish, then I think it becomes apparent how narrow would be the criteria for Irish citizenship. Why then should it be that case that ‘“Irishness” should be an essential characteristic of the music of any composer wishing to be identified as Irish’?

Curiously, at the other end of the same issue was an article on the music of Peadar Ó Riada which was very stimulating in that it approached the same issues from the other side: here, I read, is a traditional musician, with a classical training, composing music for traditional players and singers using all his compositional skills to create music which is original, but with its roots in the traditional. Perhaps the answer is there? Perhaps we have found our Irish Bartók. Now what? Should we all now start to compose like Peadar Ó Riada? Of course not! Let’s put this old chestnut to bed!

Fergus Johnston
Dublin

Published on 1 September 2005

Fergus Johnston is a Dublin-based composer. His CD Ard Fhearta has just been released and is available in Tower Records, the National Concert Hall shop, and the Contemporary Music Centre.

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