Irish writers pick their favourite pieces of music
From traditional tunes to the magic of Mozart, some Irish writers name their favourite tunes, ahead of a concert featuring their picks at the Royal Irish Academy of Music
Novelist Claire Kilroy: “’She Moved Through the Fair’ is one of the saddest but most alluring songs ever written.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Mozart: Madamina, il catalogo e’ questo from Don Giovanni
I spent a year translating Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and got to know it well - too well, sometimes. But I particularly like the Madamina aria. It comes relatively early in the plot, so it was great to encounter it and its challenges so early in the job. It’s so witty and cruel, a great slice of drama, and finding the English words to fit the rhythm – and enough of them to rhyme – was hugely invigorating.
Traditional: She Moved Through the Fair
This is one of the saddest but most alluring songs ever written. There is the observer – the singer – and the observed – his young bride to be. We listen as he watches her, his heart’s desire, vivid and elusive as she moves through the fair, stepping away from him, free, happy, lovely. He seems almost helpless in his rapture. He does not speak, he does not act, he just gazes.
In death, he finds he is still gazing at her, helpless now in his loss. The force of his longing conjures up her ghost and again she promises herself to him, only this time her promise – that it will not be long before their wedding day – is chilling. Only death can marry them. She is waiting. So is the grave. I have always loved ghost stories and I dearly love this one which, in its melodic way, haunts me.
Carrickfergus is a tune that bridges many traditional divides. It has diverse roots. The original Irish language version was bawdy and ripalong, whereas the English language version is sad, poignant and nostalgic. Like the best poetry, it is open and available for interpretation. Also it’s a long-standing favourite of mine at parties and family gatherings. One of my many faults is that I do sing but I can’t. Therefore it’s a great honour that Robert McAllister will bring us on that long road down to the wide salty sea.
JS Bach: Prelude from Suite No 1 in G major, BWV 1007
It was in my last year at school (1959/1960) when I saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day in the cinema, a film documentary of the Newport jazz festival intercut with yachts in the 1958 America’s Cup trials. I have watched it many times: Thelonious Monk, Chico Hamilton, Jack Teagarden and many others spellbinding us. It was only on my last viewing that I realised the collar-and-tie coolness of the 1950s. And the girl’s hats.
The music was faultless and utterly memorable but there was one scene that I could not get out of my head – of a musician practising in a boarding house, endlessly lighting cigarettes and playing the cello. For weeks afterwards I looked for a recording of this piece only to find that it was by JS Bach, one of his cello suites. I bought a recording by Pablo Casals and I still listen to it. For a more up to date sound and ravishing playing, try David Watkin’s version released in 2015.
O’Carolan: Farewell to Music
It might seem odd that a piece as poignant and full of emotion as Carolan’s Farewell to Music raises happy memories for me, yet it does. As children, myself and some of my siblings attended the Royal Irish Academy for weekly music lessons. My sister, Eimear, played the harp. I have loved Carolan ever since my early teens, when, one night, I heard the broadcaster Marian Richardson play a piece of his on her radio programme. And I have only the fondest recollections of walking the academy’s corridors, hearing, among all the other beautiful music, the sound of my sister Eimear playing Carolan. He was really a great genius, an outward-looking artist who combined the best of the Irish tradition within which he found himself working with the Italianate stylings of composers like Geminiami. I think this is what gives his music that very particular and powerful mix of raw emotion and a perhaps gentler eloquence and elegance, the interplay of the two bringing about a sort of humanity and grandeur that I love.
Catalani: Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from La Wally
When I was at college in the 1980s, I had a friend, Kit, who lived for a pittance in rent in a semi-derelict house on Dublin’s Henrietta Street. The house had been a tenement in living memory: 80 people had once lived there.
Kit’s cavernous room was at the back on the ground floor. It had a marble fireplace, bare floorboards, original windows with wooden shutters, double-height ceilings, and original cornices. The room was always freezing in winter, even when Kit lit the fire with wood from pallets he salvaged from nearby Moore Street market.
I was a frequent visitor to that house over my college years; entranced by the storied romance of its Georgian dereliction. One evening when I was around, Kit played Vladimir Cosma’s soundtrack from Diva, a cult 1981 movie he loved by Jean-Jacques Beineix. We lay on the centuries-old floorboards, holding hands and staring at the ceiling, as the music played at full volume. The stirring arias filled the huge room, and transported us from smog-filled, recession-depressed 1980s Dublin to somewhere else; to an elsewhere of possibilities.
Kit made a bootleg tape recording of the music for me, and I listened to it often on my Walkman while cycling to college. My heart never failed to soar when I heard the urgency of the music expressed in Ebben? Ne andrò lontana; it felt like an intimation of the independence I was longing to discover, to new experiences and adventures, and all the life and living that was to lie beyond after college.
Writer’s Choice takes place tonight at the Royal College of Physicians, 6 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, as part of MusicTown in Dublin in association with the RIAM at 6.30pm. Tickets €8/€5 from riam.ie