Resurrecting music that existed before the founding of the Irish State

Recollections of Ireland at NCH focused on rarely-heard music composed before 1917

Rarely-heard music: Pianist Úna Hunt and friends resurrected forgotten music  under the title ‘Recollections of Ireland’

Rarely-heard music: Pianist Úna Hunt and friends resurrected forgotten music under the title ‘Recollections of Ireland’

 

Who were the Irish composers of the 19th century? At the end of his History of Irish Music, published in 1905, WH Grattan Flood apologised for dealing so little with that century. He had, he wrote, touched only on “the more important composers”. He named them as Field, Cooke, O’Rourke, Wade, Balfe, Wallace, Osborne, Stewart, Holmes, and Stanford.

He did, however, add a list of 20-odd names to flesh out the picture and, with an eye to the future, offered some 60 more from among the living “to prove that Ireland can still boast of musical sons and daughters, inheritors of the traditions of past ages”. Most of the 90 or so names are long forgotten and the music they wrote neglected. (You can check out the full lists in an online version of the book at url.ie/11qf0.)

For five consecutive Wednesdays in March and April, the National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Recital Room echoed to the sounds of rarely-heard music, some of it by the musical leaders chosen by Grattan Flood. With a cut-off date of 1917, and adding in some non-Irish music with Irish connections, pianist Úna Hunt and friends resurrected this cast-aside repertoire under the title Recollections of Ireland. If there’s ever in modern times been a larger celebration of Irish music of this period, I have not heard of it.

The three concerts that I managed to attend, however, were not exactly a musical feast. The invitation on the flyer for the series was to “Discover lost and forgotten music composed before 1917” and the focus was not on the quality of the music. This was not a series that went out of its way to seek out and highlight the very best that could be found but one that seemed more concerned with breadth of embrace.

Victorian parlour music

Hunt’s approach was less curator more collector, eager to show the extent  and inclusiveness of her labour. A lot of the time she kept us in the world of Victorian parlour music, the world in which Leander Fisher’s Robin’s Return and Tekla Badarzewska’s A Maiden’s Prayer were big hits. Both pieces are still in print in the long-running Lilac Series which used to be found in piles on the tops of pianos or in many a piano stool.

There’s more life in these works than you might think. In 2002 Philip Martin recorded a CD for Hyperion under the title The Maiden’s Prayer and other gems from an old piano stool. But, even in the world of parlour music, there’s quite a difference between the leaders and the also rans. And there are very good reasons why Hunt’s selections disappeared from view such a long, long time ago.

Recollections of Ireland did, of course, successfully make the point that Ireland has a much greater legacy of 19th century music than most people realise. And they were not all men. She included two pieces by Fanny Robinson (1831-79) and two by Paris-born Augusta Holmès (1847-1903), whose father was from Youghal.

Five of Holmès’s orchestral works appeared on CD in the 1990s and last month she was announced as one of five composers in a BBC Radio 3 project “to bring long-overdue recognition to women whose musical genius has been confined to the pages of history”. The others are Leokadiya Kashperova (1872-1940), Marianna Martines (1744-1813), Florence B Price (1887-1953), and Johanna Müller-Hermann (1868-1941). Each composer was nominated by an academic who will choose “a major, previously unrecorded work” for radio broadcast by the BBC’s orchestras and choirs.

The last Irish performance of any of Holmès’s orchestral works that I know of was given in a BBC invitation concert by the Ulster Orchestra in 1988, when Robert Houlihan conducted her 1882 symphonic poem, Irlande. There’s a clear opening here for the RTÉ Lyric FM label.

Programming flaw

Holmès was not the only composer of substance in Recollections of Ireland. Other composers who could have done with greater exposure included Victor Herbert (1859-1924, born in Dublin a famous in the US as a composer of operettas), Swan Hennessy (1866-1929, born in Illinois to a Cork father), and Italian-born Michele Esposito (1855-1929 who was a human dynamo in Dublin’s musical life for more than four decades).

It seemed a pity that while a whole concert was given to William Vincent Wallace (1812-65), room was found for just a single movement from a piano trio by another composer famous for his operas, Michael William Balfe (1808-70). The exposure given to Limerick-born George Alexander Osborne (1806-93) was the series’ most balanced achievement.

The big flaw in these concerts was one of programming. Hunt seems not to have grasped that a selection of works made for CD, or for downloading, is an entirely different proposition to a full evening concert. The case for quantity has been made, in concerts that sometimes seemed like a meal of macarons. But in the end, it’s the case for quality that will win the public over.  mdervan@irishtimes.com

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