A composer who should be as well known as Elgar

 

MUSIC: MÁIRíN Nic EOINreviews An Chláirseach agus an Choróin: Seacht gCeolsiansa StanfordBy Liam Mac Cóil, An Leabhar Breac, 414pp. €20

WHY IS THE IRISH composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) not better known in Ireland? Why is he not as acclaimed internationally as his English contemporary Edward Elgar or his own Cambridge student Ralph Vaughan Williams?

The answer to these questions, according to the novelist and critic Liam Mac Cóil, lies not in the quality of his musical output but in the complex relationship between art and national politics. This book, like recent academic studies by Paul Rodmell and Jeremy Dibble, seeks to affirm Stanford as a major composer worthy of critical and popular attention. It does this by approaching the work from an Irish-language cultural perspective.

The book consists of impressionistic notes from the author’s diary that document his response, as an amateur music lover, to Stanford’s seven symphonies, the account interspersed with self-reflexive critical and historical commentary.

The music itself is the primary focus of the discussion, and Mac Cóil’s description of style and structure, his understanding of melody and orchestration, and his ability to trace influences and recognise musical quotations make these notes as detailed and informative as most professional concert-programme notes.

The commentary, which draws on Stanford’s own writing as well as on those of his contemporaries and biographers, situates the author’s aesthetic response in the context of the composer’s relationship to Ireland and to Irish musical culture.

Stanford, who was born in Dublin, has been recognised as an important figure in the story of 19th- and early-20th-century Irish and British art music. His significance as a composer who produced a large and critically acknowledged body of orchestral, choral and operatic works, as well as championing European art music in Britain and Ireland, was tempered by his intercultural position as a staunch and conservative Irish unionist, who lived and worked for most of his life in England. It is Stanford’s interculturality, embodied in his music, that attracts Mac Cóil to him.

While tracing the international and Irish strands in Stanford’s music, he explores the reasons cited for Stanford’s lack of recognition relative to his British contemporaries.

Despite his influence as professor of music at Cambridge University, his Irishness may have kept him on the margins of the British musical establishment. On the other hand, his unionist politics and English domicile precluded him from being acknowledged as a major national composer in Ireland, despite his work displaying characteristics that would allow comparison with the work of European contemporaries in other national contexts.

Mac Cóil focuses on the manner in which Stanford engaged with Irish material. The commentary ranges from the symphonies, including Stanford’s Irish Symphony (no 3); to a discussion of the comic opera Shamus O’Brien, based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s poem of 1798; to Stanford’s arrangements of Irish melodies; his editing of the Irish song collections of Moore and Petrie; his Irish rhapsodies; and his musical arrangement of the Old Irish prayer “Lúireach Phádraig” (“St Patrick’s Breastplate”), to which Mac Cóil devotes a detailed appendix.

Given that the music critic Christopher Howell has acknowledged that, where Stanford’s work is concerned, “we after all still know only the tip of the iceberg”, Mac Cóil’s insights are particularly valuable. His ear is finely attuned to both the European and Irish content in Stanford’s work, and his research into the context of the work is revealing. In the face of Harry White’s assertion that Stanford’s cultural position in relation to Irish ethnic material remained exogamous, Mac Cóil identifies a level of aesthetic affinity with native sources that he feels has not been given adequate critical recognition.

The true irony for Stanford, according to Mac Cóil, is that his social and ideological distance from the creative milieu of the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Revival movements sealed his fate not only within Irish musical history but also within the modern classical canon internationally. What he is proposing is no less than a radical reappraisal and recontextualisation.

The question of who will read this book is posed by the author himself, as part of a broader concern about the relationship between Irish-language criticism and other aspects of Irish cultural history. The perspective offered should be of interest to anyone concerned with Irish art music, with the role of music in Irish cultural history and with questions relating to what the musicologist John O’Flynn terms the Irishness of Irish music.

The fact that it is written in Irish may be less of an obstacle to the interested reader than the hybrid nature of the book’s structure and style. While for this reviewer it is an engaging example of the creative and critical potential of the diary form, there is a danger that the self-reflexive, and sometimes self-effacing, authorial stance may deflate the significance of the book’s argument.

It would have benefited from the inclusion of a more conventional introduction, to situate the author’s research and reflections more firmly in the context of the biographical and critical work cited regularly throughout the text.

For those familiar with Mac Cóil’s fiction and criticism, however, the book demonstrates once again his belief in the role of the creative intellectual, and his willingness and ability to challenge the strictures imposed by genre.


Máirín Nic Eoin is Cregan professor of Irish and head of the Irish department at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. Her latest book is the edited volume of poetry Gaolta Gairide,published recently by Cois Life