Brian Boydell: A musical rebel in Roaring Forties Dublin
The Irish composer’s memoir is a homage to artistic life in neutral Ireland during the war
Brian Boydell: Paints a picture of himself as someone who was never passive about anything
For the most damning verdicts on composers and performers, give critics a miss and head straight to other composers and performers. Here’s a mid-20th century sample of a response to a string trio by French composer Jean Françaix: “I had a most violent revulsion against this damned slickness of much of modern French music. This work is a bundle of clever tricks saying absolutely nothing. Got very angry indeed.”
Here’s a verdict on Berg’s Piano Sonata: “The harmonic idiom becomes very tiring, since there is not enough rhythmical vitality to relieve it. The harmonic tension seems rather indiscriminately planned, and one gets the impression that Berg was striving after noises, and losing sight of the movement of the music.”
Both quotations are from the 1950 diaries of Brian Boydell, which have been published in Rebellious Ferment: A Dublin Musical Memoir and Diary, edited by the composer’s son Barra for Cork University Press’s Atrium imprint.
The memoir was written in the 1990s and seems to have been intended as a homage to artistic life in the Ireland of the 1940s – the typescript bears the title “The Roaring Forties and Thereabouts”.
Boydell, born in 1917 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, was educated in England (Rugby and Cambridge) and Germany (Heidelberg) before taking a degree in music at TCD. His first-class degree in natural sciences from Cambridge was intended to equip him for the family business, supplying the Guinness brewery, and he did in fact work for a while as a maltster’s biochemist.
He painted as well as composed, and didn’t finally choose between visual art and music until 1944 – as a painter he was a member of the White Stag Group. He sang, he played the oboe, he conducted, he worked as an adjudicator and, for a while, he hoped to become a concert pianist.
He was deeply interested in cars, and was able to take a motoring holiday to Yugoslavia at the age of 21. The trials and tribulations of car ownership in the 1940s feature large in the memoir. He loved fishing, preferably on the river Boyne, and looked forward to it as a relief from the stresses of work. And the details of his gardening are lovingly described in the diary.
The memoir contains descriptions of boys’ comic-book adventures: the recalcitrant cars; grappling with a conger eel in a currach off Achill Island; sharing a boat with Charles Acton (who would later become music critic of this paper), who rowed like mad to flee a shark in Keem Bay; and getting involved in accidentally killing sheep by rolling large boulders over a cliff for fun.
These memories jostle with accounts of musical explorations – listening to 78rpm records with friends (a full list is provided for one weekend in April 1941), bringing the experiences of his foreign education to bear on musical life in Dublin, and engaging in a myriad of ways with an international, bohemian circle that was to be found during war in neutral Ireland.
The memoir is peppered with amusing descriptions and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the musical world of the time
He had to struggle with what he called “the reluctance of the majority of Irish people to accept me, with my background, as a true Irishman”, though, as he says himself, “A portion of that patronising British superiority that I so much resented at Rugby had invaded my subconscious thinking.”
He paints a picture of himself as someone who was never passive about anything. He conducted the amateur Dublin Orchestral Players from 1942 to 1967. He formed the 10-voice Dowland Consort specialising in Renaissance music and directed it from 1958 to 1969. His posh, plummy voice was a staple on Raidió Éireann, for which, from the late 1940s, he broadcast music talks – over a thousand of them, all told. He was a member of the Arts Council from 1961 to 1983, and professor of music at TCD from 1962 to 1982. And in his retirement he finally published books on music in 18th-century Dublin, a subject on which he had long engaged in scholarly research.
The memoir, which is peppered with amusing descriptions and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the musical world of the time, well reveals his belief that “the thrill of exploration was so much more fun in the days of scarcity: the mine of treasures was so difficult and often impossible to excavate”. And he had a definite nostalgia for the days “when amateur enthusiasm and voluntary work could achieve a great deal”, as if that’s no longer actually the case.
There are some moments of real insight, too, especially in a meeting with Shostakovich, on his visit to receive an honorary degree from TCD. “If I could sum up my impression from our fascinating conversation,” writes Boydell, “I would say that Shostakovich had been brought up with the Soviet ideals of Lenin, just as a sincere Irish Catholic who had been nurtured with his religion as part of unquestioned faith. Then, in the Irish context, along comes a bishop whose actions and teaching seem to contradict the fundamental beliefs so strongly held for a lifetime. In Russia, the errant bishop was Stalin, whose actions didn’t seem to follow the idealism of the faith in which Shostakovich had been nurtured.”
Have rarely sung better – curious how I can do things vocally when stimulated by an audience
The 1950 diary, discovered as recently as 2014, is of altogether more consistent interest than the memoir. It is as frank in tone as the memoir is rose-tinted, and his observations in it are often as blunt as they are insightful, whether they are about himself or about others.
The diary even mentions him having a glass of sherry and “a sniff of Benzedrine inhaler” before performing as a vocal soloist in Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Crediting his listeners rather than the amphetamine, he writes: “Have rarely sung better – curious how I can do things vocally when stimulated by an audience, which I can’t possibly accomplish in practice! Was able to sing all the high passages pianissimo, and sang throughout with great ease.”
Although the book is poorly edited (there are misspellings of names and inaccurate claims that are left uncorrected) it will stimulate and inform anyone interested in artistic life in 20th-century Ireland, and it will make a perfect Christmas gift for music-lovers.