Centenary concerts neglect to take the revolutionary road

Michael Dervan: Two evenings of music and words as part of Ireland 2016 got me thinking about the links that were missed

Sometimes you really don't end up where you thought you would. Last week the National Concert Hall presented Imagining Home, a series of concerts as part of the Government's Ireland 2016 programme. I went to two of them, Into Europe and On Revolution, hosted respectively by Fintan O'Toole and Colm Tóibín.

Both were long and wordy evenings and not quite what most people understand by the word “concert”.

Into Europe featured Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett's Not I and Footfalls (the stage curtained off, the hall blacked out for her performances), with appearances by Owen Roe (declaiming a defence George Bernard Shaw proposed for the trial of Roger Casement), Olwen Fouéré (in The Nightmare of Empire/The Dream of Empire, an imaginative trip into the mind of Casement by Fintan O'Toole) and a cameo appearance by Fiona Shaw (in TS Eliot).

On Revolution was more tightly focused, with readings and presentations by Ahdaf Soueif, Joseph O'Neill, Eva Hoffman, Hisham Matar and Adam Zagajewski, their words reminding us of the personal, the human that oppressive military might so vainly strives to eradicate.


A kitsch transformation

There was music, too, of course. For Into Europe, Barry Douglas and his Camerata Ireland offered arrangements of Schubert (for piano solo by Liszt) and Field (for piano and orchestra by Douglas, whose smarmy string backgrounds transformed some of the Nocturnes into kitsch), and Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, in a performance that left the music's often agonising sound-world sounding decidedly underexpressed.

Back in the 1960s the Threnody was described as a "profoundly disturbing piece of apparently hopeless cataclysmic atmosphere in a highly individual technique of composition and instrumentation". At the NCH, the audience was prompted to experience it as "beautiful". Penderecki is the composer Stanley Kubrick turned to for music for The Shining, a film that's about as chilling as horror movies get.

On Revolution offered Berlioz's Élégie en Prose, and a spontaneous, raw setting of Thomas Moore's When He Who Adores Thee – "the sole occasion on which I was able to express a feeling of the sort directly in music while still under its active influence", said the composer in his memoirs.

There was also a snippet from Frederic Rzewski's mammoth variations on Sergio Ortega's Chilean Resistance song The People United Will Never Be Defeated; Chopin's Revolutionary study, both played by Michael McHale; excerpts from string quartets by Philip Glass (Mishima) and Beethoven (the Quartet in E minor, Op 59 No 2), both from the Vanbrugh Quartet; and the specially commissioned The Dark Places, with text by Colm Tóibín and music by Donnacha Dennehy.

Tóibín has created a dialogue between Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement, whose paths crossed in the Congo Free State, a misnamed place if ever there was one. It was the private possession of Leopold II of Belgium, in which human rights abuses are believed to have led to the deaths of 10 million people.

Dennehy's approach to words and voices – baritone Robin Adams and bass Stephen Richardson – is reverential. It was impressive how the words were projected so easily and the vocal lines sat so comfortably over the instrumental background of the Crash Ensemble under Alan Pierson. The effect was not unlike those concerto recordings that place a giant violin in front of a pygmy orchestra.

In The Dark Places the effect was to highlight the lyricism of the vocal writing and diminish the richness that the microtonal inflections of the instrumental ensemble contributed to the mix.

The two evenings set me thinking on the musical connections that were available for the making. For Europe, there's the Dublin tenor Michael Kelly (1762-1826), who was a colleague of Mozart. The composer wrote the roles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio in Le Nozze di Figaro for his Irish friend.

The Limerick composer George Alexander Osborne (1806-1893), was a regular visitor to Paris, where his friends included Berlioz and Chopin. Dublin composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) spent most of his life in England, but he studied in Leipzig and was known for his espousal of the music of Brahms.

The composer and cellist Victor Herbert (1859-1924) is best-known for the operettas of his American years. But, after spending his childhood in London with his grandfather, Samuel Lover, he studied and worked in Stuttgart, and spent time in Vienna with the orchestra of Eduard Strauss.

In the 20th century, Brian Boydell, Aloys Fleischmann and Frederick May all reached past London to study in Europe, although English taste certainly left a stronger mark on the music of Boydell and May than anything further afield. Seóirse Bodley's studies in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s inspired him to become the first Irish composer to embrace the ideals of the postwar European avant-garde.

Major centres in Europe have long been regular staging posts in the training of Irish composers.

A number of European composers worked in Ireland in the 18th century (Geminiani is buried here). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Italian composer and pianist Michele Esposito was a key figure in Dublin's musical life.

Revolutionary connections

There is no shortage of revolutionary musical connections at the remove from Ireland of Chopin or Rzewski. Revolutionary celebration was a major part of Soviet musical life, drawing in great men such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev as well as others whose music remains largely unheard. The strangest I have come across is the émigré Nicolas Obouhow (1892-1954), who filled in the expression marks in his Kniga Zhizni (The Book of Life) in his own blood, to symbolise the bloodshed of the Russian Revolution. Obouhow also developed a notation system that dispensed with the traditional system of sharps and flats.

Perhaps the strongest revolutionary connection to Ireland is that of Englishman Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981), at one time an assistant to Stockhausen, but who, as a Maoist in the 1970s, went on to write the book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. Among his other politically inspired ventures were simple songs and piano pieces in support of Irish republicans. They never figured much in Ireland while Cardew was alive, so they will probably not figure in the 1916 centenary celebrations, either.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com