Celebration of Irish composers neglects women and living composers under 30

Composing the Island festival is huge, but it neglects women and living composers under 30

Composing the Island is quite simply off the scale when it comes to the celebration of Irish composers. The festival, which will run from September 7th-25th, extends to seven orchestral concerts and 20 concerts of vocal, chamber, instrumental and choral music.

It is a joint venture between RTÉ and the National Concert Hall, is sponsored by Bord na Móna and is part of the Easter Rising centenary commemorations. The period covered is the past 100 years (with a little latitude), and the September timing was chosen to help give the event profile away from the glut of celebrations last March and April.

Adventurous aspects

One of the most adventurous aspects of the programme is the decision to create a chronological trajectory through the orchestral concerts, with a return to the beginning at the end. The major work in the first programme is the 1927 Symphony No 1 ( Glencree) by Ina Boyle (1889-1967), a reclusive figure who grew up in Enniskerry in the house where Chris de Burgh now lives, and managed to travel to London for private lessons with Vaughan Williams. And the closing work is also by a woman: the 1923 rhapsody for tenor, chorus and orchestra Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, a Walt Whitman setting by Rhoda Coghill (1903-2000).

Coghill's rhapsody shares the final programme with The Wind among the Reeds, a 1921 cantata by Northern Irish composer Norman Hay (1889-1943). At about 35 minutes each, these two works are the longest in the festival programme and will provide an unfamiliar perspective on a period of Irish music where the dominant figures have been seen as Charles Villiers Stanford and Hamilton Harty.


It’s Stanford’s name that crops up most frequently. He has 11 works included, but in terms of proportionality that number is slightly inflated by the inclusion of six of his songs.

Other composers whose profile is raised through songs are Harty, Herbert Hughes and Philip Martin. Songs apart, just three composers are represented by five works or more: Brian Boydell, Raymond Deane and Donnacha Dennehy.

Neither national profile nor international success is a reliable predictor of what's in and what's out. Seán Ó Riada features just once, through his Hercules Dux Ferrariae of 1957, and Belfast-born Howard Ferguson, whose music was performed and recorded by Myra Hess, Kathleen Ferrier, Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern, features just twice, through his orchestral Partita and Five Bagatelles for piano.

The Irishness of the featured composers has been interpreted liberally, with works included by Arnold Bax, EJ Moeran, Percy Buck, Charles Kitson, Michele Esposito and Fritz Brase, based on the time they spent here, but not Raymond Warren, Malcolm Arnold, Adrian Thomas, George Newson, Piers Hellawell, Agustín Fernández, James Clarke, Robert Simpson, Hormoz Farhat or David Harold Cox.

There are a number of inclusions that might not have been predicted. There's a programme by the Band of the Defence Forces School of Music, a concert of pieces written specially for children's choir performed by RTÉ Cór na nÓg and no fewer than three organ recitals, although none of these includes anything by two of the most prolific of Irish organ composers, Eric Sweeney and David Byers.

All-Irish programming is a relative rarity, apart from anniversaries and occasions such as St Patrick’s Day, so the programmes that are most intriguing for me in advance are the tightly focused chronological ones, those concentrating on the output of a period of 10-15 years or so: chamber music of the 1930s and orchestral music from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s.

Negative message

The announcement of the programme has been tainted by complaints about the representation of women composers. The organ recitals are an all-man domain, and Michael McHale's Celebration of 21st- Century Piano Music is also an all-man affair.

The failure of the 500 words of introductory text on the Composing the Island webpage to mention a single living woman composer sends a negative message, as does the absence of any first performance of a work by a woman.

The biggest faux pas is the omission of one of the country's most successful composers, Jennifer Walshe. Would an equally successful male – and there are not many – have been omitted? I doubt it.

Walshe is at the cutting edge, and her omission highlights the fact that the RTÉ orchestras and the National Concert Hall are not where it’s at when it comes to new music. The NCH borrowed experimentalism for a while, when the Kevin Barry Room was a bare-bones performing space. Now that it has been spruced up, the music it used to host has had to go elsewhere.

I undertook a statistical exercise and calculated the percentages of living woman composers from those listed by the Contemporary Music Centre, the Irish Composers’ Collective and the Association of Irish Composers, and compared the proportions to the content of the festival. The discrepancies were minimal, less than 1 per cent.

But if you crunch the numbers not by composer but by the number of works played, the men win out. So don’t expect the complaints to fade away any day soon. And there’s another issue in the neglect of living composers under 30, only three of whom make the cut.

A declaration of interest. I'm editing a book, The Invisible Art: A Century of Irish Music 1916-2016, which is being published in connection with the festival.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com