Composing the Island: Starting with the best works is never wise

The celebration of 100 years of Irish composition hits mid-century, revealing a dark age for orchestral music

The Composing the Island festival at the National Concert Hall, surveying the past 100 years of music in Ireland, has presented a lot of music that has remained unperformed for a very long time. Reassessment is the order of the day, and the first tranche of concerts may well trigger a revival of fortune for some long-neglected figures active in the 1920s and 1930s.

The second tranche of events dealt mostly with better-known names, but the message from the week’s two orchestral concerts was rather less encouraging. You could almost see the 1950s and 1960s as having been a kind of dark age for orchestral music.

The first concert, given by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under David Brophy, followed a chronological sequence that saw the evening's two best works placed at the start of the programme, a strategy that's definitely not to be recommended.

Brian Boydell’s In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi (1948), heartfelt in its slow tread, has long been the composer’s best-known orchestral work. Seán Ó Riada’s Hercules Dux Ferrariae (1957), a set of variations for string orchestra (think of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge) is a spirited showcase by a 26-year-old flexing his muscles with a naivety and directness that are disarming.


John F Larchet’s By the Waters of Moyle (1957), Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair’s Waltz from Nocturne sa Chearnóig (1959) and TC Kelly’s Fantasia (1958) showed composers using their considerable skills to write in a style of music that suited Éamon de Valera’s protectionist Ireland with its vision of comely maidens, sweetness and light.

Archives in the former Soviet Union are full of kindred works written to fulfil official ideals in a style that viewed folk music and historic musical practices through rose-tinted spectacles.

The jazz flavour of Noel Kelehan’s Cuchulainn’s Lament (1967) was a breath of fresh air by comparison.

Gerard Victory and AJ Potter were major figures of their time whose hold on performers and audiences has not endured as well as might have been expected. Victory wrote his In Memoriam James Connolly in 1966, and it now sounds uncomfortably sentimental and softcore, a bit like a film score pressing well-worn buttons.

AJ Potter’s Sinfonia “de Profundis” won the composer a Jacob’s Broadcasting Award in 1969. The piece is full of memorable gestures that the composer doesn’t seem to have known quite what do with other than let them all hang out. The music is gaudy, corny (a wrong-note waltz that doesn’t know when to stop), an intentional stylistic mish-mash that’s unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. The incisive bluntness of Brophy’s account, though always sonically imposing, may not have helped the work.

The RTÉ Symphony Orchestra made its first appearance at the festival on Friday, with Gerhard Markson conducting a programme that picked up in the late 1960s with a piece well beyond the scale of the RTÉ CO.

Not a cod
Seóirse Bodley's Configurations (1966) first performed in January 1967, was welcomed in these pages as "probably the most avant-garde music ever presented live in Dublin". Charles Acton's review at the time also cautioned that, "Almost certainly some people there thought it must be a cod", and added that "I am quite sure it is nothing of the kind. And that it is much more than note-spinning or gimmicks."

Configurations uses a spatial reconfiguration that places an electric guitar, celesta and piano at the front of the orchestra, and would not have been alone in alienating some of its early listeners. There were walkouts when Peter Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Blis was premiered at the Proms in London in 1969, and some members of the audience barracked the first performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Trans in Donaueschingen in 1971 with whistling, laughter and ironic applause.

Bodley’s angular, fragmented Configurations employs metronome marks with decimal points (a precision beyond the metronomes that were on sale in the 1960s) and calls for two orchestral leaders, each with stopwatches. It was a ground-breaking work that finally linked up the world of Irish music with the European avant-garde, a historical importance that has not yet endeared the piece to planners at RTÉ, the only institution in the State with the resources to perform it.

Less than 10 years later, Bodley’s A Small White Cloud Drifts over Ireland (1975) shocked listeners by opening with a D major chord and proceeding to juxtapose avant-garde elements and the sound-world of traditional Irish music. Both works were sympathetically handled by Markson.

But other freedoms of the future had been more accurately foreseen in Raymond Deane’s Embers (1973), originally for string quartet, later arranged for string orchestra, in which fashionably avant-garde sonorities are cast aside as fully as they would be a few years later in Estonia, when Arvo Pärt found his mature voice.

The concert ended with Gerald Barry’s From the Intelligence Park (1986, originally titled Of Queen’s Gardens), a collage-like piece, sometimes calmly mono-linear, sometimes fiercely aggressive, the work of what was even then one of the most distinctive voice that Irish music has yet produced.

The festival's chronological thrust was quite upset by Paul Hillier's programme with Chamber Choir Ireland; the high points were 21st-century works from the choir's repertoire by David Fennessy and Barry. The standout piece in Michael McHale's lunchtime piano recital was Ian Wilson's upbeat, frisky Sonnenwende (2009).

Concerts by Concorde and the RTÉ Contempo Quartet adhered to the broader chronology, with the Contempo bringing a fresh bite to John Kinsella’s Quartet No 3 (1977) and Concorde shining in Eric Sweeney’s Strings in the Earth and Air for violin and viola (1988) and the chunky thrust of Stephen Gardner’s Trane (1996).

Composing the Island continues at the NCH until Sunday