Feis Ceoil the biggest loss to Irish classical calendar

Coronavirus ravages cultural schedule but online musical archives will reward raiding

Coronavirus continues to ravage the cultural calendar for the next few months. Music for Galway has cancelled all of its April events. Both the Good Friday Passion concert that was to launch its Abendmusik series and the new nine-day Cellissimo festival that was due to start on Thursday, April 23rd, have been postponed to 2021. Many organisers of events much later in the year are already also considering their positions.

The English music agency Hazard Chase has been driven into liquidation by the widespread international shutdown. The agency represented Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan, who performed in Dublin earlier this month, and whose performance of Bach's St John Passion in Cologne's Philharmonie on March 15th was given to an empty auditorium. But its audience will be huge. It was streamed online and the video can now be viewed on philharmonie.tv.

The agency's artists included Irish singers Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Paula Murrihy and Dean Power, and the Brodsky Quartet (whose long-time viola player, Paul Cassidy, hails from Derry). Violinist Anthony Marwood (a former artistic director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra) and a host of other performers who are well-known to Irish audiences were also with the agency.

The biggest single Irish loss so far is of the Feis Ceoil, an event which was due to start last Monday and which affects thousands of lives, young and old. I well remember the excitement and nerves of working towards a Feis competition, facing either the disappointment of defeat or the uplift of success, and which in my case peaked with a silver medal in the Elsner Memorial Cup for duos of piano with a string, wind or brass instrument.


The Elsner is one of a long list of named competitions in the Feis, with only a tiny proportion named after the living, most notably Veronica Dunne and Ite O'Donovan.

Some of the family names are memorialised outside of the Feis. Florence Culwick was, from 1907 to 1929, conductor of the Culwick Choral Society which her father had founded in 1898, and Turner Huggard and Alice Yoakley, later conductors of the choir, also have competitions named after them.

The Elsner sisters were not bad neighbours, as neighbours go. They made a little too much music, that was the only fault I could find with them

Many of the young Feis entrants have little idea of the lives or achievements of the individuals whose names are engraved on the cups they compete for. That was certainly true of me when I was a competitor. The Elsners, I later discovered, were a family of musicians, descended from the German cellist Wilhelm Elsner, who arrived in Dublin in 1851 and died tragically at sea in 1884, when he disappeared overboard en route to Holyhead.

The Dublin-born composer Charles Villiers Stanford (who also has a prize named after him) wrote for Elsner – O Domine Jesu, a song with cello obbligato, and an 1869 Rondo for cello and orchestra, which has been recorded for Hyperion Records by Gemma Rosefield. Samuel Beckett had music lessons from one of the family, Ida, and there is a mention of "the Elsner sisters" in his novel Molloy – "The Elsner sisters were not bad neighbours, as neighbours go. They made a little too much music, that was the only fault I could find with them."

Wilhelm Elsner died too early to make recordings. But the list of Feis competition names includes one of the greatest recording artists of all time, the tenor John McCormack. McCormack's work is well documented, and, like the work of Mayo soprano Margaret Burke-Sheridan, can be readily found on YouTube. There's even some silent film footage of her from 1922, a video of a lecture by her biographer Anne Chambers, and an RTÉ radio documentary. McCormack's singing of Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima is not to be missed. The great tenor's teacher and accompanist, Vincent O'Brien, also has a competition named after him, as does O'Brien's son Oliver.

Gervase Elwes was an English tenor who took part in the first Irish performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius in 1913, the first English performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in 1914, and was a Feis adjudicator in 1918. He gave the first performance of Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge in 1909, thrilled the composer by it, and later recorded songs from the cycle, which can be heard on and downloaded from archive.org.

Hamilton Harty, composer, conductor and accompanist, was one of the stars of the conducting and recording world in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was conductor of the Hallé Orchestra – credited with bringing the standard of English orchestral playing to new heights – and, briefly, the London Symphony Orchestra. He conducted first English performances of works by Debussy, Honegger, Mahler and Strauss, and also William Walton’s First Symphony, which he also recorded.

A range of his recordings can be found on archive.org, including works by Hector Berlioz, of whom he was a noted champion, and he can be heard as pianist, too, including a performance of Brahms's Clarinet Trio with the clarinettist Charles Draper and the violinist Arthur Catterall. Catterall, whose name also graces a Feis competition, was leader of the Hallé Orchestra from 1907-1925 and led his own string quartet, which played in Ireland on a number of occasions.

You'll also find on archive.org recordings of baritone Harry Plunket Greene (whose family influenced Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies, and whose son Richard married 1960s fashion designer Mary Quant) and copies of his 1912 book, the Interpretation of Song. His recording of Schubert's Der Leiermann in English is like none other.

If you have the time you can find all sorts of other gems from the early years of recording on the website of the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (charm.rhul.ac.uk) and on British Library Sounds (sounds.bl.uk). There are also websites such as shellackophile.blogspot.com where private individuals share transfers of out-of-copyright recordings from the 78rpm era. But be warned. If you're musically curious, it's a pursuit that can become addictive.