Galway’s ‘Swansong’ festival offers talent and retrospective themes

Music for Galway programme is full of highlights with promise of new cello festival

Contempo Quartet

Contempo Quartet


Music for Galway has been running a mid-January chamber music festival for the last 15 years.

It took place at Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe from 2004 to 2006, relocated to its current venue, the Town Hall Theatre, in 2007, and has been branded as the Midwinter Festival since 2012, the last year that Jane O’Leary programmed Music for Galway’s activities.

In 2013, pianist Finghin Collins became the organisation’s artistic director, and he has used his position to make Music for Galway’s output more consistently thematic both across full seasons – this year’s is called Wanderlust – and also within the Midwinter programmes, which this year is entitled, Swansong – Intimations of Mortality.

His biggest innovation is planned for 2020, when Galway will share the title European City of Culture with Rijeka in Croatia. Music for Galway is using the Galway 2020 celebrations as a “springboard” for Cellissimo.

Finghin Collins Photograph: Frances Marshall
Finghin Collins Photograph: Frances Marshall

This cello-focused festival is intended to become a triennial event, and, in the words of the publicity, “will have it all: star performers, performances big and small, for big and small”.

This year’s Midwinter programme didn’t really stay close to the implications of the “intimations of mortality” subtitle. If it did it would at the very least have had to include Schoenberg’s late string trio, completed after the composer had a near-death experience.

Schoenberg’s heart stopped beating after complications from benzedrine as a treatment for asthma.

He incorporated references to the hypodermic needle that was used to make an injection directly into his heart into the trio, and, he told Thomas Mann, he even dealt with “the male nurses and all the other oddities of American hospitals”.

Swansong origins

The idea of swansong goes back to the Greeks, and comes from the belief that mute swans only sing just before they die.

Swansong is probably best captured in music in Orlando Gibbons’s madrigal, The Silver Swan, published at the safe remove of 13 years before the composer’s death.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines swansong as “a song like that fabled to be sung by a dying swan; the last work of a poet or musician, composed shortly before his death”.

Coupling the idea of a swansong with intimations of mortality is a romantic notion that, as the Galway programmes themselves amply demonstrated, is not necessarily at all closely connected to the kind of music composers have written at the end of their lives

Take for instance the three late and light children’s songs by Mozart, beautifully delivered by soprano Ailish Tynan with Collins himself at the piano. No intimations of mortality there.

Ailaish Tynan
Ailaish Tynan

Nor in the often relentlessly busy Piano Trio (played by Bogdan Sofei, violin, Adrian Mantu, cello, and Leon McCawley, piano) that Fanny Mendelssohn wrote in 1846, intended as birthday present for her younger sister Rebeckah. An American reviewer praised in 1856 as being “vigorous, so full of fire”.

The composer was close to death but didn’t know it. She survived the trio’s first performance in 1847 by just over a month.

The day she died she is reputed to have said, “It is probably a stroke, just like mother’s,” just before she lost consciousness after the second of two strokes on the one day. The first had rendered her unable to play the piano, the second killed her.

Her famous brother, Felix, would also die of a stroke just months later.

Death on the mind

Concern with mortality is not an obvious feature of the trio, nor is it of the Grosse Fuge composed by Beethoven in 1825, two years before his death from cirrhosis of the liver.

This fugue is one of the most daunting ever written, energetic, not quite graspable, a piece that still, nearly two centuries on, presses at the boundaries of the possible.

That pressure was very evident in the performance by the ConTempo String Quartet.

On the other hand Richard Strauss, who would die of kidney failure after a heart attack in 1949, certainly had death on his mind when he wrote the songs that were published posthumously as Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs).

Leon McCawley Photograph: Clive Barda
Leon McCawley Photograph: Clive Barda

He even changed the text of one of them, replacing a key word in the final line of Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot (In Sunset).

Eichendorff’s original Ist das etwa der Tod? (Is that perhaps death?) was turned into something personal, Ist dies etwa der Tod? (Is this perhaps death?).

The Vier letzte Lieder, beautifully and achingly handled by Tynan and Collins, is one of the greatest expressions of the reflective and autumnal in music, as is Brahms’s late Clarinet Quintet, written after the composer was prompted out of retirement by the playing of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld.

Brahms wrote it in the summer of 1891, some six years before his death from cancer at the age of 63. English clarinettist Michael Collins joined the ConTempo String Quartet in a performance that dwelt lovingly on the music’s often floating reflectiveness.

The other standout performance in this always thought-provoking festival featured Tynan, and the two Collinses (no relation) in Schubert’s hauntingly virtuosic Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.

And the ConTempos gave a performance of John Kinsella’s Fifth Quartet of 2013 that was much more abstract in its effect than the premiere at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival by the Vanbrugh Quartet.

Kinsella, who will turn 87 in April, was present for an alert and stimulating pre-performance interview with Finghin Collins.

The composer is thinking about his next symphony, but he wasn’t asked and didn’t say whether intimations of mortality would have any bearing on it.

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