In praise of Composing the Island - lost Irish treasures unearthed

The festival unearthed fine compositions that were sadly neglected in the past 100 years

The Vanbrugh Quartet: made a strong impression with Frederick May’s Quartet as part of the “Composing the Island” festival

The Vanbrugh Quartet: made a strong impression with Frederick May’s Quartet as part of the “Composing the Island” festival

 

The most important fact about Composing the Island is that it is happening at all. It’s a 28-concert celebration of the last 100 years of Irish music, inspired by the centenary of the Easter Rising and presented by RTÉ and the National Concert Hall with sponsorship by Bord na Móna. It includes seven orchestral concerts, with the rest being devoted to compositions on a smaller scale.

Irish composers were not obvious candidates for consideration in an Easter Rising centenary context. The most celebrated Irish composer of 100 years ago, Dubliner Charles Villiers Stanford, was an avowed unionist, and, like his successor, Hamilton Harty, his career was based in England.

The Irish State was quick to establish an army school of music and to set up bands for its army and police force: both were in place to give performances as early as 1923. However, a symphony orchestra had to wait until 1948, a concert hall until 1981 (even the John F Kennedy Memorial Hall, announced in 1964 as the country’s official memorial to the late US president, was never built) and third-level primary degrees for performers and composers came later still, the latter only in the 21st century.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the organs of the Irish State have often tended to marginalise native composers rather than embrace them. So the programming in Composing the Island is like a kind of giant corrective, conceived on such a scale that the event is likely to be, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Last decade

The festival opened with Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No 4 (The Fisherman of Lough Neagh and what he saw), a work he finished just after he had completed a song, Ulster, for the Union Defence League. It was premiered by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg in February 1914, and when he introduced it to London later that month the work’s subtitle and use of Ulster tunes was interpreted politically, with one reviewer asking of the subtitle: “What did he see? Some people will say that he saw a political pamphlet on the Ulster Question.”

On Wednesday the piece was presented by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under Kenneth Montgomery in the company of less well-known works, Norman Hay’s symphonic poem Dunluce (1920) and Ina Boyle’s symphony, Glencree (In the Wicklow Hills), written between 1924 and 1927.

In terms of orchestral mastery, Stanford is in a different league to the younger composers. Both the rhapsody’s atmospheric opening and later stridently martial mode were strongly captured by Montgomery. Hay’s language is more modern than Stanford’s, and although the construction is weaker, Dunluce has a kind of tension that eludes the older man. Boyle’s Glencree symphony, which was receiving its first concert performance, is looser again, more pastoral rhapsody than symphony. 

There seemed to be a sense of wonder in the audience about the fact that presentable Irish music had been allowed to remain in neglect for so long and that composers as capable as Hay and Boyle should remain virtually unknown. The sad fact is that when it comes to repertoire that sells tickets, they’re not in the running.

Fastidious craftsman

Howard FergusonMyra HessIsaac SternJascha Heifetz

Much better-known, in Dublin at any rate, is Frederick May, whose Symphonic Ballad was premiered by the Belfast Wireless Symphony Orchestra in 1937 and last aired in a reduced orchestration in 1941. May is one of the great might-have-beens of Irish music, a man whose early promise would sink under the combined problems of mental illness, deafness and drink.

The Symphonic Ballad, reconstructed for this performance by Mark Fitzgerald, has an ambition that not all his orchestral music would show, but it lacks the gritty purposefulness that made his sole string quartet of 1936 a ground-breaking classic of Irish modernism.

Harty’s late Children of Lir, the wordless soprano part finely taken by Máire Flavin, and Aloys Fleischmann’s Four Masters, with spiky rhythms that never quite bite into material of sufficient flavour, completed the programme.

Looking at the non-orchestral programmes in advance, the work that seemed set to make the strongest impression was May’s Quartet. And, in an urgent performance by the Vanbrugh Quartet, that was how it turned out. But for me, the real discovery came from Ina Boyle, whose two John Donne settings for tenor and string quartet create a fascinating bridge between the world of early music and the 20th century.

They were sung by Robin Tritschler with the Vanbrughs, and Tritschler’s separate song recital with pianist Peter Tuite (of Harty, Stanford, Bax and Hughes) was a model in how an approach that distances itself from sentimentality can cast this repertoire in a whole new light. Just the kind of demonstration to make this festival a treasurable event.

The “Composing the Island” festival continues at the NCH until Sunday, September 25th. nch.ie

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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