Eric Sweeney obituary: Composer, conductor and educator

Sweeney composed two symphonies, five concertos, three operas and many choral works

Eric Sweeney:  ‘A sense of freedom from history, from peer pressure and above all from concern about critical comment should be the aim and duty of every composer.’ File photograph: Patrick Browne

Eric Sweeney: ‘A sense of freedom from history, from peer pressure and above all from concern about critical comment should be the aim and duty of every composer.’ File photograph: Patrick Browne

 

Born: July 15th, 1948
Died: July 21st, 2020

The Irish composer, organist, conductor and lecturer in contemporary music, Eric Sweeney has died suddenly in his home in Waterford.

One of the first Irish composers to embrace a minimalist style, Sweeney composed two symphonies, five concertos, three operas and many choral works, including the cantata Deirdre, commissioned by RTÉ. Other commissions include the Mass of St Patrick and Evening Canticles for St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Slow Air from the European Union Chamber Orchestra and Hospital Voices for the Waterford Healing Arts Trust.

His music has been performed internationally by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Chamber Orchestra, Taunton Sinfonietta and the Birmingham Conservatoire Orchestra. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra and the Dublin Baroque Players also played his compositions.

Writing in the Journal of Music in 2002, Sweeney said that “a sense of freedom from history, from peer pressure and above all from concern about critical comment should be the aim and duty of every composer.”

Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, French composer Olivier Messiaen and American composers John Adams and Steve Reich were among those who influenced Sweeney’s compositional style. His later works often fused minimalism with elements of Irish traditional music. For example, his piano work, The Blackberry Blossom (commissioned for the GPA Dublin International Piano Competition in 1991) and his String Quartet (1996) and Concerto for Guitar and Strings (2005) all included fragments of Irish melodies.

Sweeney’s vocal and choral music was guided by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s mantra “text first” – with the words shaping and determining the rhythm and style of the musical compositions. He brought new audiences to contemporary music and represented Ireland at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris on five occasions. His work has been broadcast throughout Europe and North America.

The elder of two boys, Eric Sweeney grew up in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh in a family already steeped in musical talent. His paternal grandfather was a traditional fiddler and his maternal uncle, Edgar “Billy” Boucher was an organist at Christchurch Cathedral and head of music at BBC Northern Ireland.

Following primary school at Sandford Park, Dublin, Eric and his younger brother Peter attended St Patrick’s Cathedral School. While there, both Eric and Peter took organ lessons with the cathedral organist, William Sydney Greig. The Sweeney brothers won the Trimble Cup for two pianos at the 1970s Feis Ceoil.

Following his secondary school education, Eric Sweeney studied music at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and then furthered his organ studies in Belgium and Italy.

Choral director of RTÉ Singers

After finishing his studies, Sweeney lectured for 10 years at the Dublin College of Music (now part of TU Dublin). From 1978-1981, he was choral director of RTÉ Singers while also lecturing in music at TCD. He also gave organ recitals throughout Ireland and in England, Sweden, Italy, France and North America.

He met his wife-to-be Sally Johnston at a friend’s wedding and the couple married in 1972 and lived in Dublin.

In 1981, Sweeney moved with his family to Waterford to take up the post of Head of Music at the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). For the next thirty years, he built the music department there into a vibrant hub of creativity and new music. From 1996-2004, Sweeney also took up positions as composer-in-residence or visiting lecturer to festivals and colleges including the Newport Festival, Rhode Island, USA, Indiana State University and the Memorial University, St John’s Newfoundland, Canada.

He was a member of Aosdana and also served on the Arts Council between 1989 and 1993. He was awarded a doctorate in composition from the University of Ulster in 1994.

Latterly, Sweeney became well known for his organ improvisations to silent movies including The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula and Nosferatu. He wrote minimalist pieces for keyboards which were improvised by jazz musicians including Ronan Guilfoyle. He also collaborated with the rock group, 3epkano for an improvisation to the 1930s classic film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August 2011. And he worked with poet Mark Roper to create two operas, The Invader, and The Green One, and with Joycean expert Andrew Basquille to produce Ulysses – the Opera.

  • Eric Sweeney is survived by his wife, Sally, their children Catherine, Rachel and Manus, grandchildren, Rhian, Eoin and Lanna. His brother, Peter pre-deceased him in 2018.