John Kinsella obituary: Prolific composer and head of music at RTÉ

Died a month before poet brother Thomas and had just started work on 12th symphony

John Kinsella

Born: April 8th, 1932

Died: November 9th, 2021

John Kinsella, one of Ireland's foremost composers and a former head of music at RTÉ, has died aged 89. Deemed to be the most prolific Irish symphonist to date, the Dublin-born self-taught composer wrote 11 symphonies, several concertos for different instruments and a range of chamber music, which included a series of fine string quartets. He had started work on his 12th symphony at the time of his death.


Kinsella’s symphonic output alone is monumental, according to Séamus Crimmins, former director of RTÉ Orchestras, Quartet and Choirs. “His profound love of music and composition yielded a lifetime’s output of works, characterized by intense rigour, self-examination, single-mindedness and originality,” said Crimmins.

Nocturne (1990), a piece for string orchestra that was recorded by the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) and released on a Contemporary Music Centre recording is one of his best-known works. He later produced another version for cello and orchestra, which was recorded by the ICO in 2012. Most recently, Kinsella’s Una Giga Para Carlos was included on Malachy Robinson’s recording, The Irish Double Bass (2021).

Kinsella received the Marten Toonder award for artists in 1979 and was a founding member of Aosdána in 1981. In 2019, he received the National Concert Hall (NCH) Lifetime Achievement Award when the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performed the premiere of his 11th symphony. In an interview in advance of that concert, he said: "As I get older, my music seems to get faster or more obsessed with speed and continuity and surprises… I always think that, apart from anything else, music should be an entertainment or should intrigue people in some way or other."

John Kinsella grew up in Inchicore, Dublin, the younger brother of poet Thomas Kinsella. He attributed his early introduction to music to his father, who bought him miniature scores before he could even read music. Throughout his long life, he built up a library of scores to follow while listening to the associated works.

As a teenager in the 1940s, he entered his first composition for RTÉ’s Carolan Prize. He studied viola at the College of Music (now TU Dublin Conservatoire of Music and Drama) and briefly took composition lessons with the composer and arranger, Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair. But, it wasn’t until the end of the 1950s that he began to compose regularly, and in the 1960s, he had a number of works accepted for performance by RTÉ ensembles.

These included two string quartets, a chamber concerto, Two Pieces for String Orchestra and Montage II for orchestra. This group of works – which embraced serialism within the European avant-garde music genre – culminated in the performance in 1973 of his large-scale choral and orchestral work, A Selected Life, based on a series of poems written by his brother, Thomas Kinsella, about the then recently deceased composer and arranger of traditional Irish music, Seán Ó Riada.

Player Wills job

In 1968, Kinsella gave up his job as a computer programmer at the Player Wills tobacco company in Dublin to work as a senior assistant in the RTÉ music department. His work at RTÉ took him to the annual Unesco Rostrum of Composers in Paris, which gave him exposure to a wide range of contemporary composition. During this time, he began to lose interest in the so-called “International” style of composition which was emerging from serialism.

Following the death of his first wife, Bridget O’Neill (with whom he had four children) in 1977, he stopped composing for 18 months.

He married violinist Therese Timoney in 1978. The family settled in Rathfarnham in Dublin where their two children were born. In 1979, Kinsella returned to composition with a more independent style for The Wayfarer: Rhapsody on a Poem of P.H. Pearse, which was commissioned by the Government to mark the centenary of Pearse's birth.

Kinsella became head of music in RTÉ in 1983 and the following year he composed his Symphony No. 1. He decided to dedicate himself to composing fulltime following a commission to write a piece for the newly appointed RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartet for inclusion in a Wigmore Hall recital to mark their win at the prestigious Portsmouth String Quartet competition.

He composed the piece over four days while staying at the Tyrone Guthie Centre for artists at Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan. One year later, in 1988, he left RTÉ and went on to write 10 more symphonies, two concertos, another string quartet and many solo and chamber works. He often cited Finnish composer Jean Sibelius as one of his greatest inspirations.

A quiet, witty family man, Kinsella didn’t court publicity after he left RTÉ. He did, however, serve on the board of the NCH for a time and was member of the group which produced the PIANO (Provision and Institutional Arrangements Now for Orchestras and Ensembles) report in 1996.

Musical education

He strongly believed that musical education should begin in early childhood, having witnessed very young children learn to play instruments in Finnish playschools. “Music should have a fundamental place in our education system for all children from the earliest age, just like language,” he said.

He had a lifelong interest in chess and a fascination for the second World War, which came from childhood memories of wearing gas masks and being in air-raid shelters when his family lived in Manchester for a short time during the war.

In an interview on receipt of the NCH Lifetime Achievement Award, he was asked what advice he had for aspiring composers. He replied: “The financial rewards in composition are such that, in the vast majority of cases, another source of income will be needed.” However, he added, “Never deny your genuine creative impulses, because they will, more than likely, just continue to haunt you.” Musicologist Séamas de Barra will publish a book on the works of John Kinsella later this year.

John Kinsella is survived by his wife Therese Timoney, his children Paul, Una, Finbar, Gráinne, Aisling and Aoife, and five grandchildren. His first wife, Bridgit O’Neill, died in 1977 and his brother, Thomas, died in December 2021.