Composer Brian Boydell dies in Dublin aged 83

 

Dr Brian Boydell, who was one of the most important figures in 20th-century Irish music, has died aged 83. After a period of declining health, he passed away peacefully in the company of his wife, Mary, and his sons Cormac and Barra at his home in Howth.

Boydell will be remembered by many as a true Renaissance man, a musician and composer first, but also accomplished in teaching, broadcasting, public speaking, writing, painting and photography. However, he will be remembered most of all as a composer and as an indefatigable organiser who did much to raise the profile of music in Ireland.

Brian Boydell was born in Dublin on St Patrick's Day, 1917, into an Anglo-Irish family. He was a pupil at Dragon School in Oxford before moving to Rugby in 1930. He spent the summer of 1935 in Heidelberg, learning German and partaking of the musical riches on offer. These included several complete hearings of Wagner's Ring cycle. Winning a choral scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge was a pointer to his future career; but he studied natural science, graduating in 1938 with a first-class degree.

His father wanted him to enter the family malting business, but agreed to a period of study in the Royal College of Music in London. On the outbreak of war he returned to Dublin and all thought of working in business was abandoned. His commitment to music was confirmed when he graduated from Trinity College with a Mus.B. in 1942 and, that same year, took up the conductorship of the Dublin Orchestral Players, a post he was to hold for 25 years.

In 1944 there were two important milestones: he married Mary Jones and was appointed professor of singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He had a fine baritone voice and had been awarded the LRIAM in singing three years earlier.

From the start, Boydell the composer was not interested in arranging folk song or using it in his music. Along with his older contemporaries, Aloys Fleischmann and Frederick May, he sought to translate the traditions of European music into an Irish context, but in a modern way. Enduring influences in those early years, at least, were Delius and Bartok; and he believed in Sibelius's dictum that national identity in music does not depend on the use of folk song.

Boydell's reputation as a composer was enhanced after the first performance of his orchestral work In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. This piece, which shows clearly the value its composer placed on craftsmanship, was to become one of the most widely performed works by any Irish composer.

Important orchestral works from later years include the Violin Concerto (1954), Megalithic Ritual Dances (1956), Symphonic Inscapes (1968) and Masai Mara (1988). In addition there was a large output of chamber music, songs and works for mixed ensemble. His String Quartet No. 1 (1947) won the Radio Eireann Chamber Music Prize, and his second quartet, written 10 years later, is regarded as one of his finest works.

His international outlook in composition was combined with a distinctly Irish flavour. The independent path he trod as a composer encouraged younger generations and several of his former pupils are now main figures in Irish composition.

His accomplishments as a broadcaster made him a household name. He was a founder-member of the Music Association of Ireland, which played a central role in furthering those aims. In 1962 he was appointed professor of music at TCD, a post he held until 1982.

At TCD he was the driving force behind the establishment of the School of Music and the programme he introduced reflected clearly his broad, humanistic outlook. From 1961 to 1983 he was a member of the Arts Council.

The breadth of Brian Boydell's achievements as a composer, scholar, performer and inspiring administrator were recognised in many ways. In 1959 he gained a Mus.D. from Trinity College and in 1974 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the NUI. In 1983 the Italian government made him a Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana, for services to Italian Renaissance music achieved largely through his directorship of the Dowland Consort (1958-1969). In 1984 he was appointed to Aosdana.

After his retirement from TCD and from the Arts Council, Brian Boydell concentrated on scholarship, especially on music in 18thcentury Dublin. The next few years saw the publication of A Dublin Musical Calendar 1700- 1760 and Rotunda Music in Eighteenth-Century Dublin. These, along with his many articles, including several for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, are part of a legacy of composition, publication and policy-making which will endure.

There will be a musical celebration of the life of Brian Boydell in Trinity College Chapel at 4 p.m. next Tuesday after cremation at Glasnevin Cemetery.