Taking note – Arthur Beesley on composer Freddie May

A thwarted genius of Dublin who spent decades in the shadows

In a letter on this page in August, musician Lindsay Armstrong recalled a somewhat disconcerting experience one evening in the 1970s. Visiting the home of University College Cork music professor Aloys Fleischmann and his wife Anne, Armstrong was told the composer Arnold Bax had died suddenly in 1953 in the very chair on which he was sitting.

The story of the fateful seat sent me back to an ancient essay on Bax by fellow-composer Freddie May in The Bell magazine, which told a little of his final days. May, a thwarted genius of Dublin who spent decades in the shadows, had been with Sir Arnold in the last week of his life when Prof Fleischmann conducted an all-Bax concert with the acclaimed pianist Harriet Cohen. She was Sir Arnold’s lover for almost 40 years, although that was unmentioned.

On the programme was the Concerto for the Left Hand that Bax had written for Cohen after a fall on broken glasses led her right hand to wither because of artery and nerve damage. “At the rehearsals he was, as usual, alert and concentrated, watching the conductor with the closest attention, generous in his praise, but also obviously very shy; this almost boyish modesty of his was one of the most endearing things about him,” May wrote.

Following the score for The Garden at Fand, an orchestral work evocative of the sea, both men felt the horns should play louder in one passage. “I asked him, ‘if you think so, why don’t you go up and speak to the conductor?’ After some considerable hesitation he did so, and a minute later he came back, smiling quietly to himself – ‘Fleischmann says that is just what he was about to tell the orchestra himself,’” said May.


“At another point in the work he remarked, “you know, this is one of the passages I like,’ a not very common way, as I am sure the reader will agree, for a composer to speak about his own music.”

Bax, a Londoner born in 1883, had come under the spell of Yeats’s poetry as a young man. He often visited here after 1902 and made Dublin his home before the first World War, maintaining an Irish connection for the rest of his days.

May said it was Ireland’s “almost complete indifference … to the thing that meant most to him” that drove Bax back to England but noted his great happiness when his work was performed here. Still, the “incorrigible Romantic” was out of fashion. Certain very fine work by Bax was “suffering from a quite unjustified neglect”.

It was only by chance a while ago that I came across May’s article, which appeared in February 1954. But the words of a man then in his early forties were resonant of his own life and deeply prophetic. His own music suffered profound indifference and neglect, and he remains little known outside musical circles.

May composed his outstanding work, String Quartet in C minor, in 1936 at a time when his hearing was beginning to fail due to an ear disease. It is an intensely soulful and searching piece, deeply moving in its pursuit through darkness of melodic resolution. He once cast it as “an appeal for release” but had to wait 12 tortuous years for a first performance, and that was in London.

The work wasn’t released on record until 1973 when Claddagh Records co-founder Garech Browne fulfilled a promise made to May many years previously as they became fast friends in the pubs of Dublin. Claddagh reissued the Aeolian Quartet recording a couple of years ago.

“He had the four great blessings in the Ireland of his day,” Browne once said. “One, he was a composer. Two, he was gay. Three, he was an alcoholic and four, he was deaf – none of which got you very far in the Ireland of those days.”

May’s last work, Sunlight and Shadow, was completed in 1955, only one year after his tribute to Bax, which seems all the more poignant in that light.

There followed long periods of hardship, time in a 14-bed dormitory in St Brendan’s mental hospital in Grangegorman and a road accident that left him in Clontarf orthopaedic hospital for years before his death in 1985.

A sensitive man who spoke admiringly of Beethoven’s ability to write music against the persistent affliction of deafness, May seems himself to have been in a world of his own.

All too often, he said in the Bax item, music of an ardent and aspiring humanity had been laughed out of court. He lamented the vogue for morbid self-pity or stridently percussive discordances, “composed not for but against the instruments”. So true.