CB IRISH MUSIC
Intro Track: Padraig The Fiddler
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, researched and written by Mike Burrows, is in celebration of Irish music, in time for St Patrick’s Day. We’ve just heard the song, Padraig The Fiddler, by Gregory and Larchet, performed by John MacCormack, the violinist, Fritz Kreisler, and pianist, Ludwig Schwab. Music has always been important to the Irish, as a demonstration of national identity. There are now, as for many centuries two Irish music-traditions; loyalist Protestant, sponsored by English and Anglo-Irish rulers of a conquered Ireland, and separatist catholic, actuated by a far older sense of nationhood. Both sides have their patriotic songs, and their champions in the world of music at large. For many centuries, Irish composing-talent found that the mountain would not come to Mahomet: to find fame, artists emigrated for recognition. For the catholic it was a harder longer road to success than for a Protestant; in London, the nearest nerve-centre for international Art-music, it was a matter of incredulity that Irish people wrote music fully as accomplished as the music of the international models, and to hold position in Ireland or be successful in England, one had either to be of the Protestant Ascendency or find liberal patrons.
At the turn of the 19th Century, the poet Tom Moore was an example of an Irishman with liberal patrons - he numbered Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt among his friends. His various books of national airs played fast and loose with the modal nature of folk-tunes, as did all educated editions for the rest of the century. Moreover, the words that the tunes were made to fit set the tone of ‘Irish’ songs and ballads for even longer, wistful, sentimental, nostalgic, or infectiously cheerful, in some sense articulating a distinct national character. To the English of the day, there were two possible Irish characters, the truculent maudlin drunkard or the charming, rumbustious but childishly sentimental rascal, the ‘spalpeen’ when he has drink taken - both feckless idlers. In some quarters, this view has perhaps never changed, and Tom Moore did nothing to counteract it; yet nationalism itself took him up. Here is The Last Rose of Summer, from The Groves of Blarney, arranged by Sir John Stevenson, an older contemporary of the poet.
Track Two: The Last Rose of Summer
The two real Irish stars in international music in the first half of the 19th Century were the pianist-composer John Field and singer and composer Michael William Balfe. Both did well in London and went further abroad; Field settled in St Petersburg; after much time spent in Rome, Milan and Paris, Balfe returned to conquer London where he had begun as a professional musician, his operas being performed in the very same theatre in which he had worked as a violinist in the pit. Any distinctive, let alone Irish qualities in their music was smothered by a pallid Italian lyricism and polish, whose models included Clementi, Rossini and Bellini, all fashionable names. Field was famous for his legato singing-tone and invented the ternary-form Nocturne taken over by Chopin. Balfe is remembered for a song from his greatest hit, The Bohemian Girl - I dreamt I Dwelt In Marble Halls (mentioned in Joyce’s Dubliners). Of his many songs, some recall Come Into The Garden Maud and Excelsior. Irishry, thanks to the fictitious works of Ossian, had become a metropolitan phenomenon in the mid-to-late 18th and early 19th Centuries, composers of international reputation, such as Joseph Haydn and Beethoven arranged ‘Irish’ melodies as a favour or in acknowledgement of lucrative temporary demand. For Beethoven, ‘picturesqueness’ was meat and drink to a Romantic, but if Irishry seemed ‘picturesque’, wild and exotic, his indifferent ‘Irish’ arrangements were done for money. To remind ourselves of the Irishness of this programme, one must go back or forward in time. Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) was an itinerant harpist and poet, and has been considered Ireland’s greatest bard. Blinded by smallpox in his teens, he learned the harp, and set out with it, horse and guide, to make his fortune - or living. An Irish Catholic who could read and write, he spoke Irish, but could also speak English. He found patrons among the Protestant Anglo--Irish and his own people, and sang and played attractively for both communities. He wrote in song- and dance-forms from France and Italy, with what would now be taken to be an Irish accent. His style was modal and founded on incomplete scales, faults that 19th Century professors would have pronounced bad and cured with a few strokes of the ink-pen. Let’s hear two of his pieces: Jigg - To Mr James Betagh, and Carolan’s Devotion. Devotion typically admires a girl on the way to church.
Track Three and Four: Jigg - To Mr James Betagh, and Carolan’s Devotion, Carolan
There is little trace of the history of 19th Century Ireland in Irish music, save perhaps references to crossed love, homesickness for the countryside or town, a departed Irish glory, bereavement, emigration, potatoes and drink. But it is a fact that during this period, poverty, famine, evictions, cholera, emigration and transportation for felony halved the population, as Punch, The London Charivari, delighted in the wonderfully ignorant, illogical ‘Paddy’. Paddy was a tricky, hot-tempered and drunkenly self--pitying character, known by his apish figure, prognathous jaw and dark nose, his garb of moleskins and gaiters, collapsed soft hat and shillelagh or club. His wife was more fearsome. English visitors were made fools of at horse-fairs but could read and write and didn’t believe in the little people. Behind the facade of Paddy’s quaint outlook and rhetoric - and, indeed, of publication of editions of Ireland’s ancient folk-music - a holocaust occurred. During the Great Famine of 1848, Poor Law Commissioners were advized that a rising tide of theft and poaching - and social unrest - in country districts, was due to the peasant’s urge to survive. Paddy loved his potatoes; - the potatoes had rotted from blight; Paddy had to poach game and loot food-stores. Few of the ordinary Irish owned land. Their hereditary landlords, Irish and English, and the Viceroy in Dublin enforced export of saleable food even as refugees from the country to the towns dropped in the streets from hunger, and cholera broke out owing to lack of adequate sanitation. England, utilitarian, corrupt and hopelessly disorganized, needed much of what remained of Ireland’s food-yield to feed its own urban poor. Widespread murder of officials and landlords and cannibalism among tenants were rumoured. In England, it was an imprisonable crime to roam without visible means and not to be in work, of course. As English magazines carried etchings of skeletal famine-victims and their living-conditions, repression went on. To support dirt-poor refugees without work or homes was an idle expense. All told, in the first half of the century, the hell came mostly Ireland’s way; in the second, Paddy organized, England and Anglo-Irish landlords came to fear not only the mob, but also the ‘Fenians’, a league of protest and violence, led by educated professionals and seeking independence from London. Landlords had much to fear; there’s an old joke that runs: “I hear Himself is to be buried on Tuesday.” – “Buried is it? Didn’t I hear they’re after sending him to be smelted?” It must have seemed that if St Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland, at least Ireland was spared some poison. But St Patrick’s Day came to be celebrated over an increasing extent of the globe because of a diaspora of a nation - unskilled labour, respectability and brilliance alike, all proudly Irish. Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, gained a grim reputation that it was not to lose until after the Civil War confirmed the Irish Free State in 1922.
Howard Ferguson, born in Belfast in 1908, wrote a Partita for two pianos or orchestra in 1935-6, that seems to breathe this dangerous atmosphere. Here is the initially Brahmsian courante, Allegro un poco agitato second movement, restless, clouded, eerie.
Track Five: Partita, 2nd Movt, Ferguson
At the turn of the 19th Century and into the early 2Oth, many names resounded in Irish literature, none more so than those of William Butler Yeats, esoteric poet, playwright and essayist and aristocrat-loving nationalist. Here is a setting of his early symbolist poem, The Withering of The Boughs, the third number in the cycle The Curlew, for tenor, flute, cor anglais and string quartet, by the English composer, Philip Heseltine, alias Peter Warlock. The myth and magic of the old Ireland is invoked with breathtaking intensity in an improvisatory-seeming aria of bird-calls, Winter wind and the dark imaginings of a broken heart. The work dates from the time leading up to the formation of the Irish Republic - 1920-2. Song runs out during the last, ghostly refrain - the singer speaks the last line.
Track Six: The Withering Of The Boughs, The Curlew, Warlock
In 1855 appeared a tune that is often taken to be a folksong, but may not be, after all. Londonderry Air. It may have been written for a competition by an anonymous lady. Described by one irreverent author as “a song with capital bottom”, it has a claim to be the best--known theme in all Irish music. Its melancholy has suited various sets of verses, usually of renunciation. It has been arranged by many composers, including Stanford, Harty and Percy Grainger. The great tenor, John MacCormack, a nationalist, but, like Carolan, capable of appealing to Irish and Anglo--Irish alike, was one of Ireland’s and Eire’s greater musical ambassadors of the 20th Century. He set down his own account of the origins of ‘the most lovely folksong in the world’, as a preface to a broadcast performance in Edwin Schneider’s arrangement. Londonderry Air.
Track Seven: Londonderry Air, Anon
In 1866, the first Irish Symphony was performed. It was written by a young man, twenty-three years old, part-Irish and part-Italian, the son of a bandsman, a former chorister at the Chapel Royal and Mendelssohn Scholar at the Royal Academy, and the possessor of both exquisite manners and a dashing, emotive style. It was the non-partisan product of a holiday in Northern Ireland made a couple of years before. Here is the Scherzo - as captivating in its first subject’s hopping from major to minor, and in its earnest but idealistic trio now as then. After a little bardic tuning-up, what a sprightly foreground and what a landscape in perspective in the alternating Allegretto oboe tune and deep-breathed moderato scalic theme; everywhere, cheeky or heartfelt harmonies! The young composer? Arthur, later Sir Arthur, Sullivan.
Track Eight: Irish Symphony, Sullivan
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was a middle-class Ulsterman. His Irish brogue was strong, but he was a typical artistic product of the Ascendancy, erudite, clear-minded and hard-working; music took over his life. He loved folksong, Loyalist or Nationalist, and became both a talented composer and superbly negative teacher, one, furthermore, who drew foremost European composers to Cambridge for doctorates. He was proof against Brahms’ sarcasm and got on well with Dvorak, Verdi and Boito, who actually turned up; coped with Tchaikovsky; knew how to handle Saint-Saens, Bruch or Grieg. He wrote voluminously; symphonic works, chamber-music, songs, large-scale choral pieces. His Irish Symphony (at least once conducted by Mahler) and six Irish Rhapsodies were influenced by the example of Dvorak, rather than Liszt. Much that he composed for the concert-hall went unpublished and achieved only one or a few performances. In spite of his caustic self-confidence, the coming of Elgar embittered him. All the same, he could write something like this - the Andante con moto, ma piu tranquillo of his Clarinet Concerto. Not one of his more self-conscious ‘Irish’ pieces, it owes something to Brahms’ late clarinet chamber works, but Brahms’ melodic style is not far removed from that of Irish Art--music’s idea of Irish folk-music, anyway.
Track Nine: Clarinet Concerto, Slow Movement, Stanford
A Catholic Irishman, Sir Herbert Hamilton Harty wrote a number of works based on folksongs or given folksong character. Born in the 1870s, he made his name as a pianist-accompanist in Ireland and England, His Irish Symphony is a beautiful piece. Back in the 1970s, a critic, writing in The Listener, opined that in it, “Poor Paddy thinks he's Mahler...”, thus demonstrating how far England had come in overcoming its prejudices about Irish culture seventy years on from when the Symphony was performed to acclamation at the Feis Ceoil Festival, having carried off first prize in the category of a Symphony built Dvorakishly on Irish airs. “The place of honour in the prize compositions must go to Mr Hamilton Harty’s symphony - a work of very great ability and one that displays a very remarkable knowledge of orchestration,” wrote the London-based Musical Times, in 1904. Using tunes such as The Croppy Boy; Avenging And Bright;The Blackberry Blossom; Jimin Mho Mhile Stor; The Girl I Left Behind Me and Boyne Water, this is Home Rule music. In the finale, The Boyne Water of Ulster collides with and falls away from an awe-inspiring reprise vision of Jimin Mho Mhile Stor. For the sake of the wearing of the green, and the sake of St Patrick, it’s tempting to play The Twelfth of July, but here is a treat of an Irish fife band playing in traditional parallel fifths, fiddlers, a good reel and some lovely touches of humour (and xylophone), the Symphony’s second movement: The Fair Day (a time of horse-trading, games and customary public order offences of many kinds). Moreover, the composer conducts in this recording of 1929. Here, Manchester’s Halle Orchestra play out of their skins, not only faster but also more vibrantly and characterfully than anyone has done since!
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme of Irish music was written and researched by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will join us again soon.
Here’s to Ireland, herself!
Track Ten: Irish Symphony, The Fair Day, Harty
Sadly, we were forced to omit Jigg - To Mr James Betagh and The Star of The County Down, owing to length. A second programme on Irish music has been recorded, including The Star of The County Down! The bulk of the line-up of this second programme is of Irish folk-music, Stanford's 1st Irish Rhapsody, and the finale of Moeran's Violin Concerto; all culminates in Sir Herbert Hamilton Harty's vividly heroic and beautiful tone-poem based on the poetry of the nationalist poet, Emily Lawless, With The Wild Geese.