Thursday, 14 January 2010

John Ireland: Centenary Works from 1910

Unfortunately there are no great or memorable works from the pen of John Ireland that demand to have their centennial celebrated. In fact, only three pieces are mentioned in Stewart R. Craggs’s Catalogue (2nd Edition 2007). This seemed to form a trend with the composer. In 1909 he had written the fine 1st Violin Sonata, however it was to be some three or four years before he penned his superb Decorations for piano and the popular choral work ‘Greater Love hath no Man’. The intervening period was largely filled with minor works, although the two accomplished songs 'Hope the Horn Blower' and 'When Lights go Rolling Round the Sky' were composed at this time. Organists are grateful for the Sursum Corda. the Capriccio and the Alla Marcia all of which date from 1911.
The first two of the three works written in 1910 are 'Laughing Song' and 'Cupid', both songs for unaccompanied mixed voices (SATB) and are both settings of words by William Blake. The first part-song remains in manuscript and the second was published by Augener & Co. in 1961, the year before the composer’s death. Neither piece (to my knowledge) has been recorded and are rarely, if ever, performed.

However the third piece from this year was the recitation Annabel Lee. I admit straight away that I think this is a dreadful work, and one that I cannot readily accept as a worthy part of the Ireland canon. Yet academic opinion is largely against me.
Annabel Lee was billed a ‘melodrama’ for speaker with piano and was a setting of a text by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. The poem was originally published in the New York Tribune on 9 October 1849 which was the day of the writer’s death.

A ‘melodrama’ is music designed as an instrumental accompaniment to a spoken or recited text. The Harvard Musical Dictionary notes that melodramatic [works] have “scarcely met with lasting success, on account of the acoustic incongruity of the spoken word and of music.” In musical history melodrama has been effectively used on occasion. Perhaps one recalls the grave-digging scene in Fidelio or the incantation scene in Weber’s Der Freischutz. Even Mozart succumbed to melodrama and introduced two long monologues into Zaide. In the early part of the nineteenth century ballads and poems were frequently recited to a piano accompaniment. The genre survived into the twentieth century with works such as Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden and Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher. In Britain the two most famous examples of melodrama are Sir Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy.
These latter are complex works written for reciter with chorus and orchestra. However John Ireland’s piece is more akin to the nineteenth century ballads. It is maudlin, overblown and typically ‘Victorian’ in its sentiment and can hardly appeal to today’s listener as a convincing work of art. The poem explores the death of a beautiful woman. The narrator fell in love with her as youth and has had to contend with the jealously of the angels. His love for her survives her death. Although scholars are of divided opinion, the inspiration for the poem may have been the poet’s wife. The text of 'Annabel Lee' can be read at Wikisource #
Jennifer Willhite writes on Suite (accessed 1/01/10) that “in modern day thought, such an obsession that results in the speaker going to the grave to lay by her side could be viewed as a form of necrophilism, or morbidity.” Yet she suggests that “in the traditional vein of gothic/romantic fiction, or poetry, such behavior is considered to be a sign of ardor to one's true love.” It is this disconnection between the nineteenth and twentieth century aesthetic that make this melodrama by Ireland so difficult to appreciate in 2010.

However it is Fiona Richards in her The Music of John Ireland (2000) who puts this work into context: she extracts the significance of Annabel Lee in the canon of Ireland’s music.
She notes that in this melodrama which is descriptive of events in the ‘kingdom of the sea’ is ‘recited over a repeating motif which has shared connotations with several other sea pieces [by Ireland] including the opening of The Island Spell’. This work was the first of the Decorations and came at the end of a relatively barren period in Ireland’s career. Furthermore Richards suggests that there are also harmonic allusions to the composers early Sea Idyll and Meridian. It is certainly true that the piano accompaniment is superior in design and effect than the end product of the work. For this reason alone it is worth listening to.

John Ireland’s Annabel Lee can be heard on Cameo 2044 with Richard Baker as reciter and Keith Swallow, pianist.

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