The Boydell Press, hardback 74 b/w photographs,34 b/w illus. + musical examples: 568 pages.
I have had to wait nearly 40 years for this book: it has been very well worth waiting for. I first came across John Ireland when I was still at school. One of the sixth-formers was performing the song ‘If there were dreams to sell’ as a part of his O-level music practical. Shortly after that, I discovered an old Saga LP that had a good selection of Ireland’s music. I got to know ‘Sea Fever’ and had a friend play to me The Island Spell. I was hooked. However, at that time (1973) there was virtually nothing about the composer in print. All I could find to read (with limited access to libraries) was the Schaeffer interview (included in this present volume) and the relevant entry in the then current Grove. What was lacking was a major biography or study of his music such as A.E.F. Dickinson’s volume on R.V.W. which I had recently devoured. Over the following years I discovered the somewhat sparse literature about the composer, and was lucky enough to be able to add most of it to my library. More about this literature later.
This Companion ought to have a wide currency. Many groups of people will need to own a copy. Firstly, there are the musicologists, both professional and amateur. There is such a wide variety of historical and critical material in this book that demands to be devoured and understood before any further evaluations of the composer can be made. Secondly, there are the performers: gone are the days that a professional pianist or singer can bash their way through a piece of music without gaining a ‘sitz im leben’ of the work. Thirdly it will serve people who have a passing need to understand some aspect of Ireland’s work. I am not suggesting that every ‘Classic FM’ listener will have this book on their bedside tables, however any enthusiast of British music will find it a helpful compendium of material to improve their enjoyment of the composer’ music. And finally, it will be an essential acquisition for all universities, music college libraries and the larger public institutions.
One of the key problems with any discussion of the composer’s life and music has been the absence of ‘documentation of Ireland’s early and middle years.’ There has always been a ‘strong suspicion that the companion of his later years Norah Kirby...had sanitised the archive, suppressing letters and documents of which she did not approve’. It is a problem that may never be surmounted.
This present book is not a biography of the composer, in spite of it containing a vast array of biographical information and critical data. That volume, along with an edition of the composer’s letters is still eagerly awaited. The raison d’être of the book is an attempt (extremely successful) to shine ‘a succession of searchlights onto the often hazy Ireland scene, and presenting some of the latest research in the light of performances and recordings of almost all the music.’ Certainly this Companion is a handbook rather than a volume to be read from cover to cover.
One of the earliest contributions to Ireland scholarship was by Joseph Holbrooke in his rather idiosyncratic volume Contemporary British Composers (London, 1925). Apart from a number of articles in the musical press and the essay in A.L. Bacharach’s British Music in our Time, (1951) the first modern attempt at writing ‘biography’ was John Longmire’s John Ireland -Portrait of a Friend (1969) – this is exactly what it claimed to be, a portrait and not a biography or a study of the music. This was followed in 1979 by Muriel V. Searle’s John Ireland- The Man and his Music which may be seen as skirting around contentious issues: it is to some extent hagiographical. Two major publications included the John Ireland, A Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography produced by Stewart R. Craggs in 1993 and subsequently updated in 2007. The other major contribution to Ireland scholarship was The Music of John Ireland (2000) written by Fiona Richards. This was the first (and so far, only) study of the composer’s music seen in the light of his life, his character and his times. Finally in 2006 Rachel O’Higgins edited a book of letters between her father, Alan Bush and John Ireland.
There are a goodly number of dissertations and doctoral theses that consider the music of the composer, however these are usually difficult to obtain and are often deeply technical and analytical.
The present volume takes a vitally important place in the relatively sparse bibliographical catalogue of John Ireland’s life and music. Its main value is the sheer diversity of important, learned and often unknown or forgotten writings. The content ranges from newly written chapters by ‘various writers of today’ alongside reprints of material that has already been published but may be hard to locate – even in the digital age. There are plenty of challenging and thought provoking views expressed in this book that will cause the reader to re-evaluate much that they have come to understand about this composer.
There is so much information, discussion, opinion and analysis in this book, written by such an impressive array of historians, musicologists, performers and friends that it is well-nigh impossible to discuss each and every chapter fully. However I will try to give a brief overview of some of the material contained in this book followed by a slightly more detailed description.
The book is organised into five major sections. Part I looks at the life and times of the composer and his friends and colleagues. Part II considers the musical output of John Ireland. Part III allows some of Ireland’s pupils to discuss their teacher. The next section, Part IV, reprints a number of ‘notable articles’ on Ireland and his music. The final section, Part V is dedicated to a comprehensive selection of writings by the composer, both about his own music and that of other composers and performers.
The main sections of the book are preceded by the usual editorial introductions, acknowledgements and an extremely useful chronology of the composer’s life and times. The end matter presents an important catalogue of Ireland’s music and a comprehensive discography. Finally, there are excellent indices –both general and of the works. Included in the book is a CD containing historical recordings of John Ireland and his music.
Part I is largely historical and biographical. If I could only read one essay in this book, it would be Colin Scott Sutherland’s ‘John Ireland: A Life in Music’. This would be followed by the same writer’s somewhat briefer study of ‘Arthur Machen and John Ireland.’ It is not possible to fully understand the composer’s music without some knowledge of Machen’s writings. As Scott-Sutherland remarks, ‘...Machen is not so much an influence as an impact –a catalyst that brought to the surface that spirit of place which Ireland...had felt from quite an early dare.’
Fiona Richards has contributed an impressive chapter on ‘Helen Perkin: Pianist, Composer and Muse of John Ireland.’ It is unfortunate that Perkin is largely remembered only for her connection with Ireland’s Piano Concerto. She had an important career in her own right: it is good that it is recognised here. It may lead to the rediscovery of some of her compositions.
Another key chapter is the dialogue between the pianist Alan Rowlands who is one of the major champions of Ireland’s piano works and the editor. The discussion ranges across the music, the composer’s personality and interests and stories about Rock Mill, the composer’s last home.
I noted above that Murray Schaeffer’s interview with Ireland had been included: it is another good place to begin a study of this volume. The editor has also collected a number of interviews with diverse friends of the composer, including the critic Felix Aphramian, the composer Alan Bush and the Rev. Kenneth Thompson, who was Ireland’s friend and confidant for over 30 years.
The longest chapter in the book is about John Ireland’s relationship with the BBC. Lewis Foreman considers this from the point of view of composer, performer and speaker and his participation in the BBCs musical advisory panel. This is a closely-written chapter with many tables and quotations from letters, but well-rewards study.
Other articles include Freda Swain’s ‘Remembering John Ireland and his World’, a study of the creative relationship between ‘John Ireland and Charles Markes’ by George Dannatt, a short consideration of the composer’s time at Deal by Julie Deller and a look at ‘John Ireland’s Personal World’ from Fiona Richards.
Two interesting essays are provided by the Director of the John Ireland Charitable Trust, Bruce Phillips. The first of these is a discussion of his personal discovery of the composer’s music, his time living at the Mill and his conversations with Ireland’s housekeeper and companion Norah Kirby. The second essay is a helpful, short history of the Charitable Trust and some of the problems associated with Mrs. Kirby’s will.
Part II is concerned with the music in detail. The pianist Alan Rowlands has contributed ‘John Ireland: Some Musical Fingerprints’. Although a wee bit technical this is essential reading for anyone caring to review or comment on the composer’s music. Another advocate of the piano music is Eric Parkin. He provides an excellent overview of the repertoire laced with some anecdotes and recollections of his discussions with the composer. He also included a useful ‘graded’ list of Ireland’s piano pieces.
Lewis Foreman has collected the programme notes he has written over the years for the orchestral pieces. A similar collection of notes is provided for the major chamber works by Bruce Phillips. Both are extremely helpful to the student and listener.
It is often forgotten that John Ireland wrote an amount of music for the church. Jeremy Dibble explores this repertoire and looks at the works composed for Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, that written at St. Luke’s in Chelsea and also the hymn tunes including ‘Sampford’ and ‘Love Unknown’. Stephen Le Prevost, the Director of Music at the Town Church, St. Peter Port, Guernsey, has given a short article on Ireland’s organ music.
Ireland is probably equally as famous for his songs as for his piano music. In 1973 the late Charles Markes, who was one of the composer’s choristers at St. Luke’s Church, wrote a major essay on the songs. This makes a superb, non-technical introduction to these important and beautiful works. He emphasises the poetic content of the songs, rather than the musical superstructure. One aspect of Ireland’s music that is usually ignored is the largish number of part-songs. Philip Lancaster has remedied this omission with a good overview of the material. It is to be hoped that these pieces will soon be available on CD.
The well-known baritone, Roderick Williams has made a major contribution to British song in recent years. So it is appropriate that he has contributed an essay on ‘John Ireland and Poetry’ viewed from a ‘singer’s experience. His enthusiasm is palpable he concludes by suggesting the he can ‘think of few better places to start for a singer interested in the English song repertoire’ than those of John Ireland.
Finally in this section Robert Matthew-Walker has given an introduction to the subject of ‘John Ireland on Record’. It is not a discography (this comes later) but an overview. Its aim is not ‘a critique of every important recording...to have been issued in the last one hundred years...but an attempt to trace the more significant achievements of the gramophone in making his art available to the music lover...’
Part III has two very important chapters by John Ireland’s former pupils. This includes a major essay by the composer Geoffrey Bush from his book Left, Right and Centre (1983). Shorter observations are presented from Richard Arnell, Alan Bush, Benjamin Britten, E.J. Moeran and Humphrey Searle.
Part IV includes two remarkable articles from the author Jocelyn Brooke: there was a mutual admiration between the two men. The first is ‘John Ireland: A Reminiscence’ which is both heartfelt and humorous. The second is a short extract from Brooke’s book The Birth of a Legend, which is a discussion about Ireland and Arthur Machen. Both these pieces are hard to find, as they are buried deep in library archives. Earlier in the book, Brooke’s ‘analysis ‘ of the piano piece Month’s Mind is also given, extracted from his book The Dog at Clambercrown.
An important analysis of Ireland’s Piano Sonata by the pianist Frederic Lamond is included. It is maybe just a little too heavy on musical examples and light on description, but valuable nonetheless. The musicologist (and composer) Marion M. Scott provides a good review of the Sonata’s first performance by Lamond at the Wigmore Hall. I am especially grateful for Jack Moeran’s brief introduction to Ireland which was published in The Music Bulletin as part of a series on ‘modern composers’. It is concise, informative and well-written, taking the listener up to and including Mai Dun. However the important essay in this section is by the redoubtable Edwin Evans. This is a reprint of a major two-part article in the Musical Times dating from 1919.
Included in this section are a number of articles, notes or broadcast written or made by John Ireland. Of considerable interest are a small number of programme notes written by the composer. These include the Sonata No.2 in A minor for violin and piano, Sarnia and the Piano Concerto.
Two extremely important features of this book are the catalogue of the composer’s music and an up-to-date discography. The catalogue is presented by genre – orchestra & band, chamber, solo piano etc. and then in alphabetical order. Details of the published score or the whereabouts of the holograph are also given. Personally, I would have liked this to have been given chronologically, however as the text points out, for a ‘full historical listing’ the reader is referred to Stewart R. Craggs excellent catalogue. In Craggs’ volume the reader will also find details of first performances and a bibliography for each work. For this level of engagement with Ireland’s music, both books are absolutely essential.
Stephen Lloyd’s discography is a model of its kind. It includes not only currently available CDs but also cassette recordings, vinyl and 78rpm records. It is presented alphabetically by work. The author denies that the discography is exhaustive: it seems to be pretty thorough to me!
I would have liked to have seen a larger bibliography. However the scope suggests that this is only a ‘complete listing of books, pamphlets and thesis’ and a selection ‘of important articles.’ Once again the serious reader will need to refer to both editions of Craggs’ catalogue.
The CD which is provided at the end of the book is significant. There are some 17 tracks exploring a variety of subjects. Perhaps most important are the voice recordings of the composer, including his recollections of Charles Villiers Stanford and his ‘Introduction to Beethoven’. A number of piano works played by the composer are given, including live recordings and piano rolls. Interestingly, the well-known Sonatina is played by Helen Perkin. After half a dozen songs recorded in the composer’s lifetime on 78rpm’s there is a version of The Forgotten Rite conducted by the composer. Certainly I found hearing the composer speak was quite moving. A great ‘bonus’ to this volume.
Finally, the reader can be extremely confident that this book has been edited to the highest standards. The editor, Lewis Foreman has been the doyen of British Music for many years and has been responsible for promoting and celebrating composers and their music. He is best known for his masterly Bax: A Composer and his Times he has also recently edited the sister publication to this present volume – The Percy Grainger Companion. Equally important is his commitment to the Dutton Epoch recording projects where he acts as an independent advisor and has overseen the production of a wide range of important, but largely forgotten British music. This present volume is a testament to his industry and dedication to his chosen discipline.
This book is a collection of essays, articles and lists. As such it is hardly likely to be read from cover to cover. However the themed nature of the sections makes it an ideal book to dip into and discover new facts, shades of opinion and clues towards the understanding and interpretation of John Ireland’s music. I imagine that most readers will use this book as a reference tool and source book. The indices which allow the reader to track people and musical works through the volume will make this an ideal tool for study of the music. For example, there are some 50 references scattered throughout the book to The Forgotten Rite, one of my favourite Ireland orchestral scores. Following up on these will suggest further avenues of exploration.
The book is priced at £40 which may appear to be expensive. Nonetheless, for an academic book it is actually very reasonably priced. The reader will be completely satisfied with the format and presentation of this book. The quality of the paper is excellent although the font is just a little bit small. However, this has (probably) allowed more material to be shoehorned into the number of pages. A striking feature of the book is the huge number of photographs, illustrations in the text and musical illustrations. This is a major gallery of material that will hardly be bettered. Only one drop off: the ‘blurb’ issued by The Boydell Press suggests there are only 448 pages - Amazon notes 600: I counted about 568!
This book is essential reading for all enthusiasts of John Ireland’s music in particular and British Music in general. It is one of a triumvirate of major scholarly productions about the composer–the other two being Fiona Richards’ important study and Stewart Craggs’ Catalogues.
Personally I shall enjoy dipping into this book and using it as a reference tool for many years to come.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this book review first appeared.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this book review first appeared.