Friday, 1 July 2016

The Pianoforte Music of John Ireland by Katharine E. Eggar (Part II)

The ‘Rhapsody’ and the ‘London Pieces.’
The Rhapsody [1] is a noble composition, heroic in style, and is the longest and, in the composer's estimation, the most important of his piano works after the sonata. It is difficult, but not insurmountably so on the technical side. The rendering requires much insight, for there is nothing of the superficial showiness of the Lisztian Rhapsody about it: nor is it a mere string of inconsequent subjects, with ebullitions of meaningless excitement in between. The form is very compressed, and there is practically no repetition. (Mr. Ireland finds the Rhapsody a congenial mould for new ideas, and his latest orchestral [2] work has this title).
Of the three London Pieces [3] the delightful and original ‘Ragamuffin’ is probably the best known. Who does not enjoy the pert and sudden antics, the droll posturing, the tongue-in-cheek and mock decorum of this alluring little gutter-snipe? ‘Chelsea Reach’ is marked ‘Tempo di Barcarola’ and seems to embody the flow of the river and the clash of church bells. ‘Soho Forenoons’ is less frequently played, perhaps because the significance of the title has eluded people. Like Arnold Bax's clever sketch of the musicality of the Spanish, French and Italian Rivieras, which he calls Mediterranean, [4] it is the impression on an observer of the mixed foreign element that keeps the shops, frequents the restaurants and jostles one on the pavements of Soho. The indication of the tambourine, the snatches of Italian opera style and sundry ‘intentional crudities’ bring up very vividly the appropriate background of recollection.

In Country Mood.
In contrast to these impressions of London, Mr. Ireland has given us a couple of Countryside sketches—‘Amberley Wild Brooks’ [5] and ‘The Towing Path’[6]. Composers of the Mendelssohn period were inspired by the idea of brawling mountain torrents to write elegant pieces which meandered decorously through drawing rooms under the fingers of accomplished young ladies. Mr. Ireland, typical of our more wayward period, has been inspired by the (in reality) very sluggish little canals of the Amberley marshes, to give us all the freshness of their delicious name—the babbling music of a running stream with the joyous summer breeze above it.
In ‘The Towing Path’ he has succeeded in redeeming the time of 6/8 from its frequently banal associations, and investing it with the placid charm of a summer's day by the Thames—a charm as potent now as it was 350 years ago, when Spenser [7], depressed at his ‘long, fruitless stay’ at Court, walked forth to ease his pain.
Calme was the day, and through the trembling ayre
Sweete breathing Zephyrus did softly play....
When I.... walkt forth to ease my payne
Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes,
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hemnmes,
Was painted all with variable flowers,
And all the meades adorned with daintie gemmes....
Sweete Themnmes! runne softly till I end my song. [8]

The very last piece that Mr. Ireland has written is another out-of-door impression. He calls it ‘On a Birthday Morning’[9] —a morning in the early year, ‘when wild March winds upon their errand sing,’ and a healthy mortal rejoices to feel their buffets. The music is full of joyous energy: its clear, bold melody swings along on a sharp, stimulating, regular rhythm, accumulating such an astonishing variety of harmony as to leave the listener at a first hearing rather breathless, it is still in manuscript, but will no doubt be in print very shortly, with a companion piece of quieter mood-called ‘Soliloquy’[10].

Musician's Music.
Of the published pieces, there remain to be mentioned the Four Preludes,[11] written 1913-1915, and the more recent ‘For Remembrance’[12].
Three of these I place in a special category. I should call them Musician's Music. ‘It's not a concert piece.’ said their author of the one for which I was expressing a particular affection; and to some musicians, no other recommendation will be needed. They have that peculiar quality of intimacy which makes some particular piece, or movement, or it may be only a passage, here and there among all the music that one knows, satisfying and precious in a way which cannot be explained. The three pieces I allude to are ‘The Holy Boy’, ‘The Undertone’ and ‘For Remembrance’.
The title of the first may have mystified some of us and set us wondering if it were a folk-tune. It is enough to say that Mr. Ireland has never used any modal tunes (except to make a vocal setting of ‘The Three Ravens’)[13], and that he wrote ‘The Holy Boy’ one Christmas Day, and in his transcriptions of it for violin and for 'cello has given it the sub-title of ‘A Carol of the Nativity’. But the appeal of all three pieces being of such a subtle kind, it is difficult to say anything about their beauties without brushing the bloom off the grape. Still, one may point out the skill of the craftsmanship. The basses in the Nativity Carol are a study in themselves, and the art by which the music's utter simplicity is achieved must be admired by any musician worthy of the name.
‘The Undertone’ is constructed on a repeated melodic figure in a measure of five, and the mood is sombre. A similar idea is carried out, with the greater freedom and resource which seven years' experience has brought, in ‘For Remembrance’. Not for those who feel affinity with music based on perfect abstraction from feeling and dependent on nothing but ingenuity in superimposing planes of tonal values, is the wistful tenderness of this short piece with its dragging semitones, its answering ascents and descents, its sudden smiles of harmony, its brief grandeurs of spacious trebled melody—bitter-sweet in its flavour as all intimate remembrance must be. Even among those who value music by their psychological response to it, there may be only a few to whom it will appeal. But to those few it will be a pearl of great price.
Katherine E. Eggar: The Music Teacher (June 1922) with minor edits to the text.

[1] The Rhapsody referred to here was completed during March 1915 and was first heard at the Aeolian Hall, London. The pianist was William Murdoch (1888-1942). A Rhapsody in C sharp minor has subsequently been discovered and is usually regarded as the First. It was composed around 1905.
[2] Mai-Dun: Symphonic Rhapsody for full orchestra was composed between 1920 and 1921. It was inspired by Maiden Castle in Dorset.
[3] John Ireland’s London Pieces for solo piano were composed between 1917 and 1920. The three character pieces are ‘Chelsea Reach’, ‘Ragamuffin’ (Autumn 1917) and ‘Soho Forenoons’ (February 1920). They are amongst the composer’s most popular and best loved piano pieces.
[4] Arnold Bax’s piano piece ‘Mediterranean’ was composed in 1920. Lewis Foreman has described it as ‘a classic musical picture postcard, probably evoking a holiday which Bax and musical friends…took in [Barcelona and] Majorca in 1913.’ It was later orchestrated in 1922.
[5] ‘Amberley Wild Brooks’ was the second of Two Pieces for solo piano composed by Ireland in 1921. It is a portrayal of an area of water meadows, ditches and streams just north of the village of Amberley in West Sussex. It has been described as a ‘musical watercolour.’
[6] ‘The Towing Path’ is a musical appreciation of the River Thames at Pangbourne. It was composed whilst Ireland was staying in the vicinity during 1918.
[7] Edmund Spenser (1552-99) was a renaissance English poet best remembered for his allegorical poem ‘The Faerie Queen.’ Other important works include the cycle of love sonnets, the ‘Amoretti’ and the pastoral ‘Epithalamion’ which was a celebration of the poet’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594.
[8] From the opening 15 lines of Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion.'
[9] John Ireland wrote ‘On a Birthday Morning’ in 1922: it carries the dedication ‘Pro amicitia’ (For Friendship). The identity of the dedicatee was Arthur George Miller, who was a chorister at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. It was his seventeenth birthday. Ireland and Miller were to become close friends during the nineteen thirties. Craggs reports that in 1932 Ireland made a will leaving all his estate to Miller. The composition was duly published in 1922 by Augener & Co.
[10] ‘Soliloquy’ is a short piano piece, written in 1922. It is dedicated to the pianist Edward Howard-Jones who gave the work’s first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 26 May 1922. Alan Rowlands suggested that the piece was inspired by ‘one of [John] Masefield’s shorter poems.’
[11] As Katharine Eggar notes, the [Four] Preludes were composed over a two year period.  Stewart R. Craggs (A Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography, 2nd Edition, Ashgate, 2007) cites the manuscript evidence for dating as follows: ‘The Undertone’ Chelsea, January 1914; ‘Obsession’ Autumn 1915; ‘The Holy Boy’ Chelsea 25 December 1915; ‘Fire of Spring’, Chelsea April 1915.  There first performance was given by Ireland at the Aeolian Hall on 7 June 1918. ‘The Holy Boy’ has been arranged in a number of versions.
[12] ‘For Remembrance’ is the first of ‘Two Pieces for solo piano’ composed in 1921. There is no suggestion that the title implies any particular memory. The mood of the piece is elegiac and makes use of Ireland’s typically bitter-sweet harmonies.
[13] ‘The Three Ravens’ is a rare setting by Ireland of a traditional melody and text. It was composed in 1919. The song has been arranged for cello and piano by Julian Lloyd-Webber.
Notes by J France.

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