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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

Front Page

EIRE (Republic of Ireland)



Ireland's major contribution to 20th-century music has been in the field of folk and popular music rather than classical; her folk-songs are heard world wide, and the more recent fusion of Celtic music with rock music has been a major international influence. Any assessment of Ireland's 20th-century classical music is further complicated by Ireland's political history.

Irish classical music was founded on the achievement of John Field (1782-1837) in piano music, and the opera singer and composer John Balfe (1808-1870). However, two major British figures of the late 19th and early 20th century were actually Irish, Charles Stanford (1852-1924) and Hamilton Harty (1879-1941), both of whom wrote in a late-Romantic idiom. Both were sufficiently aware of their native roots to include Irish elements in their music, and properly belong to any history of Irish music. It should also be noted that Irish influences are to be found in the works of a number of English composers of the same period, notably Arnold Bax (1883-1953), who actually wrote Irish nationalist novels under an assumed Irish name.

The composers following this generation, who have worked exclusively in the context of an independent Eire, are virtually unknown outside Ireland. Frederick May (born 1911), who studied in Vienna but whose compositions were curtailed by the onset of deafness, is best known for his articulate String Quartet in C (1936), and Brian Boydell (born 1917), active as a teacher and promoter of new music, for his own string quartets. Gerard Victory (born 1921) and John Kinsella (born 1932) both adopted 12-tone techniques; the former is known for his radio and television work, and his output includes Jonathan Swift - a symphonic portrait, a descriptive tone-poem following the life of the Irish satirist. Seán O'Riada (born 1931), musical director of the Abbey Theatre from 1955 to 1962, has been eclectic in his styles, ranging from 12-tone elements to suggestions of folk-song, and is known for his series of works titled Nomos. In an Irish context (but not that of Eire) mention should also be made of Howard Ferguson (born 1908), the major Ulster composer of the 20th century. His small, neo-Romantic output concentrated on chamber works, notably the Octet op.4 (1933), but also includes the choral The Dream of the Rood op.19 (1958-1959). He gave up composing in the early 1960s, feeling he had already said all he wanted to, and concentrated on musicology.

In Eire there is a lively group of younger composers centred on Dublin, but these have yet to be heard widely outside Ireland; they include Roger Doyle (born 1949) whose works sometimes reflect popular influences, and often use electronics. His output includes stage works, notably The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden (1984, revised 1988), based on Lorca, and he has produced one of the first scores for the new technology of virtual reality (1992).

Eire Music Information Centre:

Contemporary Music Centre

95 Lower Baggot Street

Dublin 2


tel: +353 1 612105 (01 661 2105 in Eire)

fax: +353 1 676 2639 (01 767 2639 in Eire)





HARTY (Sir Herbert) Hamilton

born 4th December 1879 at Hillsborough (Co.Down)

died 19th February 1941 at Hove


Sir Hamilton Harty is probably better remembered as a conductor than a composer, though there has been a recent revival of interest in his music. With Field (1782-1837), Balfe (1808-1870) and Stanford he remains Ireland's most distinguished composer. If (born in an age when all Ireland was still part of the British Isles) much of his professional life was spent in Britain, he retained a love of Irish folk-tradition. Irish folk-elements lend a particular hue to his otherwise overtly Romantic idiom, often derivative (from Tchaikovsky to Sibelius) and usually traditionally tonal.

Most of Harty's music for orchestra, when not actually quoting Irish material, has Irish legend as a programmatic base. The best known is the tone-poem With the Wild Geese (1910) - an Irish regiment who fought for the French in 1745 - which is a dramatic and sometimes marvellously stirring evocation leading up to the battle itself. More familiar by name than by performance, An Irish Symphony (1904, revised 1915 and 1924) is a compendium of themes based on Irish folk tunes, with the combination of bright warmth and occasional Irish melancholy that infects all his music. It is well crafted and attractive if without depth, with some expansive moments, but deserves its relative obscurity. The Violin Concerto in D minor (1908) is entirely abstract. The first of many 20th-century compositions especially written for the famous violinist Szigeti, it is in the Romantic virtuoso tradition, sympathetic and with singing, warm, but not especially memorable solo lines. The slow movement is a poetic song, the soloist playing almost continuously. The Variations on a Dublin Air (1912) for violin and orchestra is in a similar vein. By far the most impressive of these earlier works is the Ode to a Nightingale (1907) for soprano and orchestra. The extended setting of Keats' poem has something of the expressive ecstasy and wide ranging, high solo line of similar late-Romantic vocal settings on continental Europe, looking to Wagner and Mahler while influenced by Elgar rather than Tchaikovsky. His gift for rich orchestration is sharply focused in contrapuntal writing of considerable clarity.

Harty's conducting career limited composition later in his life, but the handful of works include some of his most appealing music. The Piano Concerto (1922) is a virtuoso concerto in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov - Harty was himself a concert pianist and an accomplished accompanist. The final movement includes the use of an Irish folk tune, and for those looking for a lesser known concerto in the grand style this has many moments of wallowing interest, especially in the combination of grandeur and tongue-in-cheek effects in the final pages, and with deft touches of orchestration, such as a bell in the attractive slow movement. The opening of the short fantasy for flute, harp and orchestra In Ireland (1935) has a particularly Celtic flavour (heightened by the solo instruments), rhapsodic melodic lines, and, with its subsequent Irish tunefulness, is instantly appealing. A Wagnerian influence returns in the opening of the tone poem The Children of Lir (1938) for orchestra with wordless soprano solo. It is based on the Irish legend of three children of Lir who were turned into swans for a millennium before returning as ancient humans. In spite of some atmospheric moments, sonorous orchestration, and a fine ending, it ultimately lacks the memorability of a Sibelius tone poem or the personal idiom of Bax, whose infusion of Irish Celticism is far more interesting, and to whom readers are advised to turn first.

Mention should also be made of Harty's arrangements (staples of the English orchestral repertoire until eclipsed by the movement for authenticity), notably of Handel's Water Music, and A John Field Suite, orchestrations of piano music by Field. Harty was principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra from 1920-1933, achieving an international reputation for both himself and the orchestra, and was knighted in 1925.


works include:

- An Irish Symphony

- piano concerto; violin concerto; fantasy In Ireland for flute harp and orch.; Variations on a Dublin Air for violin and orch.

- A Comedy Overture, The Children of Lir and With the Wild Geese for orch.

- string trio; piano quartet

- Ode to a Nightingale for soprano and orch.; many songs


recommended works:

Ode to a Nightingale (1907) for soprano and orchestra

fantasy In Ireland (1935) for flute harp and orchestra

tone poem With the Wild Geese (1910)



D.Greer (ed.) Hamilton Harty: his life and music, Dublin


STANFORD (Sir) Charles Villiers

born 30th September 1852 at Dublin

died 29th March 1924 at London


Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry were the major figures in the revival of British music at the turn of the century, and Stanford's role as the teacher of many of the next generation of British composers is historically of greater significance than his music. Stanford studied in Germany, and his own music follows German late-Romantic models, notably in his seven symphonies. Following his death, his works fell into complete obscurity except for a handful of liturgical works, still often encountered in Anglican churches. Recently there has been a revival of interest in his music, both out of historical curiosity and for his solid if uninspired technique. His work remains entirely in the Romantic tradition, but with the twin influences of Brahms and an element of Irish mysticism that has assimilated Irish folk music and stories. For all their craftsmanship these works lack an especially distinctive voice, partly through the lack of any sense of inherent tension.

The Symphony No.3 `Irish' op.28 (1887) is probably the best known of the symphonies, for its Irish influence in the Brahmsian symphonic cast, and it was the work that brought Stanford an international reputation. The scherzo uses echoes of the jig, and the main theme of the slow movement, often compared to the very similar theme from Brahms's fourth symphony (premiered a year earlier), was actually from a collection of Irish folksongs. Irish melodies are again used in the lively and enjoyable finale. The subtitle of the Symphony No.5 L'Allegro ed il Penseroso (1894) refers to Milton's two poems of the same names; the score prints the poems, and movements correspond to sections of those poems. With its vigorous and arresting opening, and atmospheric sections in the slow movement, this is a fine example of the well-constructed, if not especially memorable, late-Romantic symphony. The Symphony No.6 (1905) was written to honour the memory of the artist George Frederick Watts, who had died in 1904, and though without a specific programme was influenced by various works by Watts; a theme representing death returns in each of the four movements. There is a vigour, too, to the opening of this work, with echoes of Dvořák in its largely lyrical drive; the slow movement opens with a limpid cor anglais tune, representing love. The ideas of love and death vie at the close of the rather long-winded symphony, with death overcoming in a calm close.

Of his concertante works, the unassuming and Brahmsian Clarinet Concerto op.80 (1902) is still sometimes heard, while the Piano Concerto No.2 op.126 (1911) is completely under the spell of Rachmaninov's second piano concerto (Stanford had conducted the British premiere just before writing his own concerto), is unashamedly Romantic, well constructed, and might interest those looking for piano concertos in a similar vein to that of the Russian master. Of his very large chamber output, the best is to be found in the Clarinet Sonata op.139 (1911), with an Irish lament for its second movement, and the Brahmsian Piano Trio No.1 op.35.

Although the Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935) had written two Scottish Rhapsodies in the 1880s, it was Stanford with his Irish Rhapsodies, the works that most reflect his Irish heritage, who set the example for the many subsequent British composers of a rhapsody based on British folk-musics. The alternately boisterous and quietly beautiful Irish Rhapsody No.1 op.78 (1902) is based on the heroic Irish legends of Cuchullin, and uses two traditional Irish tunes, the first a battle-song, the second the well-known Londonderry Air (its Irish folk-song title is `Emer's Farewell to Cuchullin'); Stanford provides an attractive and gentle setting for its appearance. The Irish Rhapsody No.3 is for cello and orchestra, while the colourful and expansive Irish Rhapsody No.4 op.141 (1913), subtitled `The fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw', uses a traditional fisherman's song, as well as an Ulster marching tune and the well-known `The Death of General Wolfe', but has less concentrated effect than the first rhapsody. The Irish Rhapsody No.6 is another concertante work, for violin and orchestra.

Choral works occupy some fifty of Stanford's 177 opus numbers, but apart from his church services, most have been largely forgotten. The vocal work most often revived is the song-cycle Songs of the Sea op.91 (1904) for bass and orchestra to verses by Sir Henry Newbolt, in style a cross between the popular Victorian salon-song and the sea-shanty. Its success led to a second set, Songs of the Fleet op.117 (1910), of which the third song, `The Middle Watch', is an effective piece of nocturnal tone-painting. An abiding influence in his output was his church music, which set new English standards, especially the often used Anglican service known as `Stanford in B'. He was also concerned with reviving English opera, but of his ten operas only Shamus O'Brien (1895) achieved any success, and all are now forgotten.

Stanford taught at the Royal College of Music from its inception in 1883 until 1924, and at Cambridge from 1887 to 1924. He was notorious for the conservatism of his tastes, his most vitriolic distaste reserved for Debussy and Strauss, whom he parodied in a choral work Ode to Discord (1914). His many pupils included Bliss, Bridge, Holst, Howells, Ireland, Moeran and Vaughan Williams. He was active as a conductor (notably of the London Bach Choir, 1885-1902), and was knighted in 1902.


works include:

- 7 symphonies (No.2 Elegiac, No.3 Irish, No.5 L'Allegro ed il Penseroso)

- clarinet concerto; 3 piano concertos; violin concerto; Balata and Ballabile and Rondo for cello and orch.; Concert Variations on an English Theme for piano and orch.; Irish Concertino for violin, cello and orch.

- Festival Overture, 6 Irish Rhapsodies (No.3 for cello and orch., No.6 for violin and orch.), overture Queen of the Seas, Oedipus Rex and other works for orch.

- 2 cello sonatas; clarinet sonata; 4 violin sonatas; 3 piano trios; 8 string quartets; piano quintet; 2 string quintets; serenade-Nonet for winds and strings and other chamber works

- Fantasia and Toccata, Marcia Eroica, sets of Sonata Britannica and Sonata Celtica and other works for piano

- organ works

- song cycles Songs of the Fleet and Songs of the Sea for bass and orch. and many other songs; oratorio Eden; Biblical Songs for soloist and chorus; choral ballad The Revenge; Six Elizabethan Pastorals for chorus; much church music for chorus, notably Three Motets op.38; Requiem and Stabat Mater for soloists, chorus and orch.; many arrangements of folk-songs

- 10 operas including Canterbury Pilgrims, The Critic, Savonarola, Shamus O'Brien, The Travelling Companion and The Veiled Prophet


recommended works:

Clarinet Concerto op.80 (1902)

Clarinet Sonata op.129 (1911)

Irish Rhapsody No.1 op.78 (1902) for orchestra

Symphony No.5 L'Allegro ed il Penseroso (1894)

Three Motets op.38 (1905)



J.F.Porte Sir Charles V. Stanford, 1921, reissued 1976





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