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Ireland (1879-1962) - A London Overture

Like Elgar, Ireland  looked to Brahms for form, and like Vaughan Williams to Ravel (plus Debussy and Stravinsky) for ideas on harmony, texture and rhythm. Although strongly flavoured by French influences, his distinctive style encompassed the English “pastoral” tradition, and he contributed significantly to the English “renaissance”. 

The plums of his wide-ranging output - songs, choral, chamber, brass band, and orchestral music - are his solo piano works, often inspired by the environs of the Channel Islands.  Although he's not over-popular, possibly because he generally avoided making “big statements”, several of his orchestral works hover on the fringes of the repertoire: titles such as The Forgotten Rite (1913), Mai-Dun (1921), the Downland Suite (1932), and the Satyricon Overture (1946) all have a familiar ring. 

A London Overture owes its existence to the 1934 Crystal Palace Brass Band competition, which commissioned his Comedy Overture. After the event, he re-worked its materials, stirring in his impressions of the London where he spent most of his life. There is a parallel with Elgar's Cockaigne Overture, both in its inspiration and its admixture of gaiety and introspection. However, quoting Brahms, “Any fool can see that!” Had these been modern “movies”, they would probably have been dubbed Cockaigne and Cockaigne 2 - The Return: Ireland's overture reflects a later, post-war London, well on the way to replacing “organic rose-food” by much less re-usable pollutants. 

The overture approximates a scherzo and trio pattern. The sinister stalking of the slow introduction is something of a tonal precursor of Stockhausen's punkte-musik: it feels rather like overhearing fragments of sleeping men's dreams, seeping from their houses into the nocturnal street. 

A brief clarinet cadenza, then a  rhythm, “proper perky-like”, introduces a main subject inspired by a ’bus conductor's cry of “ 'Dilly! Pica-dilly!” So says the composer, and I can well believe him. A host of subsidiary ideas crowds in, jostling one another in that ordered chaos typical of any busy street or market-place. Following hot on the heels of a fanfare figure comes the counter-subject, a charming “music hall” lyric sung by solo oboe, and amplified into a colourful climax. The expected repeat of the main subject unexpectedly bumps into snatches of the introduction and, protesting, retreats. 

Suddenly, we are right back with the opening bars, which fade to reveal a new theme (the trio), a vision of loveliness on a soulful solo horn, luxuriating in a bed of woodwind and strings. The usual “interpretation” of this is as a “peaceful parkland interlude”, but here's another idea: wrapped snugly around this seductive trio are the only recollections of the introduction, whose fragments have coalesced to form the trio theme.  Now, you could build a real fantasy on that! 

The final return of the opening bars is appropriately truncated to precede an abbreviated, but varied and still jollier reprise of the scherzo. By the end, the conductor ('bus conductor, that is) is dillying fit to bust!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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