> The Music of John Ireland by Fiona Richards [IL]: Book Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Book Review

The Music of John Ireland
By Fiona Richards
282 pages; hardback. Ashgate Publishing 2002. ISBN 0-7546-0111-0
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This is a valuable addition to the sparse John Ireland bibliography for it is the first book to really examine the music. Fiona Richards, who is a lecturer in music at the Open University, analyses the music in depth and at the same time looks at the extraordinary contradictory traits that made up the composer’s complex personality. The biographical details are cursory and taken out of order to comply with the author’s chosen format – looking at the music in designated ‘compartmentalised’ chapters: i.e: Anglo-Catholicism; Paganism; Country; City; Love; War; and Songs and sonatas, sacred and profane: encountering Ireland and knowing Ireland. The biographical detail has of course been covered earlier in Muriel Searle’s John Ireland The Man and His Music (1979) and John Longmire’s John Ireland: Portrait of a Friend (1969). Ms Richards, however, does not shrink from revealing the more controversial aspects of the composer’s character and his music.

Ms Richards includes many musical examples of the chamber works, piano pieces, songs and orchestral works and church music, and her analyses alongside the snippets of biographical detail are most illuminating. For instance, she closely examines the song, The trellis "one of the most idyllic and rapturous of all Ireland’s works…here the emphasis is more on love than on its rural backdrop…the subject of which is secret love, the trellis shielding ‘silent kisses’, white caresses’ and ‘whisper’d words’ from ‘prying eyes’ ". Significantly the work was composed around the time when Ireland was enjoying a period of career success and personal happiness especially with St Luke’s chorister Arthur Miller.

Just as compulsive are the analyses of the ‘pagan works’ such as The Forgotten Rite and Satyricon. Ireland was fascinated with the occult and we may deduce that he strayed dangerously close to the art of black magic. Certainly, he was drawn to the suggestive ‘other-worldly’ writings of Arthur Machen and was entranced with sites of antiquity like Maiden Castle in Dorset and ancient earth works in the Channel Islands and similar sites in Sussex. His last home was a windmill directly in the shadow of Chanctonbury Ring (so cruelly cut down in the gales of 1987) the site of a witch’s coven. In this context, Ms Richards’ many well-chosen and revelatory quotations from Ireland’s correspondence is another strength. I was particularly interested to read the following comment from Jocelyn Brook, "…with Ireland I was aware of [an] immediate impact: a sense of recognition, as though, turning a corner in a strange countryside, I had suddenly caught sight of a familiar landmark. The simile is not accidental, for Ireland’s music, at its most characteristic, evokes for me always the idea of a particular kind of landscape: a country of the mind, remote, mysterious yet essentially English. The scene I envisaged more often than not is a prospect of bare chalk downs interspersed with deep woodlands, vaguely apprehended in the bleak twilight of a winter’s evening; there is a sense of far illimitable distances, a hint perhaps of some car au fond des bois echoing sadly beyond the lonely downland, on the crest of which ancient earthworks stand silhouetted against a rainy sunset." Ireland himself professed a real liking for this interpretation. In complete contrast there are many works that underline John Ireland’s Anglo-Catholic beliefs and these too are intelligently examined by Ms Richards. It is interesting to note that Ireland’s last composition was a church work. It was commissioned from America - the Meditation on John Keble’s Rogationtide Hymn. "In one sense the Meditation is a clear manifestation of Ireland’s own faith and long-standing associations with the Anglican church…however things are not so simple and even here a secular motif permeates the music." "Rogationtide is a religious festival that would have appealed to Ireland on account of its pagan roots."

There are some difficulties. Richards’ sectionalising is not always entirely successful. The Second Violin Sonata, for instance is disconcertingly split between the Chapters 1 and 8 both covering ‘Songs and Sonatas’ with no real coverage in the Chapter headed ‘War’ considering its associations with the Great War and its wartime performances by Albert Sammons in uniform! There is also a too-desultory coverage of These Things Shall Be with no appreciation of the baritone soloist’s part or of the big broad tune at the heart of the work Elgar did not work, in the 1920s, at the Fittleworth cottage, where he had composed his Cello concerto and final chamber works. He all but left it in 1920 when his wife died. I was a bit bemused to associate Beethoven with the divine slow movement of Ireland’s Cello Concerto. A real aggravation is the poor reproduction of the map of West Sussex around Amberley, Chanctonbury and Harrow Hill (associated with Legend for Piano and Orchestra) and the almost indecipherable map of Chelsea.

Nonetheless apart from these relatively minor carps, this is a meritorious and long overdue assessment of the music of John Ireland. It is to be hoped that it will spur more performances and recordings of this important and relatively neglected English composer.

Ian Lace

The John Ireland Website on Musicweb


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