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The Clarinet Trio of John Ireland

by Stephen Fox


Although it is not difficult to find underappreciated or forgotten chamber music involving the clarinet, it is a rare privilege to resurrect a major work from the dusty archives where it has lain neglected for nearly a century. Such is the case with the Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano by John Ireland.

John Nicholson Ireland (1879-1962) is recognised now as one of the towering figures in British music in the first half of the 20th century. Irelandís distinctive and highly varied musical style, which was intensely personal and imbued with the spirit of Romanticism, grew out of a rigorous grounding as a pupil of C. V. Stanford at the Royal College of Music, blended with the influence of various contemporary European composers. He drew inspiration from literary sources (the fantasies of Arthur Machen and the Satyricon of Petronius, for example) and from his love of the English countryside, although unlike some of his contemporaries, he did not delve extensively into folksong for musical material. He is perhaps best known for his piano music and songs; and while he wrote a number of pieces for orchestra, he never attempted symphonies or operas.

Irelandís words "The clarinet is by far the finest wood instrumentÖ" testify as to the regard in which he held the clarinet, an admiration which stemmed in part from hearing as a teenager a performance by Richard Mühlfeld of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. His limited body of chamber music is mostly for strings and piano, and includes only three works which involve winds, but all feature the clarinet: the well known Fantasy-Sonata from the end of his career (1943); the youthful, Brahms/DvořŠk-inspired Sextet for clarinet, horn and strings (1898; a wonderful work which very much deserves to be better known); and the Trio in D (1912-14).

History and source material

The exact impetus for the composition of the Trio - for example, whether it was written for a specific clarinettist - is not recorded. The manuscript states that it was begun in April 1912 and finished in October 1913, and revised between then and February 1914.

The Trio received at most two public performances during Irelandís lifetime. It is listed among works which "will probably be included" in one of the Thomas Dunhill Chamber Concerts at Steinway Hall in London, on 9th June, 1914, with Charles Draper (clarinet), May Mukle (cello) and the composer as the performers; the listing states that this would be the "first performance" of the piece. It also seems to have appeared on the programme of one of Isidore de Laraís War Emergency Concerts, also at Steinway Hall, on 25th March, 1915.

Ireland began shortly afterwards to rework the piece as a conventional piano trio, with violin instead of clarinet, transposing it from D into E; in this form it was shelved again. Finally, more than two decades later, material from the work - radically altered, and with an entirely new slow movement - was used as a basis for Irelandís Trio No. 3 in E for violin, cello and piano, which was completed in 1938.

As with the Sextet, Ireland kept the original Trio, or at least those parts which he chose to preserve, stored away but unpublished for most of his life.  Though he was finally persuaded to release the Sextet to the public in 1960, the Trio remained hidden.

On Irelandís death his manuscripts were willed to Norah Kirby, his secretary and housekeeper, who in turn donated them to the British Library in London. They were sorted and arranged by the musicologist Ernest Chapman, and the volume containing the surviving parts of the Clarinet Trio (British Library catalogue number MS 52887) was bound in 1985.

Regrettably, the manuscript is incomplete; whether this is due to accidental loss, or to Irelandís deliberate destruction of parts he deemed unworkable, is not known. The volume - containing the piano score only; the original clarinet and cello parts have disappeared - consists of the following parts of the original Trio-

  • the complete first movement except for the last few bars
  • two pages from one of the two middle movements
  • the complete final movement


  • part of the final movement of the interim violin version, with a new introductory section
  • an incomplete draft of an alternative (earlier?) version of the final movement (for clarinet)
  • a couple of short sketches.

The Trio is discussed at some length in Fiona Richards' The Music of John Ireland, and it is also listed in Stewart Craggs' John Ireland: a Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography, both excellent references. The authors disagree on the date and venue of the first performance, however, and Craggs also seems not to have noticed that the manuscript includes some material from the interim violin version.

During 2002-03, with the approval of the John Ireland Trust, the present writer assembled the surviving source material and produced a reconstruction which as far as possible approximates Irelandís original version of the work, given the information now available.  The revived Trio was given its first performance by the Riverdale Ensemble in Toronto in June 2003.  The same group was invited to present it at the ICA ClarinetFest in College Park, MD, in July 2004.  Subsequent performances have allowed gradual polishing of the reconstruction and editing. The first U.K. performance has been given by Alex South at Glasgow University in November 2007.

The world premiere recording has been released by the Riverdale Ensemble.

Publication of the Trio has been undertaken by June Emerson Wind Music in the U.K., from whom the printed music is now available.

Programme for (planned) first performance of Clarinet Trio [enlarged version]




Following is a discussion of each movement and an outline of the reconstruction, where necessary, and editing of the Trio (more details and a list of specific editorial points can be found on the internet at the address listed below).

First movement:

The manuscript preserves the first movement intact (MS pp. 1-16) except for a few bars on a now-missing last page. Otherwise the score is largely unambiguous, requiring merely the deciphering of questionable notes (resulting from sloppy writing and ink blots) and numerous editorial instructions of varying legibility.

The missing part at the end of the movement, deduced to be five bars long, has been restored by close analogy with corresponding material in the 1938 Trio No. 3: the last four bars were transferred verbatim (except for transposition), leaving only one transitional bar (263) to be reconstructed. Rebuilding this bar convincingly was not difficult, given the necessity to preserve the melody line, the harmonic progression and the rhythmic pattern established in the previous bar.

The evolution of the original Trio into the 1938 Trio can be illustrated by comparing the opening material from each:

Comparison of opening of first movement of Trio in D (left) and Trio No. 3 in E (right)
[enlarged version]


Two general alterations are apparent. The original piano accompaniment, which has a halting feel and a rather sparse texture, was replaced by a continuously undulating movement (which is very typical of Ireland's piano writing). The triplet figure in the melody line was also expanded from eighth notes to quarter notes, which alters the character of the tune fundamentally, replacing a slightly martial feel with more expansive lyricism.

The secondary thematic and development material in this movement was replaced completely during the transformation to the 1938 Trio.

This movement is written for clarinet in B flat. However, one passage contains a bottom E flat, unplayable on a standard clarinet. In the grand scheme this is not particularly significant - another harmonically consistent note can be substituted - but for those who wish to be completely accurate, an ossia section has been included in the newly published edition to facilitate playing this passage on clarinet in A.


This movement is represented by only two surviving manuscript pages (MS pp. 29-30). Comparison of these pages with the Scherzo from the 1938 Trio No. 3, however, reveals that the material is so similar that reconstructing at least a reasonable facsimile of the original movement should be possible, and this in fact proved fairly straightforward.

Inspection displays two general changes from the earlier to the later Trio: transposition from D minor to E minor; and transformation of the original constant 6/8 metre to irregularly alternating 6/8 and 9/8, which has been carried out by condensing the rhythm and dropping beats. Restoration of the original version thus requires reversal of this:

Comparison of excerpt from the Scherzo from Trio in D (left) and Trio No. 3 in E (right)
[enlarged version]


When this is done throughout, the two surviving pages slot neatly into place - bars 53-109 in the new edition and again, in part, in bars 187-221 - giving us confidence that the reconstruction is a fair rendition of the original. Certainly, some details could be handled in alternate ways - the choice of which clarinet note to extract from violin multiple stops, amendment of multiple stops for the cello which are playable in E minor but not in D minor, whether to transpose a very high melody line in the violin down to a more appropriate range for the clarinet, etc. - but these are minor matters which do not affect the architecture or the overall effect of the movement.

The missing (slow?) movement:

After completion of the first movement and reconstruction of the Scherzo, there is clearly a large gap in the page number sequence in the manuscript (MS pp. 18-26, plus or minus a page or two), demonstrating the existence of a second movement which is now entirely missing.  It is reasonable to surmise that this was a slow movement, but other than that we can say nothing about it.


The manuscript contains one section from the interim violin version: an introduction, marked Lento, to the last movement. The clarinet version did not contain such an introduction (the last movement starts at the principal tempo, Con moto, immediately after the movement heading "IV"). It is possible that the musical material in the Lento was similar to that in the missing second movement, but that cannot be assumed.

In the absence of any other slow movement, the decision has been taken to incorporate the Lento into the revived Trio. Performers are invited to make their own judgements about whether to include it, however.  If nothing else, its inclusion preserves an interesting and distinctive piece of Ireland's writing which would otherwise be lost.

Adaptation of the Lento requires it to be transposed down a whole tone - to preserve the attacca into the finale - and modification for the clarinet of violin-specific writing, such as tremolos and one passage with an extremely high tessitura.  The transposition also makes it necessary to move the opening and closing cello melody an octave higher than originally written.

Final movement:

This movement is complete in the manuscript (MS pp. 38-50), so editing for performance required only interpreting one somewhat ambiguous cut, deciding how to handle a pencilled-in instruction to transpose one section, and some individual note concerns.

While extensive structural and detail changes took place between the Trio in D and the 1938 Trio, the first and second themes were preserved intact, though a third theme in the original was later dropped.

This movement is the only one in which clarinet in A is specified.


By 1912 Ireland had found his voice as a composer, so those hearing the Trio for the first time would likely not be surprised to learn the identity of its creator. In its musical language it is worlds away from, say, the Sextet of only 14 years earlier. Where Continental musical influences are still apparent, it is now most often Debussy, rather than Brahms or DvořŠk, whose shadow is cast over the Trio. Some parts - the Scherzo and the second theme in the first movement, for instance - could not possibly be any nationality other than British. At times Ireland's experimentation with compositional technique is apparent; the Lento, with its ambiguous piano harmonies over a cello ostinato, would not be out of place in the work of a composer of several decades later.

Resurrecting a piece of music in this way raises the question of the morality of bringing to light a work previously suppressed as unworthy or unfinished by its composer. Being riven with self-doubt, Ireland was ruthlessly critical of his own work, and it was not unusual for him to revise extensively even compositions which had already been published; works he considered irretrievably bad were simply destroyed. His judgement of the Trio in D, written in 1943, was that "ÖThe musical material & the emotional content were all present in the original version, but badly expressed & clumsily managed". Seen in a later light, however, this condemnation now seems excessively harsh. The 1938 Trio in E admittedly shows more polish and the benefit of 25 years of composing experience; for example, the opening of the first movement feels more comfortable with the later piano accompaniment than with the pattern first used, and the development section of the original first movement unquestionably contains some weak spots. Overall, though, the original Trio has sufficient merit that it deserves better than to be buried forever.

As a precedent, there is one other example of a work of Irelandís - the piano solo Ballade of London Nights - which he never finished, and which was completed and published after Ireland's death. Ultimately, the John Ireland Trust is the guardian of the best interests of Ireland and his memory, and their judgement as to the suitability of releasing the Trio is to be respected.

The Trio in D is a major work with considerable musical interest and appeal for performer and listener. As the only piece for this standard instrumental combination to be found in the rich and distinctive genre of British late Romantic music, it should become a significant addition to the repertoire.


Thanks are due to all those who have assisted in this project: Dr. Richard Faria of Ithaca College for the initial impetus; the Trustees of the John Ireland Trust, notably Bruce Phillips and the late Peter Taylor, for giving their approval for publication and providing valuable background information; Alan Rowlands for his thoughtful suggestions about the reconstruction; June Emerson for agreeing to publish the Trio and Rachel Emerson for overseeing the publication; Jeanne Roberts for typesetting the music though many rounds of editing; Russell Denwood for editorial assistance; Pamela Weston for her encouragement and for facilitating contact with the publisher; Marguerite Baker for including a performance on the schedule for ClarinetFest 2004; cellists Laura Jones and Helena Likwornik; pianist Ellen Meyer for countless hours spent deciphering and interpreting the barely-legible manuscript score and collaboration throughout the process; and many others who have offered enthusiastic moral support.


Fiona Richards: The Music of John Ireland (Ashgate, 2000)

Stewart Craggs: John Ireland: a Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography (Oxford, 1993)

John Ireland: Trio No. 3 in E (Boosey & Hawkes, 1938)


Further information

Manuscript: The British Library,

Publisher: June Emerson Wind Music,

Reconstruction/editing details:

Premiere recording:

First page of manuscript of Clarinet Trio [enlarged version]


About the WriterÖ

Born in England and raised in western Canada, Stephen Fox began his university studies in physics, achieving a Masters degree, before deciding to make his career in music. As an instrument maker (, he is known worldwide for his custom artist clarinets and reproduction historical woodwinds. His lectures and demonstrations on clarinet acoustics, design and history have been heard at universities in North America, Europe and Australia and at ICA ClarinetFests, and from 1994 to 2004 he taught annually at Musikk Instrument Akademiet in Norway. An active professional performer, he plays clarinet, historical clarinet and saxophone in orchestras and chamber ensembles, has recorded three chamber music CDs, has presented recitals and chamber concerts in several European countries, in Australia and across Canada, and has been heard on air through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Czech Radio and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

'This article was published in the December 2007 edition of Clarinet &
Saxophone magazine (the official journal of the Clarinet & Saxophone Society
of Great Britain)'.


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