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The name ‘Hennessy’ may suggests a brand of Cognac spirit rather than an Irish composer, so a bit of historical information concerning “one of the most unknown among the unknown composers of the early 20th century” should be welcome. I will unashamedly quote from Axel Klein’s detailed and informative notes. They are based on his research on the composer and his music, published in the biography Bird of Time: The Music of Swan Hennessy.
Edward Hennessy was called Swan since childhood, after his mother’s surname. His Cork-born father, who had become a wealthy man in Chicago, sent him to school in Oxford. Swan cut it short to study piano and composition at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart, which had an English-speaking composition class led by the American Percy Goetschius. Hennessy became an ardent lover of Schumann and the late Romantic school. It may be noticed that some of his first compositions were published in Germany from the mid-1880s. Moving to England around 1886, he married the descendant of an Anglo-Irish land-owning family, had two children, and was divorced by 1893. There followed a period of ten years travelling around Europe, when he composed next to nothing, and another, when he composed mainly piano music. The piano works show influences of Max Reger and increasing inspiration by the French Impressionists, particularly Ravel and Satie. Hennessy spent the years 1915 to 1919 in Switzerland, and returned to his residence in the Paris quarter of Montparnasse. That was also a new period of search for identity. His music through some of the titles given either to works or movements of works, as well as musical inflections, clearly identified with his Irish heritage. That drew him into a circle of like-minded Breton composers such as Guy Ropartz, Paul Ladmirault and Paul Le Flem, to name but the best known of them. Even so, it is not quite clear how much exposure to Ireland Hennessy had. It seems that some of his music was heard in Ireland although he seemed to have had some reputation in France. A number of pieces, especially some of his string quartets, were championed by French artists. Incidentally, his string quartets all have French titles.
As Axel Klein remarks, the String Quartet No.2 Op.49 is Hennessy’s most important work in an Irish context. It is dedicated to the memory of Terence MacSwiney, who died of hunger strike in an English prison in October 1920. It was first performed in Paris in 1922 by an Irish quartet who later performed it in Dublin. The music retraces the path from elegiac mourning in the first movement towards a more optimistic ending. Remarkably enough, the music clearly eschews any attempt at folk-inflected clichés, although it may at time briefly allude both to what a critic described as the more sombre and the gayer sides of the Celtic genius.
The String Quartet No.1 Op.46, subtitled Suite, is a somewhat simpler and lighter work, as the original title made clear. Its four movements explore a fairly large variety of moods and, more importantly, I think, the musical environment of its time and place; French influences are already fairly obvious. The fourth movement is the most overtly Irish of the entire piece, based as it is on two tunes from the Petrie Collection of Irish traditional music; Molly on the Shore will be particularly familiar. Some may find this first quartet stylistically incoherent but it nevertheless remains a quite endearing piece of music, and it already displays Hennessy's sure hand at counterpoint. This is probably the most personal characteristic of his music, and particularly so in his string quartets.
The String Quartet No.3 Op.61 is a reworking of a 1922 Deuxième Suite in three movements, performed in Berlin in 1922 and later withdrawn. It is in four movements, of which three are given programmatic titles. So the introduction (incidentally the longest movement, although only playing for four minutes) is followed by Les Écossais (some Celtic note here but no traditional tune), Les Étudiants (discreet reminiscences of some German drinking song) and Les Fées (a light and vivid evocation of Irish fairies ‘dancing in the moonlight’). The Third String Quartet is by far the most genial of the four and, no doubt about it, possibly the best introduction to Hennessy’s music. Each of the movements is dedicated to the four members of the Loiseau Quartet, who gave the first performance at the Sorbonne University. The short Sérénade Op.65, dedicated to Emile Loiseau, is a fairly easy-going piece of music that might become hugely popular amongst string quartets and audiences alike, were it only better-known. However, in spite of its brevity and its overall light-heartedness, the Sérénade displays as much contrapuntal skill as the more developed quartets.
The Loiseau Quartet also first performed the String Quartet No.4 Op.75, composed during a summer residence in the priory of Fontenay-en-Vexin in Normandy. The quartet is again in four movements but without any descriptive titles: a lively allegro framed by two andante sections opens the proceedings. The second movement alternates an hymn-like andante and two faster sections. The third movement is a lively and delightful Allegretto scherzoso with extended pizzicato sections alternating with bowed playing. The final movement is again a remarkable display of contrapuntal mastery.
This generously filled release concludes with another genial piece of music in the form of the Petit trio celtique Op.52. It is dedicated to the Breton composer Paul Le Flem, who provided Hennessy with a brief theme for the second movement. Each of the movements also hints at some Celtic background. The first movement Allegro is dans le style irlandais, the second one Moderato (dans le style breton, based on the fragment provided by Le Flem), an Andante dansle style irlandais) and a final Allegro (dans le style breton hinting at some Breton folk-dances).
Reviewing discs may often yield unexpected results. When this disc landed in my letter box, I wondered who this composer – completely unknown to me as he must be to many others – was, and what his music was worth. After repeated hearings, I was firmly convinced that here is a composer with a substantial output. He undoubtedly deserves wider exposure for the works recorded here and superbly played by the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet definitely repay repeated hearings. Such music as this should not be ignored and will appeal, I am convinced, to all who appreciate French music of the early 20th century. This marvellous release is warmly recommended.