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John Ireland’s The Island Spell: A Possible Premiere Concert Performance?
By John France

In his indispensable John Ireland: A Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007, p.34), Stewart R. Craggs writes that he was unable to trace the premiere of John Ireland’s Decorations for piano. He notes Joyce Ansell’s early performance at the Wigmore Hall in London on 4 June 1919, and Miss Chilton-Griffin’s recital at the same venue on 12 June 1919. The piece was published in the summer of 1915, as noted in several journals at the time. The three movements – The Island Spell, Moon-glade and The Scarlet Ceremonies – were published individually in 1919. The first of them is often played alone.
The Island Spell was completed in the summer of 1911, when Ireland was on holiday at Fauvic in Jersey, but Ireland was not satisfied with the ending. The revised solution suddenly came to him the following year, when he was back on holiday in the Channel Islands.

I recently came across an unsigned review (Western Daily Express, 4 April 1916, p.5) for a Clifton Chamber Society concert on 3 April 1916 at the Victoria Rooms, Clifton, Bristol. The evening, dedicated to British music, was presented by the Clifton Quintet: Herbert Parsons (piano), Maurice Alexander (first violin), Edgar Hawke (second violin), Alfred Best (viola) and Percy Lewis (cello).

The concert began with John Blackwood McEwen’s remarkable Biscay Quartet (1913); the reviewer noted that it was still in manuscript. There followed York Bowen’s Suite in D minor op.28 for violin and piano (1909). Three piano solos came next: Paul Corder’s Preludes in A major and E major (1906), The Island Spell and R.O. Beachcroft’s Impromptu No.2 in C (1910). (Beachcroft, the music master of Clifton College, dedicated the work to Herbert Parsons.) The critic wrote: “the ‘Spell’ is a fascinating example, though somewhat peculiar.” The concert ended with James Friskin’s Phantasy in F minor (1910).

So, was this the premiere performance of The Island Spell? There is no way of knowing, but it pushes Craggs’s date back by nearly three years.

A look at this programme almost 106 years later gives a good impression of British music that was making headway at the time. Sadly, only Ireland’s masterpiece remains securely in the repertoire. All the other works, save Beachcroft’s piece, have been recorded.

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