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A Remarkable John Ireland Recital in Glasgow, 1932
By John France

Around 1930, Erik Chisholm and several friends set up the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in Glasgow. Over an eight year period, the organisation staged an impressive series of concerts. Big name musicians appeared including Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith. Other luminaries from that period were Alfredo Casella, William Walton and Kaikhosru Sorabji.

John Purser (2009, p.16) has insisted that "The doings of the Active Society are of such interest and so well written up by Chisholm and his wife Diana, they constitute a unique document, and their publication is long overdue."

In 1964, Erik Chisholm gave a series of lectures at the University of Cape Town Summer School, entitled Men and Music. They were illustrated with slides and musical examples. The Chisholm Trust website suggests that he planned to publish them “but he ran out of time, out of life - as he died just over a year after presenting them.” They have never been published. Fortunately, for the composer’s centenary year, a lightly edited version was uploaded to the website. Additional photographs and press cuttings were also added. In these lectures he refers to all John Ireland concert given at the Stevenson Hall on Tuesday evening, 12 April 1932, at the Stevenson Hall in Glasgow.

The Concert
The Music of John Ireland

Phantasie Trio in A minor (1908)
Five Songs, including If there were dreams to sell (1918), The Soldier (1917), Spring Sorrow (1918) and Sea Fever (1913).
Sonata in G minor for cello and piano (1923)
Four Piano Pieces: Holy Boy (1913), Chelsea Reach (1917), Ragamuffin (1917) and the impressionistic The Island Spell (1912-13)
Sonata No.2 in A minor for violin and piano (1915-17)
Bessie Spence (violin), Luigi Gasparini (cello), James M. Reid (baritone), John Ireland (piano)

Erik Chisholm wrote:

Anyway, I had no qualms in asking him [John Ireland] to give a concert of his works at the Active Society, and this he did on April 12, 1932. In the car which drove him from the station to Moore's Hotel, our favourite place to house distinguished guests (if for some reason or another it was not policy to offer them private hospitality), I said how much I admired his celebrated second violin sonata "Truly" I said, "one of the finest examples of recent British Chamber Music." "No, no" he replied testily, "it isn't all that good, believe me; and please don't say flowery things about my music to me, for I am sure you don't believe them, and neither do I." He had a pretty bad cold all the time he was in Glasgow, which, if it affected his temper, had no ill effect on his playing. Both his compositions and piano playing made a deep impression on the unusually large audience which attended his concert: the increased attendance may be accounted for by the pressure exerted by local piano teachers on pupils who had come to hear how the composer would play their favourite Ireland pieces.”

Moore’s Hotel in India Street, Glasgow is no more. In fact, one side of the road is waste land and the other supports “modern” offices. Although not stated, the chances are that John Ireland arrived at Glasgow Central Station, then part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway, after an eight hour journey from London. It is interesting that Chisholm refers to an “increased attendance.” Sadly, many of the Active Society Concerts were poorly subscribed.

The Scotsman (13 April 1932, p.9) reported that:

Considerable local interest was manifested at the recital given last night by Mr John Ireland, the well-known English composer, in the Stevenson Hall, Glasgow, under the auspices of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music.

Mr Ireland had the co-operation of Miss Betty Spence, violinist, Mr Luigi Gasparini, cellist, and Mr James M. Reid, baritone. The programme opened with one of Mr Ireland's early compositions, [the] Phantasie Trio in A Minor, and was followed by five of his most popular songs, including the Poet Laureate's Sea Fever and Rupert Brooke's The Soldier. An effective interpretation was given of his [Cello] Sonata in G minor, a highly concentrated work, which was written in 1923. In the latter part of the performance the items included the well-known examination piece, The Island Spell and the second [Violin] Sonata, in A minor. Mr Ireland was warmly applauded for his renderings at the piano.

In 1932, the Stevenson Hall was part of the then-Scottish National Academy of Music in St George’s Place (now Nelson Mandela Place). Betty Spence, Luigi Gasparini and James M. Reid were well-known soloists in Glasgow and wider Scotland at that time. The then Poet Laureate was John Masefield (1878-1967).

The Glasgow Herald (13 April 1932, p.12) gave a long and detailed review of the recital. I quote it in full:

The seventh Active Society concert for the season given last night in the Stevenson Hall, Glasgow, offered an evening of John Ireland’s music, with Mr Ireland as pianist. The Phantasie Trio in A minor, for piano, violin and cello, which gained the Cobbett Prize in 1908; a group of songs; four piano solos; and the second sonata (A minor), for piano and violin, made a representative programme covering Mr Ireland’s work as a composer from 1908 to 1923, the year of the cello sonata, and combining happily (and judiciously) familiar numbers with one or two that are not well known.

The ‘cello sonata was the novelty of the evening; for so far as memory serves, it had not been publicly played in Glasgow before. It is a fine work, one of the best examples of Mr Ireland’s chamber music, and worthy of much more notice from players than it has so far received. Perhaps last night’s fine performance with Mr Luigi Gasparini as ‘cellist will win for it some of the favour it deserves. Mr Ireland is a particular example of the thoughtful and highly self-critical composer for whom, one would imagine, the art of improvisation (which some people are suggesting should be commended to the present generation) is an art only to be lightly regarded.

The need to satisfy his conscience fully with regard to everything he puts forth has limited the amount of Mr Ireland’s music available to the public: but it has ensured a high quality of craftsmanship in all he has published, and has provided, with the normal ripening of his powers, a display of progressive economy of means in his succeeding compositions. The ‘cello sonata was the most concentrated in essence of the works heard last night, and when this quality is combined with genuine poetry of expression, exhibited not merely in the main ideas but also in their development, the result cannot fail to be very satisfying.

A great deal is heard of the quality of ruggedness in Mr Ireland’s music, but this term is not too happily chosen. There is strength of expression, often combined with a driving force that gives the music a remarkable onwardness of effect: but even in the biggest and stormiest periods there is no roughness, even harmonically speaking, but rather a finely finished virility. The quieter side of Mr Ireland’s expression as a composer is equally individual and equally strong in its refinement. There is a large-hearted element in his tender passages and an entire absence of anything suggestive of ultra-sensitive feeling. This admirable power to provide sentiment without becoming sentimental was demonstrated last night in the trio and the violin sonata as well as in the cello sonata: and the two last works showed Mr Ireland at his best as a composer with a wide range of expression that is always individual. Miss Bessie Spence collaborated with Mr Ireland in the performance of the violin sonata – a performance which was finely sympathetic.

Five familiar songs, beginning with “If there were dream to see” and finishing with the famous “Sea Fever” were sung by Mr James M. Reid with Mr Ireland at the piano. It does not necessarily follow that a composer’s best known song is his finest, but it is so in the case of “Sea Fever.” It is rare that words and music are so happily wedded as they are here.

The whole atmosphere of the poem, physical and personal has been perfectly realised, and Mr Reid’s fine singing with Mr Ireland’s sensitive accompaniment emphasised the beauty and simplicity of the song. Mr Ireland played four of the piano solos – The Island Spell, The Holy Boy, Chelsea Reach and Ragamuffin. It would have been good to hear in addition something less familiar from this department – the fine Rhapsody, for example.

In his 1965 lecture Chisholm recalled that John Ireland “certainly gave beautiful performances of the Holy Boy, Chelsea Reach, Ragamuffin and the impressionistic The Island Spell pieces still used avidly by loyal British piano teachers and despite a slight soiling at the edges, still with a definite modern appeal.” Despite the composer’s dismissal of praise, Chisholm considered that “the familiar second violin sonata which all-in-all is his most satisfying work - tuneful, virile and with a wide range of expression.”

This was the final concert of the Season 1931-2 (Autumn to Spring). The previous recital on 15 March 1932 included music by the Austrian-American, Franz Mittler, the Russian-American, Nikolai Lopatnikoff, the Swiss romantic composer Othmar Schoeck, the American Ivan Langstroth, Jean Sibelius and Frederick Delius. The next Season would commence on Wednesday, 23 November.

Chisholm, Erik, Men and Music, unpublished, 1964.
Purser, John, Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965, (Boydel and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2009)
The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald

With thanks to the Erik Chisholm Trust and John Purser to quote from Erik Chisholm’s Men and Music.

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