IRELAND: Piano Works, Vol. 1 (Chris Craker/ John Lenehan) (Naxos: 8.553700)
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John Ireland (1879-1962)
Piano Music Volume 1
The English composer John Ireland oftencomplained of what he perceived as a lack of attention to his work.
Nevertheless, during his life-time, he had his fair share of exposure, althoughthis has certainly been followed by subsequent neglect, with once popular workssuch as his London Overture now heard much less often than they oncewere. He himself habitually referred to his early orchestral work TheForgotten Rite as Forgotten Quite and to the symphonic rhapsody Mai-Dunas May Not Be Done, a mark of his rueful sense of humour, as of afeeling that he was badly done by.
Ireland was born in 1879, the son ofAlexander Ireland, a native of Edinburgh and, by the time of his youngestchild's birth, business manager and publisher of the Manchester Examiner. Hismother, also from Scotland, was his father's second wife and thirty years herhusband's junior. Ireland had some of his early education at Leeds GrammarSchool, but took the initiative, at the age of thirteen, without his parents'knowledge, to present himself for audition at the Royal College of Music, whereone of his sisters was already studying. He was accepted by the College,intending to become a concert pianist, and also taking organ lessons with SirWalter Parratt, organist of St George's Chapel, Windsor. Two years later hepersuaded Stanford to accept him as a composition pupil. In the followingyears, while he attempted to establish himself as a composer, Ireland,supported by the money he had by then inherited from his parents, earned anadditional living for himself as an organist and choirmaster, establishinglasting friendships with some of the boys in his charge. He settled in Chelsea,dividing his time between London, a retreat in Deal and regular visits to theChannel Islands. After the war he joined the teaching staff of the RoyalCollege. There he continued to exercise influence on generations of students,among whom was Benjamin Britten, who had reason to complain of the irregularityof lessons, a matter later remedied, while he seems to have learned to toleratethe tendency of his teacher to occasional alcoholic excess. In 1927 he made abrief attempt at marriage. His wife, a student some thirty years his junior,proved as unsuitable a partner as Tchaikovsky's had fifty years earlier, andthe marriage was quickly annulled.
In common with other musicians, Irelandsuffered disruption to his life in 1939. He had at first thought to find peacein the Channel Islands, to be evacuated to safety when the surrender of Francebecame imminent. He spent much of the war lodging with a clergyman he had firstknown as a young choirmaster and once the war was over returned to Chelsea,until London became impossible for him. He spent his final years in Sussex,where he died in 1962.
Ireland, with his long connection withthe Church of England and its liturgy, wrote music for services, hymns andcarols, He also added to English vocal repertoire in a valuable series of solosongs and choral works. Works for chorus and orchestra include These ThingsShall Be and Greater Love Hath No Man, both of which won success.
Orchestral compositions include a Piano Concerto, the string orchestra Concertinopastorale and the symphonic rhapsody Mai- Dun, inspired by the Britishdefence of Maiden Castle against the invading Romans in A.D.43. With somelabour he completed a score for the film The Overlanders, one of hislast major achievements, and added to chamber music repertoire, with a ViolaSonata for Lionel Tertis, two Violin Sonatas, the second for AlbertSammons, a Cello Sonata that Casals planned to take into his repertoireand a Fantasy Sonata for the clarinettist Frederick Thurston. For thepiano, essentially his own instrument, Ireland wrote a quantity of music, onesonata and some forty short lyrical pieces. His most popular composition, TheHoly Boy, inspired by one of his choristers, was originally a piano piece,but found its way into other genres in versions for string quartet, forunaccompanied voices and for soio voice and piano. His thought was muchinfluenced by the Celtic mysticism of the novels of Arthur Machen, haunted bythe ghosts of Roman Britain, and he also found affinity with the poems of A. E.
Housman and the novels and poems of Thomas Hardy.
The present collection of piano music byJohn Ireland opens with the two pieces included in In Those Days, writtenin 1895. Daydream and Meridian were published under their generaltitle only in the composer's old age, when he refused to revise what he had writtenat the age of sixteen, as a student at the Royal College, rightly understandingthe youthful spontaneity of the pieces, during his first encounters withStanford. The first of them, romantic in feeling, has a mood of gentlewistfulness in its tender chromaticism. The second piece suggests the giftIreland had for organ improvisation. The writing, however, particularly in thecentral section, is entirely pianistic in its rhapsodic language.
The group of three pieces under the titleSarnia, An Island Sequence, was completed in the difficult period of1940 and 1941. Sarnia was the Roman name for Guernsey, and the first of thepieces, Le Catioroc, takes its name from the deserted place, with itsancient dolmen, from which Ireland would watch the sunset over the sea. Heprefaces the piece with words from the first-century writer Pomponius Mela: Allday long, heavy silence broods, and a certain hidden terror lurks there. But atnightfall gleams the light of fires; the chorus of Aegipans resounds on everyside: the shrilling of flutes and the clash of cymbals re-echo by the wasteshores of the sea. The outer sections of the piece are marked by a sinisterrepeated bass note and the plaintive melody that rises, with increasingintensity, above it. The central section, with its dotted rhythms, suggests thedances of the Aegipans, the goat-footed satyrs of Pan. The piece was originallyconceived at Fort Saumarez, where Ireland had been staying in 1940, anddedicated to the flautist Alfred Sebire, a friend of the composer in Guernsey, Ina May Morning is preceded by lines from Victor Hugo's Les travailleursde la mer (The Toilers of the Seal C'etait un de ces jours printanier o??mai se depense tout entier. Sous toutes les rumeurs, de la foret comme duvillage, de la vague comme de l'atmosphere, il y avait un roucoulement. Lespremiers papillons se posaient sur les premi?¿res roses. La profonde chanson desarbres etait chantee par des oiseaux nes d'hier. Ils chantaient leur premierchant, ils volaient leur premier vol. Le printemps jetait tout son argent ettout son or dans l'immense panier perce de bois. Les pousses nouvelles etaienttoutes fra?«ches vertes. Partout une divine plenitude et un gonflementmysterieux faisaient deviner l'effort panique et sacre de la s?¿ve en travail.
Qui brillait, brillait plus; qui aimait, aimait mieux... (It was on of thosespring days when May exerts her full power, Under all the confused sounds, ofthe forest and of the village, of the waves and of the air, there was a gentlesong. The first butterflies alighted on the first roses. The deep song of thetrees was sung by birds born yesterday. They sang their first song, flew theirfirst flight. The spring cast forth all its silver and all its gold in greatabundance. The new shoots were all green and fresh. Everywhere a divinefullness and a mysterious swelling gave signs of the effort, sacred to Pan, ofsap in labour. What shone, shone more; those who loved, loved better). Themusic opens tenderly