The British Isles: A Musical Tour – Ireland

Ireland’s strong folk tradition makes it hardly surprising that composers, both of classical and pop music, have drawn widely on the country’s musical heritage. Inspirational landmarks are hardly few and far between either – whether you prefer to imagine Bax and Stanford living it up in a packed Dublin bar or, perhaps, hiking along the deserted, windswept Antrim coast is up to you!

Charles Stanford’s birthplace
Stanford was born in Dublin on 30th September 1852 and was educated there until going up to Queen’s College, Cambridge. Chiefly known as a teacher and for his sacred choral music, in particular his settings of the evening service, Irish influences can be widely seen in many of his other works. Shamus O’Brien, for instance, is undoubtedly his most successful opera. However, given that a fair percentage of Stanford’s operas went unpublished, this is perhaps not saying much.

The Derry Air
Perhaps the most famous Irish folksong of them all – certainly to those from outside the island – has provided material for many a composer, not least Grainger and Frank Bridge. The former’s setting is for either piano or chorus and orchestra, while the latter’s is for string quartet. But do they capture the magnificence of the River Foyle, the formidable sight of the city walls or the drama of the surrounding countryside?

Giant’s Causeway
Hamilton Harty – An Irish Symphony
One of Ireland’s finest composers, Sir Hamilton Harty, was born in County Down in 1879 and by the age of 12 was organist at Magheracoll, County Antrim. After the First World War, he was director of the Hallé Orchestra for 13 years, making it one of the country’s leading ensembles. His Irish Symphony relates directly to the places of his birth and upbringing, with movements entitled ‘On the Shores of Lough Neagh’ and ‘In the Antrim Hills’.

Stanford – The Beautiful City of Sligo
Irish folksong arrangements do not stop at the ‘Derry Air’, of course, nor do the arrangers stop at Bridge and Grainger, as Beethoven enthusiasts, among others, will be well aware. With his local upbringing, it is of little surprise that Stanford, too, took up the Irish folksong gauntlet, including an arrangement of ‘The Beautiful City of Sligo’.

The Adopted Son
Bax – In the Faery Hills
‘The Celt within me stood revealed’, wrote Bax in 1943, describing his reaction to reading Yeats’s The Wanderings of Usheen. English by birth, Bax was converted to Irish ways, visited the island many times and even adopted the Irish pseudonym, Dermot O’Byrnem, under which he published several novels. The Irish influence in his music is clearly seen in his Celtic Song Cycle and In the Faery Hills.

River Kenmare
Moeran drowns
EJ Moeran, the composer of Anglo-Irish descent, was found dead in the River Kenmare having suffered a heart attack in December 1950. Though much of his upbringing was in East Anglia, he was also highly influenced by his Irish roots and reflected this fact when he pointed out how his Symphony in G was imagined both ‘around the sand-dunes and marshes of East Norfolk’ and ‘among the mountains and seaboard of County Kerry’.

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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