Composers in Ireland continue to be inspired by traditional storytelling

Desmond EarleyWed 9th December 2015

Contemporary choral works with their roots in the past are reinvigorating the repertoire

During a recent interview for a classical radio network in the United States, I was asked to speak about the Irish storytelling tradition and its relationship to the contemporary arrangement and performance of traditional Irish song. Indeed, the ancient art of storytelling plays a role in my own composition and conducting, and is at the core of my latest project, a CD released on the Signum Classics label, 'Invisible Stars: Choral Works of Ireland & Scotland', featuring The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin.

Many traditional Irish songs in circulation today originated in the 17th century or later. Subject to extemporisation, alteration or customisation, some of them are mere ghosts, or even whispers, of their original form. It is not difficult to see why song is so important (perhaps now more than ever) to Irish culture and the Irish musical imagination: song is about identity, relating back to our shared history, and it is about the future.

A cursory glimpse at Irish history reveals a distinction between an Irish-speaking, indigenous, Gaelic people, and an Anglo-Irish, English-speaking population. Irish history before and after the Battle of Kinsale (1602) can be defined largely through the relationship between Ireland and her nearest neighbours, and by how people with different languages, religions, traditions and songs engaged with each other, and learned about each other over time on the island.

Traditional songs survive today thanks in large part to the sterling work of individual song collectors. Intent on preserving material in written form, these collectors provided the first folk-music archive. One example of a collaborative collection of ballads from the north of Ireland is entitled Songs of Uladh and was written by the Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell and Belfast-born musician Herbert Hughes. This collection is an often overlooked source of many universally admired songs such as My Lagan Love. The beautiful poetry of these gentle songs references characters and images from Gaelic mythology: The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby speaks of ‘Aoibhinn the Beautiful’, Queen of the Northern fairies, the Aos Sí, a supernatural race said to live underground in Irish and Scottish mythology. These legendary stories, combined with a powerful and lush Celtic sound, have rightly sealed their place in both history and in hearts around the world.

Over the past 30 years, composers and musicians have revisited songs from collections such as Uladh, and have been used by Irish composers (and others) as rich source-material for new arrangements. The merging of the traditional song into the choral idiom has served to invigorate the repertoire of (and from) Ireland. 'High Art' works have always had their place, of course. Who could ignore the vibrant musical life of Dublin, envied by other cities in the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries? Handel’s beloved work Messiah was first performed there in 1742; and Charles Villiers Stanford was born and educated in Dublin before moving on to further study in Cambridge and Leipzig. It is the interplay of traditional folksong and of the high musical art form that I believe has proven to be a powerful stimulant contemporary audiences. There is both an interest in, and a love of, Ireland's music globally. Bill Whelan is an excellent example of a composer that has mastered such a successful interplay, bringing a new Irish sound to the world.

The choral music of Ireland is rarely included in a catalogue of European works, which typically contains music by Italian, Flemish, English and German composers, and more recently by Scandinavian, Baltic, and Eastern European composers. However, the tide is turning: I see a reinvigoration of Irish choral music happening. Irish composers are producing innovative works for choir in the European art-music canon, some of which fuse elements of Irish traditional music and art-music together in the choral idiom. Michael McGlynn, who has had an extraordinary influence over the past 20 years, blends the three ancient types of Celtic music – Suantraí (lullaby), Geantraí (joyful song) and Goltraí (lament) – in his new compositions for choir. Other Irish composers, such as Brian Boydell, Ben Hanlon, Eric Sweeney, and Bill Whelan, are creating an exciting new musical language. 

More and more, I find myself happily painting the Irish sounds of my homeland onto the choral canvas, continually inspired by the great texts of the Irish literary imagination: by Yeats, Joyce, Kavanagh and others. It is during those moments that I think to myself how wonderful it is to celebrate and complement the great tradition of Irish storytelling, to create and develop a powerful new soundscape, and to create something exciting and relevant for our future. It is something new for the 21st century, but with roots deep in the ancient.

The UCD Choral Scholars will release their debut international recording on Signum Records on December 11, 2015. The disc, entitled 'Invisible Stars', is a collection of traditional and contemporary choral music from Ireland and Scotland and features arrangements and new compositions by some of Ireland’s most celebrated composers for choir, including Michael McGlynn, Brendan Graham, Ivo Antognini, Bill Whelan and the group’s artistic director, Desmond Earley. It is available to pre-order at Amazon and iTunes.

Desmond Earley

Desmond Earley is a composer, arranger, and founder, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the UCD Choral Scholars

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