John Ireland

James McCarthy
Monday, June 11, 2012

In 1906 John Ireland (1879-1962) picked up a book by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen on Penrith station – it was a defining moment. Machen (1863-1947) came to the fore with his supernatural fantasy and horror stories that began to appear at the time of the decadent movement in the 1890s. His work has been periodically republished, admired by other writers, and there is now a Friends of Arthur Machen society. He inspired Ireland with a yearning for long lost customs in ancient civilisations, pagan or occult, that brought into his music a depth not found earlier in the gifted pupil of Stanford. Ireland and Machen didn’t meet until 1934 but a year before that Ireland told him about going for a picnic on the South Downs by himself when he saw in front of him a group of children dressed in strange white clothes playing and dancing in silence. Then they vanished. When he told Machen the writer sent him a laconic postcard: ‘Oh, so you’ve seen them too, have you?’

Many 20th-century composers – including Stravinsky and Bartók – started out writing in inherited 19th-century idioms before finding their own style. This was the case with Ireland who came to widespread attention in London during World War I with the performance of his mature Second Violin Sonata. Before that, his First had gained the Cobbett Prize in 1910 when there were as many as 134 entries. The Second is more characteristic and Ireland reported: ‘It was probably the first and only occasion when a British composer was lifted from relative obscurity in a single night by a work cast in a chamber music medium’. This was in 1917 and the performers, Albert Sammons and William Murdoch, were in khaki uniform – Ireland was rejected for military service – so it is likely that a patriotic London audience was heartened to hear a work by a young British composer that could stand up to Brahms and go further. Ireland recorded the work with Sammons in 1930 but – astonishingly – it wasn’t released until 1999, along with the First Sonata with Ireland and Frederick Grinke, recorded in 1945. These archival recordings (on Dutton) are worth hearing even if neither sonata reaches the heights of the Piano Sonata soon to follow.

Ireland was pre-eminently a keyboard composer; he was a good pianist himself; and some of the leading exponents of several generations have been attracted to his piano music. In modern recording terms the story begins with Eric Parkin who worked extensively with the composer. So did Alan Rowlands who died early this year. Parkin’s two Argo LPs came out in 1953 and in 1977 Lyrita issued Parkin’s authoritative performances, now available as a three-disc set, with excellent notes by the late Christopher Palmer. When Lyrita failed to bring their LP catalogue out onto CD, Parkin recorded Ireland again, this time for Chandos in 1993.

Ireland’s Piano Sonata (1918-20), like the subsequent example by his exact contemporary Frank Bridge, can be seen as a response to the horrors of the recent war. Ireland’s Sonata, although less angry than Bridge’s, is a deeply serious piece, expansive and coherently laid out, now in a completely personal idiom unlike any other composer. In an important but neglected book in the enterprising Boydell series, The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945, Lisa Hardy says that the Ireland ‘can be claimed as the outstanding example of all British piano sonatas.’  The composer considered it his best work. There is melodic invention of a memorable kind that goes hand in glove with a rich harmonic palette and an idiomatic keyboard style. Technically the harmony involves added notes – usually the sixth and second – and since the acceptance of the added sixth in Messiaen it becomes easier not to be disconcerted by it in Ireland, whose more dissonant moments can sound like Messiaen. 

It is worth comparing two other pianists with Parkin in their recordings of the Sonata: John Lenehan (Naxos) and Mark Bebbington (Somm). Parkin’s piano sound is fractionally metallic but he must have been schooled by Ireland about how to move the music forward to keep its shape and continuity. Lenehan also has thrust and virtuosity in the first movement, where Bebbington is slightly discursive and takes two minutes longer than Parkin over the sonata as a whole. (Lenehan’s timings are wrongly aligned on the back of the Naxos disc). Both Lenehan and Bebbington at times use a drier staccato than Parkin. The only aspect of their two performances which feels wrong is at the opening of the stately and elegiac slow movement where they more-or-less disregard Ireland’s clearly marked rests by prolonging the chords under the melody. The spacious finale comes off well in all three performances. Of the most recent recordings, Bebbington must be taken seriously – as with his fine Frank Bridge series – since the fourth CD of his Ireland project with Somm is due out shortly and his will be the most complete representation of Ireland’s piano music.

Ireland’s Sonatina for piano (1926-27) was begun some months before his disastrous marriage and finished as he met Helen Perkin, another young student, a brilliant pianist and award-winning composer with a subsequent career. There’s naturally a temptation to place Ireland’s music in the context of his unfulfilled private life. He was temperamentally gay, attached to his choirboys at St Luke’s, Chelsea: he tried marriage and failed. After that it was for Helen Perkin that he wrote his Piano Concerto (1930); it advanced her career; and she played it at the Proms three times in the early 1930s. But, when she married in 1935, what must have been an important relationship on both sides was severed. Perkin’s 1951 broadcast of the Sonatina can now be heard on the CD which comes with a magnificent cornucopia of information in The John Ireland Companion, edited by Lewis Foreman (Boydell, 2011). Parkin and Bebbington are predictably precise in the Sonatina but Helen Perkin is more wayward, which Ireland may well have liked. She recalled him saying that he didn’t want his music played too fast. The opening of the second movement of the Sonatina is quoted in the Housman setting ‘We’ll to the woods no more’ (1927) making both the song and that movement an embodiment of the sense of loss so pervasive in Ireland. In this movement the strange percussive effect of a repeated two-note chord low down seems to symbolise menace, which is cheerfully blown away by the folksy finale.

Ireland’s songs are as characteristic as his piano music. He was attracted by rather gloomy poets – Hardy, Housman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Dowson, so memorably set by Cyril Scott – but he could reach out into more cheerful territory with Masefield. The baritone Roderick Williams, recording 27 of Ireland’s 90 songs, is ideally equipped to give the right flavour to these songs (Naxos) and well supported by Iain Burnside. He includes the imperishable ‘Sea Fever’ which got into one of the most successful variety shows of the 1920s, the Cooptimists, where it was sung by Betty Chester. It made such a hit that, according to Kenneth Wright at the BBC, it was voted by listeners as the most popular of all British songs in about 1924. Her 1922 recording with Melville Gideon, included in the CD with The John Ireland Companion, must have done a great deal to ensure the song’s continued popularity. It’s straightforwardly sung but Chester contracts the ending of the last phrase of each verse. Apparently the song regularly stole the show, in spite of being ‘classical music’, and it was suggested that the lyric could be updated to: ‘I want to go back – I want to go back – I want to go back to the sea: Where the whales are, And the gales are, And the blown spume waits for me.’

If the songs are personally revealing documents, then the Piano Concerto, as Ireland’s most extended work, is too. He had found a muse and she served him well for several years. Helen Perkin never recorded the concerto but Eileen Joyce did twice (both recorded), then Colin Horsley, to Ireland’s approval, before Eric Parkin’s first recording with the LPO under Boult in 1967 (Lyrita). After a long gap, it looks as if Parkin was the next to record the concerto, again with the LPO but this time under Bryden Thomson, in 1985 (Chandos). Parkin’s approach carries the composer’s imprimatur but his later recording seems preferable in view of the better sound. In both cases his slow movement is magical, sheer ecstasy. 

In view of Bebbington’s commitment to Ireland, it is worth looking at his 2009 recording with the Orchestra of the Swan under David Curtis on Somm. He seems to take about four minutes longer than Parkin in the concerto as a whole but even Parkin is below the marked tempi in the first two movements. I prefer Parkin’s pacing to Bebbington’s lingering but, judging by Helen Perkin’s wayward Sonatina, that could equally well be the Ireland style. Bebbington’s slow movement is eloquent too. Both Parkin and Bebbington couple the Concerto with Legend for Piano and Orchestra. This is an effective piece with less range than the Concerto but intriguing because it’s supposed to describe that vision of young children Ireland related to Arthur Machen.

Ancient sites with echoes of the supernatural, including the Channel Islands, inform some of Ireland’s few orchestral pieces – most of his orchestral catalogue consists of arrangements. Some of the titles tell their story – The Forgotten Rite (1913); Symphonic Rhapsody: Mai-Dun (1921). In Mai-Dun Ireland uses Thomas Hardy’s name for the prehistoric fort and earthworks at Maiden Castle near Dorchester. It is a strong piece, aggressive at times, resourcefully scored, and Ireland’s imagination was ignited by the largest hill-fort in England, dating from 3000BC, and its violent history. This work is well worth having on both of the Parkin recordings of the Piano Concerto. The Boult recordings are still impressive but the Hallé under John Wilson brought out a winning collection on the Halle’s own label in 2009.

In 1959 Ireland told The Times that he was not interested in what he had composed before 1908 and did not intend to publish anything: ‘I did not feel that I had found my feet when I wrote them.’ That seems reasonable enough but nowadays there is a mania for unearthing composers’ early works, reinstating their rejected original drafts, and – if the composer never managed to complete a piece – doing it for him!  This situation is a feature of the chamber music CD on Naxos. The Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet was written in 1898 during the second of Ireland’s four years as a pupil of Stanford. When Thea King went to see the composer late in his life to discuss his Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano he allowed her to see the Sextet. The result was a London performance in 1960 with Ireland present, hearing the work for the first time for over 60 years.   

The Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano, on the same CD has a more chequered history. It was premiered in 1914 with Ireland at the piano; according to Bruce Phillips he withdrew it, reworking it with violin rather than clarinet, and the sketches are incomplete. The Canadian clarinettist, Stephen Fox, reconstructed the piece with clarinet and as a result of consulting the Third Piano Trio (1938), where Ireland reused some of the original material in different keys, he has had to reorganise rather than invent. The new Trio (on Naxos) emerges successfully and justifies Fox’s labours. The Fantasy Sonata (1943) – also on the Naxos CD – was written for Frederick Thurston, the pre-eminent clarinettist of his day, and is vintage Ireland, concluding a fascinating collection. It was inspired, as was Ireland’s overture Satiricon, by thoughts of Giton, the handsome 16-year-old boy in Petronius’ story set in classical Rome. Ireland didn’t feel able to say much about that but there’s more in The John Ireland Companion where Julian Lloyd Webber hails ‘a wonderful composer whose music really does – for once – merit that oft-abused phrase “unjustly neglected”.’

Essential Recordings

Ireland Violin Sonatas. Phantasie Trio Frederick GrinkeAlbert Sammons vns Florence Hooton vc John IrelandKendall TaylorLawrence Pratt pfs Dutton CDLX 7103 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Piano Sonata Eric Parkin pf Lyrita SRCD 2277 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Piano Sonata Mark Bebbington pf Somm SOMM074 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Piano Sonata John Lenehan pf Naxos 8 570461 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Piano Concerto. Legend. Mai-Dun Eric Parkin pf London Philharmonic Orchestra / Bryden Thomson Chandos CHAN 8461 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Piano Concerto. Legend Mark Bebbington pf Orchestra of the Swan / David Curtis Somm SOMM242 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Mai-Dun. The Forgotten Rite. Satiricon. The Overlanders Suite. A London Overture. Epic March Hallé Orchestra / John Wilson Hallé CH HLL 7523 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Songs Roderick Williams bar Iain Burnside pf Naxos 8 570467 Buy from Amazon

Ireland Sextet. Clarinet Trio (arr S Fox). Fantasy Sonata. The Holy Boy Robert Plane cl Sophia Rahman pf Alice Neary vc David Pyatt hn Maggini Quartet Naxos 8 570550 Buy from Amazon

Further Reading

The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 by Lisa Hardy (Boydell, 2001) Buy from Amazon

The John Ireland Companion edited by Lewis Foreman (Boydell, 2011) Buy from Amazon

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