Irish classical music: how it originated and developed and Ireland’s best composers

Terry Blain explores the richly varied classical music history of Ireland, from its folk roots in the 17th century to the brilliant young composers working today

Irish classical music: how it originated and developed and Ireland's best composers

Ireland’s traditional music, nurtured by generations of singers and instrumentalists, is extraordinarily fertile and remains a potent source of cultural expression in clubs, bars and concert halls. Among performers who have built the folk tradition in Ireland, the name of Turlough O’Carolan looms large.

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Who was Turlough O’Carolan?

Born at Nobber, County Meath in 1670 and blinded by smallpox at 18, Carolan (as he is often called) became an itinerant harp player, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland to make a living. Turlough O’Carolan was a composer too, and over 200 of his pieces were eventually written down by those convinced of their lasting musical significance. These tunes, infused with the wit, whimsy and gentle melancholy of the national character, remain enormously influential and made Carolan the first ‘crossover’ composer in Irish history. His music is regularly performed by classically trained harpists and guitarists today, the much-recorded Carolan’s Concerto and the haunting Carolan’s Farewell to Music in particular.

How did folk music shape Ireland’s classical music?

The powerful role of folk music in shaping the Irish classical canon snapped dramatically into focus with the publication in 1807 of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. The son of a Dublin grocer, Moore became a prominent figure in London’s literary scene, befriending the poets Byron and Shelley. In the Melodies, Moore cleverly matched traditional Irish tunes with his own, newly written lyrics, and the formula was instantly successful.

Ten volumes of Moore’s Irish Melodies were published, and many of the songs – ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, ‘The Minstrel Boy’ and ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ among them – have become classics. The piano accompaniments included were crucial. They enabled performance in genteel parlour settings and recital rooms, and showed that Irish traditional music had the substance and emotional resonance to be cast in a ‘classical’, art song format.

How did politics affect the development of Ireland’s classical music scene?

But one controversial factor was inhibiting the development of a distinctive style of classical music in Ireland: politics. The 1800 Acts of Union – formally cementing the role of the British parliament in governing Ireland – should in theory have bolstered the cultural infrastructure of the smaller island, creating a level playing field across the newly created United Kingdom. Instead, the Acts were a catalyst for further polarisation between the heavily Anglicised area around Dublin and the rest of the country, much of which viewed English rule with hostility.

Dublin had been a culturally fertile centre for centuries – Handel famously premiered his Messiah there in 1742 – with a rich ecosystem of foreign musicians importing the latest European trends to the city. But how could budding Irish composers hope to make a living in this relatively insulated metropolitan bubble? Mainly they couldn’t, and the history of classical music in 19th-century Ireland is largely one of emigration to London and various cities beyond, in search of bigger economic and
artistic opportunities.

One musician of significance had already left the city, even before the turn of the 19th century – John Field, a prodigiously gifted pianist, departed Dublin with his family in 1793, aged just eleven. He eventually fetched up in Russia, where he achieved celebrity as a teacher and performer. But his main gift to posterity was his music, particularly the set of 18 sweetly tuneful, dreamy ‘Nocturnes’ he wrote for piano. Over half of these were written before Chopin began his own great cycle of Nocturnes, which were undoubtedly influenced by Field’s pioneering example.

While Chopin undoubtedly probed deeper, Field’s by no means superficial pieces were crucial in opening a doorway to the inner emotions of the early Romantic period. ‘No one else has quite matched his shifting aeolian harmonies,’ wrote Liszt; ‘these half-formed sighs, softly lamenting and keening with sensuality.’

The need to leave Ireland to make something of yourself professionally – a trend magnified by the devastating potato famine of 1845-49 – meant that the most gifted Irish classical composers continued to ply their trade outside their own country. Charles Villiers Stanford was a good example. Dublin-born in 1852, he had a stellar career in English academia, becoming professor of music at Cambridge University in 1887 and eventually receiving a knighthood.

But there was a price to pay for becoming a pillar of the English musical establishment. Field, for all his cosmopolitan influences, had a residual tang of sweet Irish lyricism in his music. Stanford’s compositions, by contrast, ploughed a solidly Brahmsian, central European idiom, ripe for mainstream Victorian consumption. His six Irish Rhapsodies are a partial exception, and his rollicking comic opera Shamus O’Brien (1895) deserves a modern recording. But the cause of developing a specifically Irish brand of classical music was not notably advanced by his redoubtable, middle-of-the-road solidity.

Shamus O’Brien was far from being the first opera written by an Irish composer, but the development of the genre was stifled by the lack of a bespoke operatic infrastructure in Ireland, and of a purpose-built national opera house. Once again, the best of Irish talent was forced to go abroad for recognition.

Dubliner Michael Balfe’s career spanned Europe, and his opera The Bohemian Girl – with its hit aria ‘I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ – premiered in London in 1843, with a string of productions in other countries. His contemporary William Vincent Wallace emigrated to Australia as a young man, and his best known opera, Maritana (1845), premiered at the same London theatre as The Bohemian Girl. Both operas, despite rickety librettos, are still occasionally performed today.

When did Irish classical music come to the fore?

It took a new century, however, for a truly distinctive sense of Irish identity in classical music to begin emerging. One catalyst was the Irish Literary Revival, and its rekindling of interest in the island’s native folklore in the work of WB Yeats, JM Synge, Seán O’Casey and others. The other was the cataclysmic political change effected by the Easter Rising against British rule in 1916, the War of Independence that followed, and the founding of the Irish Free State, a new national entity substantially independent of London, in 1921.

The career of Hamilton Harty spanned these momentous developments. Born in Hillsborough, County Down, in 1879, Harty found fame as chief conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, revivifying its fortunes in the post-World War I period. But he was a composer too, and his music frequently took Irish settings and situations as its subject matter. An Irish Symphony, which he conducted at his farewell Hallé concert in 1933, is a good example. Its use of traditional tunes is far livelier than in Stanford’s similarly titled symphony, and that first-hand familiarity with Irish culture and topography also suffuses The Children of Lir (1938), a half-hour tone poem where the Sea of Moyle (off the Antrim coast) and its rugged coastline are roilingly depicted.

Harty was, stylistically speaking, no revolutionary: his music is unapologetically late-Romantic in style, with few appurtenances of modernism. But his successful assimilation of traditional music into his compositions, along with elements of local legend and history, was a turning point for Irish classical music. It gave the native muse a distinctive voice, one that echoed ever more self-confidently as the 20th century unfolded.

It’s heard, for instance, in the multi-faceted compositions of the prodigiously talented Séan Ó Riada, whose activities effortlessly straddled the worlds of traditional and classical music. A fusing of the two can be discerned in his orchestral works Seoladh na nGamhan (‘The Herding of the Calves’) and The Banks of Sulán, and his thrilling co-option of 12-tone procedures in the string piece Hercules Dux Ferrariae shows his versatility. His death, at just 40, in 1971 robbed Irish music of a major, pioneering talent.

Are there any Irish classical composers?

But by then the economic and political strictures on artistic self-expression in Ireland had loosened, and the post-World War II era saw a steady stream of new composers emerging, able and willing to make careers on home soil without the need to emigrate. The Republic of Ireland’s enlightened attitude to taxing creative artists – those who qualify can earn a tax-free €50,000 per annum – has helped to further nurture cultural activity in recent decades.

John Kinsella

In that period, many exciting new Irish composers have grown to full maturity. John Kinsella is one of them: his nine symphonies, by turns lyrical and surgingly kinetic, are undoubtedly the most significant cycle to be written by an Irish composer. Equally notable is Kinsella’s contemporary Seóirse Bodley, who in works such as A small white cloud drifts over Ireland (1975) and the song-cycle A Girl (1978) achieved what one writer hailed as the ‘most coherent and challenging use of traditional music in a modern context’.

Bill Whelan

Less ‘challenging’, but hugely influential, was the music Limerick-born composer Bill Whelan wrote for the globally successful show Riverdance (1994). Drenched in the inflections of Irish traditional music, Whelan’s all-original score was a perfect counterpart to Michael Flatley’s dizzy-making reinvention of Irish dance. It was, in one commentator’s estimation, an ‘epiphanal moment of modern Irish history, capturing the confidence of a resurgent nation redefining itself through a communion of past, present and potential’.

Jennifer Walshe

And that new-found discovery of a genuine cutting edge in Irish classical music continues. Recently in the New Yorker, the magazine’s music critic Alex Ross wrote of the multi-talented composer and vocalist Jennifer Walshe that her super-modern sound palette ‘nails down, better than any artist I know, the antic, raucous, confessional, sordid, semi-sublime texture of modern digitised life’.

Walshe is not alone: composers such as Deirdre Gribbin, Gráinne Mulvey, Siobhán Cleary and Donnacha Dennehy are among those also boldly pushing the sonic envelope into new territory. John Kinsella, their compatriot from an earlier, less enfranchised generation, once wrote that ‘the idea of an Irish composer of “classical music”, or whatever you want to call it, is still a strange item, generally speaking’.

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That sense of shady marginalisation has, it seems, disappeared forever, as the classical muse in contemporary Ireland mingles more freely and confidently than ever before with the Emerald Isle’s extraordinarily rich indigenous musical culture.