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No score, parts missing

21 February 2012

This composer’s life is hard to piece to­gether, says Ronald Corp

Musician and muse: Ireland with the boys Charles Markes and Bobby Glassby in a St Luke’s, Chelsea, choir photograph (detail), c.1908. From the book under review

Musician and muse: Ireland with the boys Charles Markes and Bobby Glassby in a St Luke’s, Chelsea, choir photograph (detail), c.1908. From the book un...

The John Ireland Companion
Lewis Foreman, editor

The Boydell Press £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

LEWIS FOREMAN was commis­sioned by the John Ireland Trust to write a biography of Ire­land, but, as there is scant documentary material about his early and middle years, it became obvious that a traditional biography was out of the question. A much better solution is this comprehens­ive and magisterial Companion, which marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Part one presents a broad over­view of the composer: interviews with him, personal accounts by musicians, an account of his musical style, an overview of the performance history of his works, and a description of each of his compositions, including a generous attention to his church and organ works (Ireland was organist at St Luke’s, Chelsea, from 1904 to 1926).

Subsequent parts deal with his pupils speaking about their teacher, (including Britten’s diary entries grumbling that Ireland was always late for lessons), notable articles on Ireland and his works, and all of Ireland’s own writing on music, much of it previously unpublished. There is a comprehensive catalogue of his works, a thorough disco­graphy, and an accompanying CD, which includes significant historical material, including Ireland speaking and playing. There are also plenty of photographs and musical examples.

The song “Sea Fever” (poem by John Masefield) has kept Ireland’s name in concert programmes, but his star has faded somewhat — and most unjustifiably. His piano con­certo had its première at the Proms in 1930, and, between 1950 and ’60, was played there every year except one. His second violin sonata was hailed as a masterpiece, but again remains relatively neglected.

All of his works are given their due appraisal in a series of articles by various present-day writers. Robert Matthew Walker (in an article about Ireland’s music on disc) is more enthusiastic about Ireland’s one large-scale choral work, These Things Shall Be, than others have been, but I wish Philip Lancaster had been more compli­mentary about the short part-song “The Hills”, written for A Garland for the Queen in 1953.

There are enigmas in Ireland’s private life which this volume cannot unravel. What exactly was his relationship with the boys who were his companions, and, in the case of Bobby Glassby, his muse (“The Holy Boy” was written for him)? What did the “passion motif” (a musical phrase that Ireland used in a number of pieces, and about which the pianist Alan Rowlands writes very knowledgeably) really represent? Why, in 1926, did Ireland marry his pupil Dorothy Phillips, a girl 30 years his junior (an uncon­summated marriage that lasted a mere nine months)? And what were his real feelings for the 19-year-old Helen Perkin, for whom he wrote his piano concerto?

Some of Ireland’s humour comes across (he said of the precocious Britten “if he farts they’ll record it”); and his obsession with fees and royal­ties emerges from his corres­pondence with the BBC.

In his introduction, Foreman faces head-on the problem of duplication of information in a volume such as this, and it is irksome to find anecdotes cropping up more than once. Other quibbles include a page of full score which is too small to read and the mis-spelling of Britten’s St Nicolas. But these are very small points in a volume that is so comprehensive.

Julian Lloyd Webber provides the foreword, and the book is dedicated to Richard Itter, who did much, through his record label Lyrita, to promote Ireland’s music in the 1970s.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.

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