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Obituary: Eric Sweeney

04 September 2020

Kenneth Shenton writes:

DEDICATED to his art, Eric Sweeney, who died on 21 July, aged 72, was an Irish musician who rose to international prominence. Besides being a leading organist, he was a distinguished composer, academic, and choral conductor. He helped to mould the creative personalities of many of Ireland’s leading practitioners, and brought countless vocal ensembles to a level of excellence that had few equals.

The eldest of two brothers, born on 15 July 1948, Eric John Sweeney grew up in the Ranelagh district of Dublin, in a family steeped in musical tradition. His paternal grandfather was a traditional fiddler, while his maternal uncle, Edgar Boucher, was a distinguished Director of Music at BBC Northern Ireland who often presented BBC TV’s Songs of Praise.

A chorister, together with his brother, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Eric received his first organ lessons there from Sidney Greig. He refined his technique further with Flor Peeters in Belgium and at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, in Siena, with Fernando Germani.

Having studied at Trinity College, Dublin, subsequently returning there as a lecturer, Sweeney also taught at the Conservatory of Music. From 1981 until 2010, he served as a senior lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology. Earlier, for four years, from 1978 until 1981, he directed the RTÉ Singers. For 27 years, when Organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, he maintained a committed and consistent vocal ensemble whose resources he came to use with much imagination and skill. In 2003, he oversaw the installation of the cathedral’s magnificent new organ.

Proving a prolific composer, Sweeney had a feel for the liturgy which allowed him to write well for voices; his anthems, motets, carols, and canticles, often written for specific occasions, have kept their place in the repertoire. Of his sacred output, two works stand out: the beautifully beguiling Epiphany anthem “Three Are The Offerings”, and the idiomatically intense Jubilate Deo. More expansive is the cantata Deidre, commissioned by RTÉ, in which the composer seamlessly unites his early interest in minimalism with Irish folklore, a combination later labelled Hiberno-minimalism.

It was this style that so often pervaded his output for the organ, not least “The Widening Gyre”, a nine-minute moto perpetuo that builds to a brilliant toccata-like finale, very much in the manner of his mentor Peeters. This, like many of his pieces, not least the hugely challenging Introduction and Passacaglia, was created for and championed by his late brother, Peter, Organist of Christ Cathedral, Dublin. Peter also gave the first performance of “Le Cercle de Lumière”, inspired by the corona seen during a solar eclipse, as well as “The Secret Rose”, minimalism garnished with a French dressing.

Sweeney’s extensive instrumental and orchestral catalogue is headed by five richly coloured instrumental concertos; his two symphonies hint briefly at a larger personality than was usual. In contrast, a searching String Quartet displays a far more cerebral outlook, while the early Canzona remains a stunning essay in brevity. Written with the librettist Mark Roper, three late operas, The Invader, The Green One, and Ulysses — each a tale of passion and intrigue — cleverly unite the many disparate elements within Sweeney’s technique, all handled with the skill of a master craftsman.

While his compositions were proving hugely popular worldwide, but particularly so in America, Sweeney’s scholastic credentials were also much in demand. He served as Composer-in-Residence at Newport Festival, Rhode Island, before later becoming Visiting Scholar at both the University of Illinois and Indiana State University, as well as Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland.

He is survived by his wife, Sally, and three children.

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