This week Mahlerman searches for serious music in the Emerald Isle, and not in the pubs…
‘They lived and laughed and loved and left’
James Joyce – Finnegans Wake
London, 1741. George Frederic Handel is ill, and virtually bankrupt. The 56 year old has had some success with operas, but a number of commercial failures have brought him low. The turning point comes when his friend Charles Jennens gives him a text for a ‘a sacred work’, and the seeds of Messiah are born. With perhaps the threat of a debtor’s prison looming, this great master spent just 24 days producing an imperishable masterpiece, during which time he hardly ate, spending most of his time alone. Critics of his work there were aplenty, particularly among the officers of the Church of England, and this fact resulted in what turned out to be a fortuitous trip across the Irish Sea to Dublin where, on Tuesday 13th April 1742, the great oratorio was presented, not in a church or cathedral, but in the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin. The rest, as they say, is history. It could be argued that London’s loss was Dublin’s gain, as the presence of Handel in Erin (he stayed for several months, before and after the first performance), and the startling success of Messiah, gave a boost to ‘serious’ music in a land where precious little of it could be heard anywhere.
Handel had been dead for over twenty years when John Field (above) was born in Golden Lane, Dublin in 1782. His father Robert, a violinist, had spotted his son’s pianistic talent at an early stage – much as Leopold, Mozart’s father had done with Wolfie a few years earlier – and dad drove the boy unmercifully, eventually apprenticing him to the composer-manufacturer (of pianos) Muzio Clementi, who made use of the youngster’s amazing talent, showing off his pianos to prospective clients. Field later made a career as a virtuoso in Europe, settling in St Petersburg. If he is famous for anything, it is for the ‘invention’ of the Nocturne, later brought to a high point by, of course, Chopin. Here, playing one of the finest of these miniatures, No 4 in A Major, is the great Myra Hess, whom I was fortunate enough to hear live a couple of times as a teenager. The 80 year old recording is quite poor, but can you imagine finer playing than this?
In 1918 Sir Thomas Beecham was due to conduct the Halle Orchestra in performances of Messiah, but the 2nd Baronet became ill and had to stand down. His place was taken by the Irish composer-pianist Hamilton Harty – born in County Down in 1879 we would today claim him as our own. Two years later he was appointed permanently, and he then took on the task of rebuilding the band, achieving the sort of standards that Halle himself, and Richter, had created before him – all the time composing music of his own that, while retaining more than a tincture of his Celtic origins, possessed an original stamp that was very much his own. He was knighted in 1925 and a year later he commissioned a symphony from E J Moeran that became the marvellous Symphony in G minor (see below). I have to admit I didn’t know his Piano Concerto in B minor (1922), but should add that discovering its beauty has been a pleasant surprise. Unkind souls might say that this late romantic piece is poor-man’s Rachmaninov, but I would beg to differ; its neglect is a mystery, at least to me. Here, the slow movement Tranquillo e calmo.
Although born in Heston (I suppose someone had to be), Ernest John Moeran is as Irish as most of the men that built the Motorway that now disfigures the landscape of his birthplace. His father was Irish, he spent most of his life in County Kerry, and in fact died there. I came across his Sibelian Symphony in G minor many years ago when it first appeared on a vinyl LP – and like the Harty above, I couldn’t understand why this symphony was little known, and its creator virtually unknown. Yes, the pastoral element is there, folk song too – but it has a lean, edgy quality that made it, for me, utterly distinctive and rewarding. I dug deeper in later years and discovered two string quartets and a string trio that, if anything, seemed even finer. Here, the closing pages of the slow movement of the symphony.
Writing music, like all creative art, is the impassioned pursuit of an idea. The great thing is for the composer to keep his head and allow nothing to distract him. The temptations to stop by the way and to be side-tracked by felicities of sound and colour are ever present, but in my view everything extraneous to the pursuit of this central idea must be rigorously excluded – scrapped.
Thus spake not Zarathustra, but the great Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy. Though born in Broxborough, Hertfordshire in 1907, both her parents were Irish, and she was brought-up in Santry, Dublin, until moving to the RCM to study with Ralph Vaughan Williams, later moving to Prague, to fully absorb the European tradition with Karel Jirak. She married the Irish academic and historian William LeFanu, a happy union that lasted for over 60 years. It is something close to a scandal that the music of Maconchy, lean and sinuous, is so little heard, in or out of the concert hall, and particularly when you consider that she has been called the greatest ever English composer for strings, male or female. Here, by way of support for that notion, is the atmospheric Nocture for Orchestra from 1950/51.