Celebrating Ireland’s Recovery With Its Music

Celebrating Ireland’s Recovery With Its Music

The best Eurozone economic news in a long time is that which has come out of Ireland in recent weeks. Ireland is well into recovery, the statistics all tell us, and the rating agency Fitch has upgraded the outlook on its sovereign bonds from negative to stable.

The website of the U.S. news network CNN ran the above photo of some cheerful Irish folk when it noted this turnaround. They are clearly making music and celebrating, although I don’t know if CNN was trying to tell us that these young happy people are celebrating a decision by Fitch!

Certainly they are making and enjoying music and the occasion gives us all the excuse we need to write about some of Irish history’s outstanding composers. The selection is my own, and entirely arbitrary, displaying as it does my personal bias for High Romanticism in music.


Stevenson and Moore

The composer John Stevenson (1761 – 1833) and the poet/lyricist Thomas Moore (1779-1852) together published “Irish Melodies” in 1808. Europe was deep into the Romantic era already. Amongst the men of letters to whom the R-word is most regularly applied: William Blake turned 51 in 1808, and Lord Byron turned twenty.

But our concern is with music, and it is important that Thomas Moore was also known as “Anacreon” Moore, because he translated the works of a Greek bard of that name. In his work with Stevenson, as with that translation, Moore was playing to a quintessential Romantic impulse – the rediscovery of the real (or allegedly) buried wisdom of the past, especially of a folkish past.

Hayley Westenra

The Stevenson/Moore melodies, adaptations of folk tunes as the title of the book suggests, were not met with universal praise. Some critics thought they had done too much adaptation, depriving the folk tunes of their folksiness.

William Hazlitt in particular said that they had transformed “the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff-box.”

Nonetheless, from a perspective two centuries later that sounds like carping. Why listen to grumpy old Hazlitt, anyway, when we can listen to Hayley Westenra and Méav Ní Mhaolchatha singing one of the songs in the Stevenson/Moore collection, “The Last Rose of Summer”?

Nocturnes and Operas

John Field, (1782-1837) another Irish musician of the early Romantic period, in sometimes credited with the creation of the Nocturne as a musical genre. Field published his first Nocturne in 1812. The use of that word to refer to a particular sort of piano solo – generally one of a dreamy character– only developed slowly. Sometimes Field referred to works of this style as Nocturnes, sometimes not. It was of course Frederic Francois Chopin who later perfected the style.

But here is a link to Field’s first Nocture, arguably the start of the form itself, as performed by Edith Lucey (who has generously posted it for us.) Ms. Lucey is excessively apologetic there about her performance. She does a lovely job, and conveys to us exactly why such music came to be known by the, uh, nocturnal name is has. Here is the sheet music.

Michael W. Balfe, (1808-1870) composed operas, for example “The Bohemian Girl” (1843). This opera featured the popular aria, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls.”

Balfe is also responsible for “The Rose of Castille,” (sometimes spelt “Castile”) in which his music complements an English-language libretto by Augustus Harris and Edmund Falconer.

“The Rose” was composed and premiered in 1857, at the Lyceum Theatre, in London.

Its slender plot involves a man claiming to be a simple muleteer, but who (the other characters suspect at once) may well be someone much more exalted in social standing. Here is the tenor’s set piece, “Twas Rank and Fame,” as sung by Jerry Hadley. The Rose of Castille also involves the rousing bacchanal, “Wine, wine, the magician thou art,” and a ballad sung in a palace, “Of Girlhood’s Happy Days I dream.”

A half century later, James Joyce would pun on the name of this opera in his masterpiece, Ulysses. His character Lenehan asks, “What opera resembles a railroad line,” and then answers “The Rose of Castille.” [Rows of cast steel.]

William Vincent Wallace, (1812-1865), a native of Waterford, Ireland, emigrated to Australia in 1835, and made his great impact there, like Balfe as a composer of operas. With his wife and his sister, (who had emigrated from Ireland with him) he opened the first school of music in Australia’s history.

As a composer, he is best remembered for the opera Maritana, created for a libretto by Edward Fitzball. Among all the librettists of all the operas in the history of the world, I have to say, my favorite surname is this: “Fitzball.” Also, how is this for a portrait, lovers of steampunk?

Here you can hear two remarkable arias from that opera: There is a Flower that Bloometh, and Let Me Like a Soldier Fall.

So as not to convey the misimpression that I live entirely in the 19th century, I present for your attention the work of an Irish songwriter alive and working as I write these words, Shay Healy, creator of “What’s Another Year,” the song that won the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest. Here is Johnny Logan’s performance of that tune.

More recently, Healy is behind a musical, The Wire Men, that premiered in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in 2005, giving musical and dramatic shape to the introduction of electricity in County Mayo in the 1950s.


Shay Healy

The musical plays up the preservationist/progressivist conflict one might expect given such a theme, a conflict present no less among those of us who contemplate the history of music than among those who see wires being strung into their village for the first time by a rural electrification project.

In cold truth there will always be a balancing act – the task of openness and the task of preservation will always make their competing claims. If there is any country that gets the balance right more often than does Ireland, I could not for the life of me name it. With that in mind, let’s return to 1843 for a rousing conclusion.

I Dreamt I Dwelt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *