Erin Go Bragh!
You don't need to be Irish to love Irish music.
I was lucky to be raised in one of Boston’s Irish neighborhoods. My family was one of very few with Italian last names in our parish, but you learn that “everyone is Irish in an Irish neighborhood.” And you learn that music to the Irish is as important as breathing.
When I played at my friends’ houses I heard The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, and The Chieftains coming from their parents’ record players. The little girls in my neighborhood didn’t “take ballet,” we all studied Irish Step Dancing, (yes, we). And every spring was the much-anticipated Annual Irish Show. It was the big spring show put on by the graduating 8th graders.
I was so proud to be asked to be the Emcee in my 8th grade show and for one night I was Laura O’Carlo (my opening joke – hey, I was 12). We sang songs like “Danny Boy,” “HARRIGAN,” “The Rose of Tralee” and “That’s Peggy O’Neil.” Some of the kids danced Irish Step in beautiful matching costumes, and one played a jig on a fiddle. The music that I heard growing up was “Irish music” to me for years.
As the years went by Irish music was also rock bands (U2, The Cranberries, The Boomtown Rats), and pop singers (from Sinead O’Connor and Enya, to more recently, Hozier and Niall Horan). But it wasn’t until I worked at WCRB that I realized that musical Ireland had a lot to be proud of in the classical genre as well, although the rest of the world didn’t seem to know it.
There won’t be enough column space for me to list every Irish classical composer. But I consulted with my esteemed GBH colleague, Brian O’Donovan, host of A Celtic Sojourn, and I think this will give you a good start on the journey to discovery.
One of my favorite Irish composers, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), isn’t strictly a classical music composer, but is considered by many to be the country’s national composer. The blind harpist, composer and singer either composed or “improved” hundreds of songs, though few were published in his lifetime. Brian O’ tells me that O’Carolan met Italian composer Francesco Geminiani on his trip to Ireland and Carolan’s Concerto is reflective of that meeting.
Philip Cogan (1750-1833) was highly respected in his own time. He was a pianist, church organist, composer, conductor and teacher. He wrote orchestral and chamber pieces, and several operas, both alone and in collaboration with other top Dublin-based composers. At one point he was chastised for spending too much time on works for the stage rather than for the church. Today, he is most remembered for his pioneering piano music.
Dublin born John Field (1782-1837) was a virtuoso pianist, composer and teacher. He is generally credited with inventing the “Nocturne” form of music, and with influencing many other composers, including Brahms, Liszt and Chopin, who wrote to his parents, “My reputation is increasing all the time – they’re even beginning to compare me to John Field.” My favorite Field pieces are his Nocturnes and I’ve been enjoying Elizabeth Joy Roe’s renditions on WCRB from her 2016 CD, John Field: Complete Nocturnes.
Herbert Hamilton Harty (1879-1941) started his musical career as a pianist and church organist, but had a strong desire to prove himself a worthy composer. His Comedy Overture premiered at the Proms in London in 1907 and was highly praised in The Times. It may be his most well known piece:
Ina Boyle (1889-1967) is considered the most significant female composer in Ireland prior to 1950. Her works covered the wide range of classical, from operas to ballet, orchestral to chamber to choral. Much of her work remains unpublished, thus little performed, but as recently as 2018 there have been some CDs of her major orchestral works.
I thought you might enjoy getting to know some contemporary Irish performers, too.
I’m a huge fan of John O’Conor, the first Irish pianist to win an international piano competition (’73 Beethoven Competition). We play a number of his recordings and there isn’t one I don’t like. I’m equally happy to hear his Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Mozart Piano Concertos and his Schubert recordings. He’s also a champion of his (above-mentioned) fellow countryman John Field.
James Galway, “the man with the golden flute,” was principal flute for the Berlin Philharmonic for 6 years, but forged a solo career beginning in mid-1970s. He has traveled the world in his decades of solo work, and his recordings have sold over 30-million copies. He closes out every performance with Danny Boy, as his prayer of thanks to God.
The Dublin Guitar Quartet has been performing since 2001. The founding members met when they were students at the Dublin Conservatory of Music and decided to not play standard guitar repertoire, but instead make their own transcriptions of contemporary composers’ works. They have traveled the world with their versions of works by Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, György Ligeti and Sofia Gubaidulina. I really love their arrangement of this by Glass. It gives you a few minutes of peace while daydreaming.
CODA: Brian O’ recommends we get to know the West Ocean String Quartet, who often blend traditional Irish with classical. He likes this version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” with an Irish folk twist!
And as we closed out our 8th grade Irish Show: “Irish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Erin go bragh!” (Ireland forever!)