ENDNOTES: September 3rd 2017
Music and Landscape – the works of John Ireland, by Stuart Millson
In this season of harvest and late-summer sunshine, what could be a more apt musical accompaniment than the music of John Ireland (1879-1962). Born in Cheshire, Ireland belonged to a group of English composers (whose unofficial figurehead was probably Sir Arnold Bax) which possessed a feeling for remote country places, for stone-circles and ancient earthworks, whether in rural Dorset, the Channel Islands or the South Downs.
Although not as well known as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten (Britten, for a time, was a student of Ireland’s), this unassuming composer was a skilled craftsman, able to produce reflective melody – tinged with an element of sadness – building an often powerful musical atmosphere, revealing a visionary personality attracted to occult forces and supernatural states. He did not write a symphony, and his longest works, though full of concentrated ideas, tended to be short. The piano concerto of 1930 – which at one time had a regular outing in the concert halls of Britain – lasts less than half-an-hour, but holds its own alongside similar works by Prokofiev, Ravel and Vaughan Williams. It brims with many fascinating touches, from the dark clouds of its solemn introduction, to the floating lyrical beauty of its middle movement – and a highly nostalgic detour from the main concerto theme shortly before its conclusion, in which solo violin accompanies the pianist in a chamber-like interlude.
Another compelling piece for piano and orchestra is the Legend, an unusual (and in its brass writing, at least) Wagnerian tone-poem set in the Sussex landscape. The inspiration for the work is something of a legend in itself: one summer, the composer was enjoying a picnic on the South Downs – a place near Storrington which he loved and was drawn to again and again. Sitting alone, enjoying the wide views across hills criss-crossed by prehistoric tracks, Ireland became aware of a group of children, dressed in odd, antique clothing, dancing in a pagan-type formation. Whether it was the intensity of the day and the enchanting setting, or strong inner beliefs in the existence of a spirit-world, he was certain that these figures existed – if only for a short time – for in an instant, when he had briefly looked away, the circle of figures had vanished.
The Kent novelist, Jocelyn Brooke (many of whose tales convey the mysteries and curiosities of unusual and overlooked places) was an admirer of Ireland, as was the Welsh writer and author of The House of Souls, Arthur Machen – to whom Legend was dedicated. When Ireland told Machen about the supernatural children, the writer replied: “Oh, so you’ve seen them, too.” The first performance of this remarkable mini-concerto and tone-poem was given at the Queen’s Hall, London, on the 12th January 1934 – the soloist, Helen Perkin.
John Ireland was also drawn to Hardy’s Wessex, in particular to Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, and again, the spirit of a place exerted a powerful influence on the musician. A symphonic impression of ancient conflicts at the archaeologically-famous Wessex hill-fort followed, in the form of a rhapsody entitled Mai-Dun (1920-21). But the composer was disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm for his piece from conductors: “May-never-be-done,” he quipped!
Ireland found an earth-magic in the Channel Islands: the piano work, Sarnia (the Roman name for Guernsey), conveying in equal measure the realism of the landscape before him, and a Debussy-like impressionism. But the stillness of the world Ireland had known was crushed when the Germans invaded. He just managed to escape before the iron-fist of the Reich fell upon the islands. In wartime, Ireland played his part by composing an Epic March, which embodied the determination of the British people at a time when our own island life might have come to an end. And his These Things Shall Be – a magnificent piece for orchestra, soloist and choir – written in 1937, looked forward to a paradise on earth: “Nation with nation…” and a new, gentle race of people “simple in their homes” and “grand” in their love for others. Perhaps this is the key to understanding this sensitive, reclusive figure.
Ireland died in 1962 at Rock Mill, Sussex, on the 11th June 1962 – leaving a body of work – romantic, mysterious, dream-like and bathed in ancient sunlight – which deserves to be rediscovered.