John Ireland

Picture of John Ireland

The first composer I ever met in my life was John Ireland, and that was because my father made an appointment for him to see me and hear some youthful compositions of mine. Ireland was then living at 14A, Gunters Grove, Chelsea. I would be about 15 or 16, so this would be around the years 1919-20. My early masterpieces included a piano suite on Browning's "Pippa Passes" about which I was crazy at the time (I mean about Browning, not my Suite), a lyric movement for string quartet, and my chef d'Oeuvre, a Chaconne (35 variations on a ground bass) triple fugue and epilogue for large orchestra. I can still remember the subjects of the fugues. As it was never my way to do things by half it so happened that I was in love with three girls at the time, and each subject was supposed to sum up the charms of my fair enslavers. The first fugue was for strings only, the second fugue for wind only, and the third for brass only; so the first time you heard the full orchestra was when all three subjects were combined - rather a clever idea don't you think? The three girls were:-

(1) My String girl: - Gretchen Walton, daughter of the Glasgow Cathedral organist, Herbert Walton. The words I wrote to the first fugue subject went something like this:
"O Gretchen dear, you're a beautiful, beautiful girl,
Although you use a powder puff;
Blue eyes and curly hair
I love you, but not enough!"

(2) My woodwind girl was Effie Ross, daughter of the owner of famous Ross's Dairies of Glasgow. Her words and tune went
"Oh, Effie, I love you always,
O, yes I do.
Come here, come here; come here, come over here;
And I'll do something really nice to you."

(3) My brass girl, Phemie Lang was the daughter of the general manager of Weir's Engineering Works. It was coincidence I hope, that they were all classy girls whose fathers had substantial incomes. I forget the words of my Brass girl, but as brass doesn't move like the speed of strings or winds, my Phemie was assuredly a girl of few words.

Well, when this work was finished, I was mightily pleased with it, and I remember wondering who would be the lucky conductor to be allowed to give it its first performance. Sir Landon Ronald? - too old fashioned - unlikely at his age (he was 47) to understand the out-pouring of an ardent (albeit contrapuntal) young heart. Sir Henry Wood? - better, certainly, but too slap-dash, and tied up with old fashioned fogies like Strauss and Scriabin. Sir Hamilton Harty? - not bad; a little too Irish - leprecorny, perhaps, but we'll keep his name on the list meantime. The upshot of all this was that Dad thought it was high time to get a top opinion on my compositions, and so he hauled me down to London and to John Ireland. Ireland led us down the garden to a large, dark-looking studio; I remember his piano was covered with dust and cigarette ash. Ireland scanned through my scores with a rather bored look, but perked up a bit when he came to my marvellous triple fugue. He said he would be prepared to give me composition lessons if I would come down and live in London. My father said this was not the idea at all; he wanted to know if Mr. Ireland would give his son lessons by post. Ireland said this was impossible, so my Dad: rushed me across London to Muswell Hill for a second opinion - this time from Hubert Bath, composer of the popular "Cornish Rhapsody" (said by some, to be more corny than Rhapsy;) nothing doing again, but finally my Dad did settle for correspondence lessons from Dr. A. Eaglefield, Hull. But that is another story.

During the next ten years or so, I occasionally saw Ireland at a London concert; we nodded to one another and sometimes exchanged a few words. He wasn't what you would call a very chummy soul. A certain conscious seriousness about some of his works appeared to me to make them rather stuffy: this was at a time when the highest praise some critics considered they could bestow on any composer was to call him a "serious composer" and I felt that Ireland rather played up to this idea. I enjoy spontaneity and freshness more than thoughtful, solemn and serious qualities in modern music which latter appear to me little different from the artificial, the manufactured and the contrived. Nonetheless, I joined in the chorus of praise which greeted Ireland's second violin and piano sonata, when it first appeared around 1920 and had played his "Island Spell", "Ragamuffin" "Rhapsody" and even got up his awkwardly difficult piano sonata for a concert. "Rugged" was the fashionable term to describe Ireland’s music. Anyway, I had no qualms in asking him to give a concert of his works at the Active Society, and this he did on April 12th, 1932. In the car which drove him from the station to Moore's Hotel, our favourite place to house distinguished guests (if for some reason or another it was not policy to offer them private hospitality), I said how much I admired his celebrated second violin sonata "Truly" I said, "one of the finest examples of recent British Chamber Music." "No, no" he replied testily, "it isn't all that good, believe me; and please don't say flowery things about my music to me, for I am sure you don't believe them, and neither do I." He had a pretty bad cold all the time he was in Glasgow, which, if it affected his temper, had no ill effect on his playing. Both his compositions and piano playing made a deep impression on the unusually large audience which attended his concert: the increased attendance may be accounted for by the pressure exerted by local piano teachers on pupils who had come to hear how the composer would play their favourite Ireland pieces. He certainly gave beautiful performances of the "Holy Boy", "Chelsea Reach" "Ragamuffin" and the impressionistic "Island Spell" pieces still used avidly by loyal British piano teachers and despite a slight soiling at the edges, still with a definite modern appeal. The novelty was the unfamiliar Cello Sonata (1923) played by the Society's cellist, Luigi Gasparini. Ireland's early Phantasie Trio opened the programme, and ended with the familiar second violin sonata which all-in-all is his most satisfying work - tuneful, virile and with a wide range of expression. I have a recording not of Ireland's second but of his first violin sonata - not so good a work but at least you will have the chance to hear the composer himself playing the piano part. Here is the Finale, a gay and tuneful rondo.

Editors note: For copyright reasons we are unable to include the exact piece Erik used in his lecture. The version presented is a modern recording of the First Violin Sonata "Romance". The manuscript pages will turn as the music is played if you wish to follow the score.

John Ireland was always a little standoffish, not really belonging to the Establishment; he had an old-world courtesy about him, and seldom unbent. "Nobody plays my music" was his steady complaint, which may be true enough nowadays, but certainly was not so in the 1920's, when he was at the height of his fame. One of his pupils Richard Arnell has this story to tell about him.

After the familiar complaint one of his friends was forced to exclaim: "But John, why do you say your piano concerto is neglected, when it was played at the Proms this week, and has just had a broadcast; and isn't there a performance abroad?" After a short silence, Ireland replied 'Oh, so they are playing it to death, are they?"

The best known and the best of all Ireland's songs is his setting of John Masefield's "Sea Fever". It is rare in English music that words and music are so happily wedded as they are here. The whole atmosphere of the poem, physical and personal, has been perfectly realised. This song, inevitably included in his Glasgow recital, was the final number in a group of five songs which included his fine setting of Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" and "Spring Sorrow". I am sure you would like to hear "Sea Fever".

Ireland tells how someone induced Rachmaninoff to attend a meeting of the British Music Society at which Ireland's "Chelsea Reach" and the song you have just heard were performed. The pianist played "Chelsea Reach" as though it was a dirge, but the performance of "Sea Fever" went much better. At the end of the performance, Rachmaninoff turned to Ireland saying "Yes zat "Sea Fever" is good, but really, Mr. Ireland, you do not zink much of zat Chelsea Reach, do you?"

Ireland numbered among his pupils some of the most prominent of English composers - Alan Bush, Benjamin Britten, Humphrey Searle and E.J. Moeran, the latter sometimes referred to as the "Irish Ireland." When in Glasgow, Ireland did unbend to tell a few stories, the best being about his encounter with Gershwin, famous composer of "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Porgy and Bess". "I hear, Mr. Ireland that you too have written a rhapsody. May I ask you how many performances you get of it in a year?" "Two or Three" Ireland replied. "Two or three" exclaimed Gershwin horrified, "why my Rhapsody gets about ten performances a day." This ties up with another story about Gershwin when he approached Stravinsky for lessons in composition. "How much do you make out of your music in a year?" Stravinsky asked him: "Oh, about 50,000 dollars" Gershwin replied. "50,000 dollars!" exclaimed Stravinsky "Look here, Gershwin, do you mind giving me some lessons?"

This is how John Ireland looked in 1921 when he was 42. He was born in 1879 a year which also saw the birth of two other noted English composers, Cyril Scott and Frank Bridge (perhaps best remembered today as the teacher of Benjamin Britten)
Cover of the programme of his Glasgow concert. These programmes (never less than 8 pages) were supplied to us free by an advertising agent who touted for ads and kept the money: it suited us admirably
Ireland on his 80th birthday
Ireland on his 80th birthday
The first of 2 irrelevant slides. Dame Ethel Smyth - a horsey woman who has written some darned good operas "The Boatswain's Mate", "The Wreckers" "Fete Galante": also some real punchy books. I met her through Tovey when she came to Edinburgh to conduct the first performance of her choral work - "The Prison". She said very little to the players at the first rehearsal - but when the orchestra arrived for a subsequent rehearsal - most members found on their desks a postcard with some such remark as - "Please Mr. First Bassoon play B flat on the second quaver of bar 278 not B sharp: or Dear Mr. 3rd Horn, be so kind as to raise the bell of your instrument for the fanfare in the 3rd movement. Thank you!
Gustav Holst
The first Ireland picture, the one of Ethel Smyth you have just seen and now this one of Gustav Holst, are all photographs from the collection of Herbert Lambert. Holst's best work is the remarkable Suite "The Planets": I still remember the thrill of that relentless 5/4 rhythm in "Mars - the bringer of War" when first I heard it 35 years ago. Holst siezed on the dramatic, astrological possibilities of "The Planets" - Saturn - Old age, Jupiter - Jollity, Venus - Peace and so on. At this time I was writing a series of short pieces from the Astronomical point of view - one was called "A jewel from the Siderial casket-Beta Cygnus" the idea of a dead star revolving around a live one: another "A total eclipse of the Sun". I recall an interesting conversation I had with Holst on this rather unusual question of composing music with an astrological or astronomical background. I also recall a series of lectures Holst gave on orchestration: and how disappointed I was that the brilliant orchestrator of "The Planets" had nothing interesting or original to say.