This weekend, the Royal College of Music is hosting a major symposium on John Ireland (read more HERE). Ireland taught at the RCM and left an impact on English music. Speakers include Paul Spicer, Bruce Philips, April Frederick,. Recitals, too, and masterclasses. What a pity the conference clashes with the Oliver Knussen Sendak operas at the Barbican! But this reassessment of Ireland is timely. His songs, like Sea Fever and The Vagabond , have always been part of the repertoire, but his part songs are less well known. Indeed, he wrote very few after his mid 40's.
Yet Ireland's songs show character. In Heraclitus,(1924), Ireland embeds the idea of a man mourning his dead friend into the very fabric of the song."They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead". High male voices lead, shadowed by low. "For death. he taketh all away, but them (memories) he cannot take". The low voices rumble, as if they were ghosts. Ireland deploys voices as he might deploy instruments in an orchestra. Beautiful parting in songs like Immortality (1942) where the vocal parts intertwine attractively. Ireland sets text imaginatively. In The Hills, written for the Coronation in 1953, key words leap gleaming out of the text : "golden", "flowers", "sun","enduring", so when the last lines return to a mood of calm repose, images of brightness light the darkening timbre.
Ireland was one of relatively few British composers with whom Benjamin Britten consorted. Perhaps they shared a common interest in Elizabethan poetry. The charm of The Peaceful Western Winds (1896) written when Ireland was still a student, lies in its uncomplicated simplicity. Choruses of "cuckoo, cuckoo" in Spring, the sweet spring (to Thomas Nashe), and tinkling laughter in The Laughing Song (William Blake) suggest innocence determined to triumph. Three carols, Adam lay ybounden, The Holy Boy and A New Year Carol reflect this steadfast belief in prelapsarian purity.
It's interesting to hear John Ireland's part songs together with those by Frederick Delius. Delius almost seems to be subsuming text and meaning in some of these part songs in order to create a wash of impressionistic colour. As abstract sound, they are attractive, as if Delius were using voice as a form of instrumentation. The voices of the Birmingham Conservatoire Choir ring cleanly. By keeping textures so clear, Spicer makes them sound like a carillon of bright, shining bells. Indeed, the finest songs in this collection are wordless vocalise. In Two Songs to be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water, a glorious swathe of "ahhhhh....." is followed by a tenor soloist singing "la la la", vaguely reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. It's a tone poem for unaccompanied voices, more effective than I can describe. Similarly, Delius sets Tennyson's The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls, emphasizing the "echoes, answer, echoes, dying, dying". There's a market for music like this when it's done with such finesse. Refined and very calming. More details on the SOMM site.