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8.570461 - IRELAND, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 3 (Lenehan) - Piano Sonata / Preludes / Green Ways
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John Ireland (1879-1962)
Piano Works • 3


The English composer John Ireland often complained of what he perceived as a lack of attention to his work. Nevertheless, during his life-time, he had his fair share of exposure, although, like many English composers, he went through a period of neglect from which his music is now emerging. He was born in 1879, the son of Alexander Ireland, a native of Edinburgh and business manager and publisher of the Manchester Examiner. His mother was his father’s second wife and thirty years her husband’s junior. Ireland had some of his early education at Leeds Grammar School, but at the age of thirteen, without his parents’ knowledge, presented himself for audition at the Royal College of Music, following his sister Ethel, who was already studying at the Royal Academy. He was accepted by the College, intending to become a concert pianist and also taking organ lessons with Sir Walter Parratt, organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and becoming an FRCO at the age of fifteen. Three years later he became a composition scholar, as a pupil of Stanford. In the following years, while he attempted to establish himself as a composer, Ireland, supported by the money he had by then inherited from his parents, earned an additional living for himself as an organist and choirmaster, notably from 1904 at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, establishing lasting friendships with some of the boys in his charge. He settled in Chelsea, dividing his time between London, and regular visits to West Sussex and the Channel Islands. After the war he joined the teaching staff of the Royal College. There he continued to exercise influence on generations of students. In 1927 he made a brief attempt at marriage. His wife, a student some thirty years his junior, proved as unsuitable a partner as Tchaikovsky’s had fifty years earlier, and the marriage was quickly annulled.

In common with other musicians, Ireland suffered disruption to his life in 1939. He had at first sought sanctuary in Guernsey but had to leave at short notice when the surrender of France became imminent. He spent much of the war lodging with a clergyman he had first known as a young choirmaster and once the war was over returned to Chelsea, until London became impossible for him. He spent his final years in West Sussex at Rock Mill, a converted windmill from which he could see Chanctonbury Ring, one of the important places in his life. He died there in 1962.

With his long connection with the Church of England and its liturgy, Ireland wrote music for services, hymns and carols. He also added to English vocal repertoire in a valuable series of solo songs and choral works. Works for chorus and orchestra include These Things Shall Be and Greater Love Hath No Man, both of which won success. Orchestral compositions include a Piano Concerto, the string orchestra Concertino pastorale and the symphonic rhapsody Mai-Dun, inspired by the British defence of Maiden Castle against the invading Romans in A.D.43. With some labour he completed a score for the film The Overlanders, one of his last major achievements, and added to chamber music repertoire, with two Violin Sonatas, the second for Albert Sammons, a Cello Sonata that Casals planned to take into his repertoire and a Fantasy Sonata for the clarinettist Frederick Thurston. For the piano, essentially his own instrument, Ireland wrote a quantity of music, one sonata and some forty short lyrical pieces. His most popular composition, The Holy Boy, inspired by one of his choristers, was originally a piano piece but underwent various transformations. His thought was much influenced by the Celtic mysticism of the novels of Arthur Machen, haunted by the ghosts of Roman Britain, and he also found affinity with the poems of A.E. Housman and the novels and poems of Thomas Hardy.

In 1937 Ireland brought together three short piano pieces, published as Green Ways. The first piece, originally published under the title Indian Summer in 1932, appeared as The Cherry Tree, preceded by lines from A.E. Housman:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Marked Moderato e con grazia, the piece starts with a motif that is to return, followed by the principal theme, ben cantato, which forms the basis of the work. It is dedicated to Ireland’s solicitor, Herbert S. Brown. The second piece, Cypress, marked Andante mesto, is preceded by lines from Shakespeare:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.

The opening figure of the piece, with its time signature of 5/4, is of growing importance, as the music develops. The third of the set, the pastoral The Palm and May, dedicated to Harriet Cohen, has the brief superscription from Thomas Nash: The Palm and May / make country houses gay.

Ireland’s Piano Sonata, written between 1918 and 1920, is a much more demanding work. One of his composition pupils, in his diary, recorded what may have been Ireland’s own ideas about the work, identifying the first movement as ‘Life’, the second ‘more ecstatic’ and the third ‘inspired by a rough autumnal day on Chanctonbury Ring & old British Encampment’ (cited in F. Richards: The Music of John Ireland, Aldershot, 2000). The E minor first theme of the sonata-form first movement is heard at the outset, a second element serving as a transition to the B flat major second subject. The first subject group provides the gist of the central development, with the recapitulation leading to an E major version of the second subject material. The thematic framework of the second movement lies in the phrase heard at the outset, appearing in increasing complexity before the fuller textures of the central section. The last movement is associated with Chanctonbury Ring on the Sussex South Downs, with its Roman hill fort that Ireland first saw in 1920, and, in common with such works as Mai-Dun, The Forgotten Rite and Legend for piano and orchestra, reveals Ireland’s fascination with sites of ancient, pre- Christian ritual and civilisations. It carries references both to the first movement and to other works of Ireland.

The Almond Trees, with its pentatonic writing, dates from 1913, and, as so often in Ireland’s piano-writing, makes sensitive use of tonal contrasts between una corda and tre corde. It is followed here by On a Birthday Morning, written, pro amicitia, to mark the birthday on 22 February of Arthur George Miller, a former choirboy at St Luke’s and the recipient of a series of birthday compositions in the following years. The piece is in the spirit of a birthday celebration, starting ‘gaily’ and proceeding ‘fresh and joyous’, before the concluding passage, marked by a rhythmic figure that has played an important part in the whole piece. Soliloquy was written in the same year, a lyrical song without words, inspired by a poem of John Masefield.

Ireland’s four Preludes were written in the years 1913-1915. The first of the set, The Undertone, with the asymmetric time-signature of 5/4, is developed from the motif heard in the first two bars, reaching a dynamic climax before the quiet concluding section. Obsession offers an immediate contrast of mood, to be followed by what has remained the best known of Ireland’s works, The Holy Boy, familiar both in its original piano form and in a number of arrangements, including a song, with words by Herbert Brown. It may be presumed that the piece, whatever its subsequent Christmas associations or possible literary connections, had its origin in Ireland’s friendship with one of his choristers. It is, in any case, music of winning innocence and simplicity. To this the last of the group, Fire of Spring, offers a rhapsodic contrast, rising in intensity, before reaching final tranquillity.

For Remembrance, published as the first of Two Pieces, bears the date July 1921. Marked Andantino con moto and in a metrical pattern that varies from triple to duple, it reaches a degree of passionate feeling, to end una corda and with distant echoes of what has passed. It is coupled with Amberley Wild Brooks, dated June 1921, an evocation of the beauty of the Sussex countryside, where finally Ireland was to settle.

Spring will not wait, dated 22 February 1927 and headed by two lines from A Shropshire Lad: Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time / Who keeps so long away, formed an epilogue to a Housman song cycle, We’ll to the woods no more [Naxos 8.570467]. The date 22 February and the dedication ‘To Arthur’ identifies it as a valedictory birthday present for Arthur Miller, who married in June 1927, six months after Ireland’s own disastrous and short-lived marriage. The work echoes and summarises the preceding songs of the cycle.

Dated Autumn 1922, Equinox again makes use of irregular metres, varying from triple to duple, and presenting cross-rhythms between the quintuplet figuration of the right-hand semiquavers and the contrasting rhythms of the left. The piece suggests Ireland’s response to the Sussex countryside, allied with strong personal feelings.

Ballade of London Nights, left unfinished and completed by a repetition of the opening, to be published posthumously, has been variously dated. It belongs, however, to a group of works in which Ireland drew on London for inspiration, here moving from Chelsea, where he lived for so many years, to the activity of Soho, echoing his Soho Forenoons, before returning home once more.

Keith Anderson

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