About this Recording
8.570507 - IRELAND, J.: Piano Trios / Cavatina / Berceuse / Bagatelle / The Holy Boy (Gould Piano Trio)

John Ireland (1879–1962): Phantasie Trio in A minor • Piano Trio No. 2 in E
Piano Trio No. 3 in E • Cavatina • Berceuse • Bagatelle • The Holy Boy


John Nicholson Ireland was born on 13 August 1879 in Bowdon, near Manchester. He was by over six years the last of five children born to Alexander Ireland, a Scotsman with links to the Unitarian church in Edinburgh, and Ann Elizabeth Nicholson of Penrith, Cumberland, Alexander’s second wife. Alexander, who was nearly seventy when John (known by his family as Jackie) Ireland was born, was the editor and publisher of the Manchester Examiner and Times, a newspaper set up in the 1840s as the rival to the Manchester Guardian. Alexander and Annie were both very much interested in books and literature. Alexander edited Hazlitt, Carlyle and Emerson: Annie edited the letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle and wrote her biography.

Ireland’s mother encouraged John’s early interest in music. After enduring piano lessons from a teacher much given to the application of a heavy ruler onto the fingers whenever her pupils made a mistake, John made his own way to London where he enrolled in his fourteenth year at the then newly established Royal College of Music as a student of piano, organ and the rudiments of music. Shortly after the beginning of his first term his mother died at the age of fifty. Just over a year later his father died aged 86. Guardians were appointed. Ireland began to compose music at this time, and his aim was to be accepted as a composition student by Stanford. Much of the music he wrote at this time has been lost, but three works of chamber music have survived: two String Quartets from 1896 (Naxos 8.557777) and in 1898 the Sextet for the unusual combination of clarinet in A, horn in F and string quartet (8.570550).

In 1897 Ireland won a composition scholarship thereby achieving his ambition of studying with Stanford. He spent the next four years at the Royal College of Music as a member of that group of apprentice composers that included Vaughan Williams, Holst, Hurlstone, Coleridge-Taylor and Thomas Dunhill. Several of his works were performed at Royal College concerts, and many have not survived. After leaving the College he made his living as a church organist and as a composer of church and organ music, ballads and short pieces for violin and piano.

The first work to bring Ireland’s name before a wider audience was the Phantasie Trio in A minor. In 1905 a successful and wealthy businessman named Walter Willson Cobbett (1847–1937) had announced a series of chamber music competitions, mainly designed ‘to bring to light the talents of young British composers and to encourage the occasional adoption of a short form of ensemble music’. The prizes were originally supplemented by generous donations from liverymen of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, a City Guild whose members took a great interest in Cobbett’s scheme. Cobbett’s intention was to revive and popularise the appreciation of chamber music, and to this end he asked that works submitted should consist of a single movement structure in the manner of the Fancy or Fantasia widely cultivated by such English composers as Orlando Gibbons in the years between the death of Elizabeth I and the early years of Charles II.

The first competition, in 1905, was for string quartet and attracted 67 entries. It was won by Hurlstone, with Frank Bridge’s Phantasie in F minor placed second. Frank Bridge, born the same year as Ireland, won the 1907 competition for piano trio, and Ireland’s Phantasie in A minor was placed equal second with James Friskin’s Phantasie, also in A minor. The third competition was announced in 1909 and was for a sonata, not a Phantasy. It attracted 134 submissions, and the first prize was awarded to Ireland in 1910 for his Violin Sonata (No. 1) in D minor.

Ireland’s second venture into the piano trio genre—he had composed one in 1897 but this was discarded and the manuscript has been lost—was the first chamber music work he allowed to be published (his two string quartets and the Sextet were released for publication only at the end of his life or posthumously). Hitherto he had published only church and organ music and two of the short pieces for violin on this recording. The Phantasie Trio in A minor remains one of his most immediately attractive and popular compositions, beautifully constructed, its four sections condensing into a single continuous structure the movements of a work in sonata form, as prescribed by the rules of the competition. It was dedicated to Stanford, and first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London on 26 January 1909 by the London Trio, the first classical piano trio to have been formed (in 1904) in Great Britain (Amina Goodwin, violin, Achille Simonetti, cello and W.E. Whitehouse, piano). The same trio played it at three of the Thomas Dunhill chamber concerts at Steinway Hall in March 1909, and another performance was given in February 1910 by Beatrice Langley, violin, May Mukle, cello, and York Bowen, piano.

Ireland’s next work for a trio, in D, was originally conceived for clarinet, cello and piano, written between April 1912 and October 1913 and revised between then and February 1914. Ireland withdrew the work after a couple of performances and reworked it in E for the conventional combination of violin, cello and piano. He then withdrew the work altogether and did not return to it until he reused some of the material for his Piano Trio No. 3. Meanwhile Ireland spent the First World War years living in London, working as organist and choirmaster at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, and writing two major chamber works that clearly reflect his reactions to the war, a mixture of patriotism and anger at the appalling slaughter. It is not known whether Ireland volunteered for active service and was rejected, though as a 35-year-old man in 1914 with poor eyesight and somewhat short in physical stature, he would not have been an obvious choice as a member of the armed forces.

The crucial year in terms of Ireland’s reputation as a composer was 1917. That year saw the performance, in March and June respectively, of his Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor and his Piano Trio No. 2 in E. The Second Violin Sonata, given its première at the Wigmore Hall by the celebrated violinist Albert Sammons and the Australian pianist William Murdoch, both wearing khaki, made a huge impression on the audience, not least on Frank Bridge. Three months later came the Second Piano Trio, and this too was recognised immediately as expressing in music some of the intense emotions evoked in a composer of great personal sensitivity. Fiona Richards, in her book The Music of John Ireland (Ashgate, 2000), describes it very well:

‘This is a work of mixed emotions, contrasting passages of stark textures and caustic harmonies with effusive moments and grim marches. The structure of the work is a succession of episodes exploring different moods, all of which are melodic metamorphoses of the first eighteen bars of the piece.’

The critic Edwin Evans remarked that the Trio ‘bears the impress of the grim contrast between the season and the wastage of war at the very springtime of life’. It was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 12 June 1917 by Albert Sammons, violin, C. Warwick-Evans, cello, with the composer at the piano.

The cellist Florence Hooton, who performed Ireland’s music a great deal and recorded the three trios with her violinist husband David Martin and the pianist Nigel Coxe, reported that Ireland told her that the section marked Allegro giusto evoked ‘the boys going over the top of the trenches’.

Ireland did not return to the piano trio form until the end of the 1930s. In 1938 he completed his Third Piano Trio, also in E, and this time in four movements. Perhaps because of his forebodings of the coming war his thoughts may have turned back to the work he had written just before the war broke out. At all events he resurrected the manuscript and reworked it extensively, drawing on material in the original clarinet version and the revised version for violin and adding a completely new slow movement. For a detailed account of the relationship between the two works see http://www.sfoxclarinets.com/Ireland.html and Fiona Richards’s The Music of John Ireland.

Ireland’s Third Piano Trio was dedicated to William Walton, whose first symphony Ireland had greatly admired. The first broadcast performance was in April 1938 by Antonio Brosa, violin, Antoni Sala (the Spanish cellist who had earlier declared Ireland’s cello sonata a masterpiece), and Ireland at the piano. The performers in the first London performance in June 1938 were Frederick Grinke, Florence Hooton and Ireland, and the location was the Regent Street music room of the publishers Boosey & Hawkes, the occasion being part of the International Society for Contemporary Music festival.

The earliest pieces recorded here are the two charming Edwardian salon pieces for violin and piano, Berceuse (1902) and Cavatina (1904). They show Ireland to have had a gift for melody in the style of, say, Elgar’s Salut d’amour or Chanson de Matin. Ireland later arranged Cavatina for organ, adding a short contrasting middle section. Bagatelle was written in 1911 and dedicated to Marjorie Haywood, the violinist who had given the first performance of the First Violin Sonata in 1913 with Ireland as pianist.

The Holy Boy was originally written on Christmas Day 1913 as a piano piece and included as the third of four Preludes published in 1918. This arrangement, one of many for various combinations of instruments, was probably made by Ireland himself in 1919. The poetic inspiration for this very simple but touching melody may have been a poem of Harold Monro (1879–1932) entitled ‘Children of Love’ which begins with the lines ‘The holy boy / went from his mother out in the cool of the day’ and evokes as in a dream an encounter between Jesus and Cupid.

Bruce Phillips

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