About this Recording
8.570550 - IRELAND, J.: Sextet / Clarinet Trio / Fantasy-Sonata / The Holy Boy (Plane, Rahman, Maggini Quartet)

John Ireland (1879–1962): Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet • Clarinet Trio
Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano • 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.

Stanford’s method of instruction seems to have been based on the discouragement principle rather than that of encouragement. It was Stanford’s colleague Sir Hubert Parry who perceived the quality in one of the quartets when he heard it performed by students at the Royal College. Ireland received a composition scholarship. At this time he heard the first London performance of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet played by the Joachim Quartet and the German clarinettist who had inspired the work, Richard Mühlfeld (1856–1907). Ireland had also played the piano part in Brahms’s Piano Trio, Op. 8, and was fully conversant with the music of the composer who was then regarded as the greatest living. Stanford had also recommended Ireland to study Dvořák, and the blend of these two great masters of the period seems to have inspired Ireland to produce a work that displays a thorough grasp of their music and a strong feeling for melody and form. Stanford criticised the last movement for not being organic.

Despite his lifelong admiration for Stanford as teacher and composer, Ireland did not have enough confidence in his student works to allow them to be performed outside the bounds of the Royal College, or to be published. The manuscripts of the quartets and the sextet were filed away in a drawer, and were not heard again until very near the end of his life. In the case of the sextet the request to permit a performance came from the late Dame Thea King (1925–2007). She was visiting the composer in his converted windmill home under the lee of Chanctonbury Ring in West Sussex to discuss his Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano. She asked him if he had written anything else for clarinet and Ireland produced from a drawer the manuscript of the Sextet. After going through it with her (despite his failing sight and his not having heard it for over sixty years, he remembered every noteworthy aspect of the work). Ireland sanctioned its first public performance at a London concert of the Hampton Music Club in the drawing-room of the Arts Council’s London offices, St James’s Square on 25 March 1960. Thea King played the clarinet, John Burden the horn, the quartet was the Pro Musica, and Ireland was in the front row hearing the work for the first time for 62 years.

The work opens with a soft horn-call which brings to mind the opening of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. The violin answers with the main theme of the movement. The clarinet steals in with two upward arpeggios. The horn announces the second subject, and the two principal themes are developed and decorated until the first subject returns and the movement ends in an emphatic coda. The slow movement is marked Andante con moto and Ireland unfolds a songlike melody in D major on the clarinet, supported by the quartet. Later the key changes to C minor and the horn plays a dotted theme in thirds with the clarinet over pizzicato strings. The music rises to a brief climax marked Appassionato then subsides back into the A major theme until the end of the movement. Ireland originally called the sextet Intermezzo and this remains as the heading to the third movement, a lilting Allegretto con grazia which summons up thoughts of the scherzo of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Two main themes predominate until the horn announces another horn call over pizzicato strings and the movement ends quietly. The finale, marked In tempo moderato, opens with a melody played by the viola, subsequently taken over by the clarinet. Towards the middle of the movement the tempo slows and the horn and quartet adopt a chugging rhythm suggestive of a steam train leaving a station. The music broadens out into a dialogue between clarinet and horn and eventually the opening theme returns on the horn, gathers pace and concludes in a brief Presto section in which all the instruments combine to bring the work to an end.

Ireland’s next chamber work involving the clarinet was a Trio for clarinet, cello and piano written in 1912–13 and first performed on 9 June 1914 at Steinway Hall in a Thomas Dunhill Chamber Concert by Charles Draper, clarinet, May Mukle, cello, and Ireland himself as pianist. Charles Draper (1869–1952), sometimes called the grandfather of English clarinettists, had also heard Mühlfeld play in London and was influenced by his style of playing. He taught many British clarinettists including Frederick Thurston. He gave the first performance of Stanford’s Clarinet Concerto and was the dedicatee of Stanford’s Clarinet Sonata. May Mukle (1880–1963) was a prominent cellist, who played in the first performance in England of Ravel’s Piano Trio (Ireland was the pianist).

Ireland withdrew the Trio after a couple of performances and reworked it in a different key and with violin instead of clarinet. This too was withdrawn, and not revived until Ireland radically reworked some of the material for his Piano Trio No. 3 in 1938 and added a completely new slow movement. The manuscript is incomplete. The missing sections are the last few bars of the first movement, and much of the Scherzo, in total amounting to about a quarter of the duration of the piece. One of the original movements, presumably the slow movement, has disappeared altogether.

The new performing edition has been reconstructed and edited by the Canadian clarinettist and clarinet-maker Stephen Fox. Full details of his edition are to be found on his website (www.riverdaleensemble.com/ Ireland_Trio.html). He has rewritten the missing sections by close analogy with the corresponding parts of the 1938 Piano Trio, and in place of the missing slow movement, probably now lost for ever, he has inserted the Lento section from the interim violin version as the optional slow introduction to the third movement.

It is not known why Ireland withdrew the work, nor why he did not allow it to be resurrected with the Sextet in answer to Thea King’s plea for more works for clarinet. He may have felt dissatisfied with some of the writing for clarinet, and his reworking of those parts that he did re-use in the 1938 Piano Trio demonstrates how far his style had travelled since the versions produced during the early part of World War 1. Nevertheless Stephen Fox’s reconstruction, published by Emerson Edition Ltd, has redeemed from unmerited oblivion a work of beauty and craftsmanship and has made an invaluable addition to the repertoire of clarinet trios.

Ireland had had great success with his first Phantasie Trio in A minor of 1908, which had won second prize in that year’s Cobbett Chamber Music Competition, and he returned to a single-movement structure for one of his most popular chamber music works, the Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet (in B flat) and Piano. It was written in the period January–June 1943 when Ireland, who had had to flee Guernsey in 1940 shortly before the German invasion, was lodging with the former curate of St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, the Rev. Paul Walde and his wife Marjorie in Little Sampford rectory, Essex.

He wrote it for, and dedicated it to, the greatest British clarinettist of his generation, Frederick Thurston (1901–1953). Thurston, universally known as Jack, inspired many other British composers to write works for him: Bax, Bliss, Finzi, Howells, Malcolm Arnold, Iain Hamilton, Alan Rawsthorne and Elizabeth Maconchy among others. He married his pupil Thea King in 1953 but died in the same year, as untimely a loss to music in Britain as Dennis Brain and Noel Mewton-Wood.

In this highly concentrated but richly romantic work Ireland gives expression to his love of the clarinet. To him it was the finest of the woodwind instruments, and in his orchestral works he never failed to give the clarinets some of his most inspired scoring. One thinks for example of the beautiful clarinet tune in the Andante sostenuto section of his overture Satyricon. The Sonata opens in G flat, Andante moderato, with a confident and arresting melody for the clarinet underpinned by some characteristic chromaticisms in the piano part. The music moves through a transitional passage for both instruments to a section in A major in which the pianowriting mirrors that of another wartime work, Sarnia. There follows an episode in A flat marked Tranquillo in which the clarinet meditates on the opening theme while the piano accompaniment ripples along underneath like a stream. The clarinet slows the proceedings down in a short four-bar cadenza leading to a section marked Più lento, a modification of the main tune in the piano part with the clarinet as if commenting on it from above. This moment of tranquillity is dispelled by more rippling arpeggios in the piano which then give way to a return to the songlike tranquillity. The tempo broadens, the clarinet plays a rapid downward scale, and we reach the penultimate section marked Giusto in which the pianist introduces a series of marcato chords in the right hand over a marching bass over which the clarinet plays a rhythmically altered version of the main theme. The suggestion is of horses galloping. A brilliant and dramatic final section propels the work to its stirring conclusion.

One of Ireland’s simplest and most directly expressive piano pieces, The Holy Boy, was written on Christmas Day 1913. The title may have been borrowed from Harold Munro’s poem of the same name, and the inspiration for it was Bobby Glassby, one of the choristers in the choir of St Luke’s, Chelsea, and the son of the sculptor Robert Glassby whose studio at 14A Gunter Grove provided Ireland with his London address until he left in 1953. Originally published in 1917 as the third of four Preludes for piano, the piece has been arranged over the years for many different combinations of instruments, and has been published as a four-part Carol of the Nativity with words by Herbert S. Brown, Ireland’s solicitor in Deal, Kent. For this recording Robert Plane has used the version for viola made by Lionel Tertis in 1925 and recently republished by Comus Editions.

Bruce Phillips

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