About this Recording
8.572497 - IRELAND, J.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Cello Sonata (Gould, Neary, Frith)

John Ireland (1879–1962)
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 • Cello Sonata


The name of Walter Willson Cobbett (1847–1937) resounds through the annals of chamber music in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century. He was born in Blackheath, London, the son of a businessman with literary and musical interests. After private tuition in England, France and Germany he started work as an underwriter at Lloyds, then became, in his own words, ‘an exploiter of certain patents, one of which turned up trumps’. He co-founded the firm of Scandinavian Belting Ltd, a very successful and profitable company manufacturing a new type of woven belting that has now become part of the large aviation company BBA Aviation Ltd. This enabled him to retire at the age of sixty and devote himself to what he considered to be his life’s work, the development and promotion of the art of chamber music. Himself an amateur violinist and an enthusiastic string quartet player, he inaugurated in 1905 a series of Cobbett chamber music competitions which were of great significance in the careers of many British composers of that era. He also endowed the Cobbett Medal in 1924, awarded annually by the Worshipful Company of Musicians for services to chamber music, and a series of Cobbett Prizes at the Royal College of Music.

One of Cobbett’s aims was to revive the art of the phantasy or Old English Fancie, a piece of short duration and performed without a break but, if the composer desired, to consist of different sections varying in tempo and metre. The first competition was for a string quartet in this form, won by William Hurlstone. The second was for piano trios, won by Frank Bridge with John Ireland’s Phantasy in A minor placed equal second with James Friskin’s in E minor. The third, and this time international, competition was for a sonata for violin and piano. It attracted 134 submissions, the initial screening of which took, in Cobbett’s words, ‘heavy toll of my leisure hours’. The jury pronounced John Ireland’s Sonata in D minor the winner, the sonata was published by Goodwin and Tabb in 1911, dedicated to Cobbett, and the first performance was given on 7 March 1913 at a Thomas Dunhill Chamber Concert at Steinway Hall by Marjorie Hayward, violin (the dedicatee of Ireland’s short 1911 piece for violin and piano Bagatelle) with the composer at the piano. Augener published a revised edition in 1917 in the wake of the success of Ireland’s Second Violin Sonata, and then a further revision in 1944. The sonata is now published by Stainer & Bell.

In his remarkable blog on English music (http://landofllostcontent.blogspot.com) John France quotes from a review of July 1915 in the Monthly Musical Record. After a list of works contributed by Ireland himself (of interest in itself since it lists several works of his student period most of which he withdrew) the article quotes from press reviews of some of Ireland’s works including the First Violin Sonata. The critic of the Star writes:

‘Delicacy, lucidity, and tonal charm are qualities inherent in the music. Coherence of ideas is apparent in the three movements, which are cleverly and definitely contrasted in mood. There is a strong vein of temperament in every one.’

This pinpoints the essential features of this most genial and optimistic of the three sonatas recorded here. Though not a single movement phantasy, there are plenty of motivic interconnections between the movements, not the least of which is the murmuring piano figure in the opening movement which occurs in modified form in the other two movements and acts as a unifying link.

One of Ireland’s most striking inventions occurs in the middle movement. The tempo slows to lento and the key changes from B major to E flat minor. The pianist plays pianissimo a phrase consisting of triads in modal harmony strikingly similar to the opening phrase of the third song of Vaughan Williams’s Housman song-cyle On Wenlock Edge, ‘Is my team ploughing?’. In an article in The Musical Times, October 1958, published shortly after the death of Vaughan Williams, Ireland recalls the moment when he played this movement to RVW in 1908:

‘When we reached the central theme in E flat minor (in Dorian mode dress) he stopped me and was silent for a minute or two. Then he said,“Play that theme again”. After another pause he said, “Well, that’s odd. I have used practically the same theme in a song.” I was rather taken aback and asked him what we should do about this curious coincidence of a musical idea. After a moment’s thought VW said,” Well, we must both have cribbed it from something else, so we had better leave it as it is—nobody will notice it.” And so far as I know, nobody ever has!’

Ireland started work on his Second Violin Sonata in 1915 and completed it in January 1917. He submitted it for a competition organized by a fund for assisting musicians in wartime (not a Cobbett competition). The jury was made up of the violinist Albert Sammons, the Australian-born pianist William Murdoch and the organist and conductor Percy Pitt. Ireland was awarded the prize of forty guineas and the first performance was given by Sammons and Murdoch, both privates in the Grenadier Guards and wearing their khaki uniforms, at Aeolian Hall, New Bond Street on 6 March 1917. Many leading musicians were present. Ireland wrote of it: ‘For me it was an electrifying occasion. Little of my music had been publicly heard, and I felt that my fate as a composer was to be decided at that particular moment in time, as proved to be the case…It was probably the first and only occasion when a British composer was lifted from relative obscurity in a single night by a work cast in a chamber-music medium’.

The work caused something of a sensation. Reviews were wildly enthusiastic (‘a brilliant specimen of his powers’, The Musical Times) and the music publisher Winthrop Rogers undertook immediate publication, selling out the first printing before publication. Ireland ‘woke up to find himself famous’, and there were many calls for more performances, including one given by Ireland and the violinist M Defauw at an Anglo-French Concert at the newly reopened and renamed Wigmore Hall (formerly Bechstein Hall). Ireland and Sammons recorded the work on 78s in 1930 though the recording was not issued until Dutton Epoch remastered it and issued it in 1999 on a CD which also includes the 1945 Decca recording of the First Violin Sonata played by Ireland and the violinist Frederick Grinke.

As might be expected, the sonata bears witness to an increasing mastery of structure, and may be said to reflect the impact of war. Ireland was rejected for military service but along with the whole of sensitive humanity was deeply affected by the slaughter in the trenches. As the choirmaster of St Luke’s Church, Chelsea (not far from his home in Gunter Grove, Chelsea) he was acutely aware of the loss of life of young men, and in this sonata he seems to have captured both the anguish and the pity of war (as the poet Wilfred Owen put it) in a way that evoked very strong feelings in those who heard it.

Ireland’s Cello Sonata was written in 1923. It may have been written with the cellist Beatrice Harrison in mind and was first performed by her at Aeolian Hall on 4 April 1924 with Ireland’s RCM friend Evlyn Howard-Jones as pianist. Other works closely connected with her were Delius’s Cello Sonata and his Cello Concerto and Double Concerto, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto of which she made a famous recording conducted by Elgar. Later in the 1920s Ireland’s sonata was discovered by the Spanish cellist Antoni Sala, who gave many performances with the composer and recorded it with him.

It is music of deep emotion, passion and intensity, among Ireland’s most profoundly expressive utterances. A clue to its private significance can be found in the first movement, in the short section marked tranquillo and secreto. Here Ireland quotes the music from two lines of his 1918 setting of Aldous Huxley’s poem The Trellis:

“None but the flowers have seen
Our white caresses”

This almost certainly alludes to his deep affection for Arthur Miller, the son of a Chelsea antiques dealer, and the individual behind the initials AGM which are found on several of Ireland’s pieces. Miller had been a member of Ireland’s choir at St Luke’s, Chelsea, and in 1923 they took a motoring holiday together in Dorset visiting many of the megalithic remains which so deeply stirred Ireland’s imagination in such works as Mai-Dun, his orchestral evocation of Maiden Castle near Dorchester.

The slow movement consists of a song-like melody similar in its passionate lyricism to the slow movement of the Piano Concerto (1930) and the middle piece, In a May Morning, of Ireland’s Sarnia (1940–41), his powerful evocation for piano of his beloved Guernsey.

According to Ireland’s friend John Longmire, another inspiration behind the Cello Sonata, in particular the third movement with its upward leaps on the cello and the skipping-like piano accompaniment, was another favourite landscape with strong pagan and pre-Christian associations, the South Downs in West Sussex. The Devil’s Jumps, a set of Bronze Age round barrows on Treyford Hill near Uppark, are thought to have been in Ireland’s mind. The writer Jocelyn Brooke (1908–66), an enthusiast for Ireland’s music and in later life a friend, was strongly attracted to the Cello Sonata and writes imaginatively about it in his semi-autobiographical books A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral, two of the three volumes that make up his Orchid Trilogy.

Bruce Phillips
John Ireland Trust

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