About this Recording
8.573014 - IRELAND, J.: Church Music (Lincoln Cathedral Choir, Harrison, Prentice)

The Church Music of John Ireland (1879–1962)


Although not an extensive part of his output, John Ireland’s church music nevertheless represents a significant facet of his creative personality. An Anglo-Catholic by persuasion—he adored ritual, symbol and colour as part of Christian worship—Ireland felt most spiritually at home in the liturgy of ‘High Church’ Anglicanism which, at the turn of the twentieth century, offered ample musical opportunity with its infrastructure of fine cathedral and church choirs. As a first-study organist at the Royal College of Music, where he studied under Walter Parratt, Ireland began to undertake services at London churches for small fees, but his first significant appointment appears to have been in 1895 at St Barnabas, South Lambeth, a large neo-gothic church, where he deputised for six months (its principal organist at this time was Vaughan Williams, a fellow RCM student). In or around 1897 he became deputy organist to Walter Alcock at the church of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, in Chelsea. Ireland once described Holy Trinity as having a ‘reputation of the best musical service in London’; there was a fine four-manual organ built by Walker in 1891, and 40 boys’ voices drawn from the Holy Trinity Church School who lived locally. Daily evensongs, with boys’ voices only, were complemented by a full choir on Sundays. In 1904 Ireland moved to St Luke’s, Sydney Street, Chelsea. Here the liturgical practice could be described as ‘Broad Church’ and as such less congenial to Ireland, but he remained at St Luke’s until 1926, witnessing something of a decline in the social cement of the choir in the years after the First World War. For a further fourteen years Ireland avoided the organ loft, but when his close friend, Kenneth Thompson (the incumbent at St Cuthbert’s, Kensington, another London ‘high church’ where Ireland worshipped), moved to Lancing College, Sussex, Ireland entertained ideas of moving to Chichester (and even a post at the cathedral). In truth, these feelings revealed an inner longing to return to church music. This opportunity came with Ireland’s visits to Guernsey in 1939-40 when he became Director of Music at St Stephen’s Church, St Peter Port, in February 1940. However, being forced to flee the channel island before the German invasion, he was never able to resume his post after the war.

Ireland’s Te Deum in F dates from 1907 and was dedicated to Martin Shaw. Its structure owes much to Stanford’s Te Deum in B flat Op 10, though in detail, Ireland’s is the simpler. Opening with a distinctive, broad melody, the secondary material, in D minor, is characteristically elegiac in character. Other movements were added in 1914 and 1915 including the Benedictus in F and, for the Evening Service, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in F. In accordance with the model of Stanford’s services, Ireland’s intention was to imbue these additional pieces with a pattern of cyclic thematic references in which the doxology (‘Glory be to the Father’), restating the opening material of the Te Deum, functioned as a concluding statement of ‘unity’. Most substantial is the Benedictus where Ireland permits himself to exercise his more symphonic instincts. Here the thematic material is allowed to expand and transform more freely, and the tonal range—which extends as far as B minor—has much more in common with the later, instrumentally-orientated services of Stanford (namely those in G of 1904 and C of 1909).

In 1913, in response to a request from George Martin, the organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, Ireland supplied a Communion Service in C for Novello’s series of new service music. The work was intended to be well ‘within the capabilities of an ordinary choir’ (as was required by the publisher) but Ireland did his best to retain a high standard of invention in spite of this stricture. The organ part is well within the capacity of a reasonably competent player and the choral writing barely strays from its uniformly homophonic and consonant manner. Nevertheless, Ireland maintained a telling sense of thematic unity in the larger movements of the Credo (which exhibits a taut key scheme that fluctuates between C major and A flat) and ternary, Scherzo-like Gloria, while the other movements have a dignified solemnity. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C and the Ninefold Kyrie in C were intended to be a companion to the Communion Service, but were not composed until 1941. Though decades lay between them, however, Ireland was at once able to recapture that once fluent Edwardian style established during his heyday as a church musician.

The one significant anthem Ireland produced while at St Luke’s was written as a commission in 1912 for Charles Macpherson, the sub-organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. Intended as a meditation for Passiontide, Greater love hath no man drew its text from a compilation of scriptural passages from Daily Light on the Daily Path, a series of booklets containing Bible readings which Ireland used to observe on a regular basis. The anthem quickly became popular with cathedral and church choirs, and during the First World War, with the mounting casualties, its message had a particularly affecting resonance at memorial services. In terms of genre, ‘Greater love’, with its sense of continuity and ‘dialogue’ between soloists and chorus, has a scope and narrative that is redolent of a small cantata; indeed, there are moments when the full chorus assumes the role of ‘turba’ in contrast to its more normal role of reflective commentary.

The ravishing Ex ore innocentium for boys’ voices was commissioned by Sir Sydney Nicholson for the Royal School of Church Music’s summer school in Durham in 1944. Ireland chose the poem ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ from Children’s Hymns (1872) by Bishop William Walsham How. Well known as a hymn text, Ireland’s conception of the words, in the form of a through-composed, plangent song, was altogether different. Couched in the rich, post-Romantic language of his secular songs, the anthem is a powerful study in the art of extended melody, of subtly graded climaxes and the masterly handling of fluid tonality. But at its heart is Ireland’s emotional response to the agony and atonement of the Crucifixion, ultimately enshrined in one of his most moving gestures during the reprise—‘O light a flame within my heart’.

Most of Ireland’s organ music was composed during his time at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square and St Luke’s, Chelsea. The Elegiac Romance dates from 1902 and has much in common harmonically with his early songs. The score was revised in 1958. The Capriccio was composed in 1911, and though Ireland was by this time at St Luke’s, the piece (of some technical difficulty) was evidently written to display the more generous registration of Holy Trinity’s Walker organ as well as the technique of its organist and dedicatee, HL Balfour.

Throughout his life, Ireland also produced a steady list of hymns and carols. Of the hymn tunes, only one, Sampford, was not written during his time at St Luke’s. The solemn, chorale-like Eastergate (named after Ireland’s cottage at Eastergate near Chichester where he holidayed after 1905), clearly intended to suggest an ‘old’ style, suited the manner of hymns stipulated by Vaughan Williams for the English Hymnal of 1906 which purged modern hymn books of the (so-called) saccharine sentimentality of Victorian hymnwriters. In June 1915, Ireland composed the anthem An Island Hymn for male chorus. Published by Stainer & Bell, it was included in a collection of twelve short anthems ‘for use in church, on deck, in camp or trench as occasion may require’ and dedicated ‘to all brave Defenders of the Realm of George V, whether on sea, land or in the air, and especially the men’s Choir of HMS Achilles’, somewhere in the North Sea.’ It was later revised as a hymn with the name Island Praise and published in 1956. My song is love unknown to Samuel Crossman’s poem, was written for the Public School Hymn Book of 1920, though it rapidly became popular among many Christian denominations through its publication in Songs of Praise of 1925 (and later in other hymn books). A unison tune more in the style of a song melody (with its two seamless phrases and impassioned climax), it is purported to have been written rapidly on the back of a menu during a lunch with Geoffrey Shaw (one of the editors of the PSHB). The Easter hymn tune Sampford, named after the village of Little Sampford, near Saffron Walden, Essex where Ireland stayed during the Second World War, was commissioned by Nicholson for the revised version of Hymns Ancient & Modern and written as tribute to his friend, Paul Walde, who supplied him with accommodation at Little Sampford rectory while his home at Gunter Grove, Chelsea was under constant threat of enemy bombing.

The first of Ireland’s four carols, the archaic-sounding New Prince, New Pomp, dates from 1927, the year after he retired from St Luke’s. The choral arrangement of his piano prelude The Holy Boy, subtitled ‘A Carol of the Nativity’, was made in 1941 for Trevor Harvey, assistant chorus master at the BBC and the BBC Singers, to words

by Ireland’s friend and solicitor in Deal, Kent, Herbert S. Brown (‘Lowly, laid in a manger, With oxen brooding nigh’). The same performers also sang A New Year Carol, another modal manifestation, for a Home Service broadcast from the BBC’s wartime headquarters at Bedford on 29 December that same year. The anonymous words, had been set by Ireland’s former pupil, Benjamin Britten, in his set of children’s songs Friday Afternoons, Op 7, published in 1936, though whether Ireland was aware of this earlier setting is not known. Adam lay ybounden, which makes passing reference, ruefully perhaps, to The Holy Boy in its second line, was written much later, in 1956, after Ireland had given up all practical links with church music.

© 2012 Jeremy Dibble

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