Friday, 29 July 2011

John Ireland’s Companion

2012 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of John Ireland. His reputation lies somewhat in the shadow of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and others, and his music, with its European influences, sits uneasily in the pastoral tradition of twentieth century British music. The anniversary year will see a welcome rush of new and reissued recordings of his endlessly fascinating and attractive work. To open proceedings, the Boydell Press is pleased to publish, later this year, the John Ireland Companion edited by that great champion of British music, Lewis Foreman.

We open a short series of extracts from the book with something rather special. Here Bruce Phillips, Boydell’s music editor-at-large and director of the Ireland Trust, remembers his introduction to the music and to Norah Kirby:

I first became aware of John Ireland’s music in 1961, when I was 16. My piano teacher at school, John Alston, placed in front of me a piano piece called Month’s Mind and said that if I learned to play the piece properly he would take me to meet the composer, then living not far from the school in a converted windmill just outside the village of Washington in West Sussex. I struggled with the piece but became completely captivated by its atmosphere of nostalgic yearning conveyed through harmonies that reminded me of Ravel’s Sonatine, a piece I had attempted to add to my rather restricted repertoire. Here though was music that seemed as quintessentially English as Ravel’s was French, and moreover evoking a rather different Englishness from that of my then musical god, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In June 1962 I read the obituaries of John Ireland, who had died at the age of 82. Much mention was made of the Sussex windmill in which he had passed the last nine years of his life. My relief at not being compelled to visit him and perform his piece to him in person — he would by that time have been unable to see me — was mixed with intense sadness at the news of his death and curiosity to know more about him. Acting on impulse a few days later I went to the one phone booth in the school and looked him up in the local directory. There he was: Ireland, Dr John, Rock Mill, Washington. I rang the number without of course knowing whether anyone would answer or what I would say if anyone did. I heard a woman’s voice at the other end, pressed Button A, and found myself speaking to a lady who introduced herself as Mrs Norah Kirby. I introduced myself as a schoolboy speaking from nearby Lancing College and said that I had been greatly moved and saddened by the news of John Ireland’s passing and that I had come to love his piece Month’s Mind above all other music that I knew.

I discovered in the course of our conversation that Norah Kirby had been John Ireland’s (or as she always referred to him, Dr. Ireland’s) companion, secretary and housekeeper for more or less twenty years. I learned later that she divided the world into those who loved his music and those who did not. By revealing that I had fallen completely in love with Month’s Mind I had fortunately placed myself in the former category. On hearing that I had not heard anything else he had written and that I knew no more about him than had been included in the obituaries, she invited me to lunch, promising to drive me to the beautiful converted windmill in which he had spent nearly the last decade of his life.

I obtained leave from my housemaster and met Norah in Steyning High Street. She was driving Ireland’s last car, a green Ford Popular which she later told me he had bought in the 1950s through contacts in Guernsey, which was then an export market for cars. We drove past Chanctonbury and turned right along a small slip road that led to a drive flanked by pine trees. There at the end of the drive was the windmill, minus its sails but with an adjoining two-storey building erected when it had been converted from a working mill into a residential house.

At that first meeting Norah was in good health. She told me about Ireland’s funeral that had taken place at Shipley, a village between Washington and Horsham. She showed me round the main part of the Mill, especially the octagonal room at the base of the tower, and we walked out of one of the doors into a beautiful garden from which one could see straight up towards Chanctonbury Ring, a large circle of pine trees cresting a promontory jutting out from the line of the South Downs. I was shown Ireland’s study and bedroom and then taken up to the very top of the Mill, from which one could see the results of the extensive sand and gravel extraction that had caused Ireland and Norah so much annoyance almost from the moment they had moved in. I also made the acquaintance of Smokey and Laddin, two Siamese cats that had played an important part in Ireland’s last years and remained for Norah a living link with him.

Over lunch she asked me what pieces of Ireland’s music I knew (at that time only Month’s Mind and ‘Ragamuffin’, the music of which I had found I had at home). She played me the 10-inch LP of Boyd Neel’s recording of the Minuet from A Downland Suite, and presented me with a copy. She showed me the leather-bound autograph book presented to Ireland on his 75th birthday in which a wide range of musicians and other friends and admirers had written messages of congratulations and memories. Prominent among these was one from Ralph Vaughan Williams. This book is now in the British Library along with the majority of Ireland’s autograph manuscripts and correspondence.

Later that summer Norah suffered a series of strokes, doubtless brought on by the stress of Ireland’s death. She made a pretty good recovery except for her left arm, which was paralysed in such a way that it was very difficult for her to use her left hand despite constant physiotherapy. I for my part had left school at the end of December, leaving myself about ten months ‘gap year’ (as it was not then called) until I went up to Christ Church, Oxford. I had no plans for how to spend this time until I received an invitation from Norah to go and stay at the Mill and assist her in matters such as general domestic duties, as well as to provide a sympathetic companion and fellow listener to the many private recordings which had been made of performances and broadcasts of Ireland’s music. I would also be able to meet many of the musicians and friends who regularly visited the Mill. I accepted without hesitation, and was driven down to Sussex through the snow and ice of that legendary winter of 1962-3.

For the next three months, under Norah’s supervision, I acquired rudimentary skills in cooking and cleaning, and learned to drive well enough to accompany her to the places she associated with Ireland: Shipley churchyard, Storrington (where Ireland had been wont in earlier times to meet Arnold Bax in the bar of the Black Horse), Steyning and Pulborough (where lived Mary and Percy Turnbull, the third composer besides Ireland and John Longmire to be on board the SS Antwerp when it left Guernsey for Weymouth a few days before Germany invaded in 1940). I also met the pianists Eric Parkin and Alan Rowlands, the critic Scott Goddard, the broadcaster Alec Robertson, the writer Jocelyn Brooke, the artist Juliet Pannett, and Charlie Markes, whose friendship with Ireland had begun when they were choirboys at St Luke’s before the first world war and had survived a long interruption based on a misunderstanding between them. Another frequent visitor was Laurence Norcross, who in 1959 with John Steele had formed the John Ireland Society that had done so much to rescue Ireland’s music from a period of neglect in the 1950s. Other visitors included Peter and Margaret Taylor, friends of Norah’s from the days even before she had met Ireland and later the principal members of the Trust which she set up in the 1970s.

From this period dates my admiration for John Ireland the composer and interest in John Ireland the man. The picture I gained of him at that time was inevitably influenced by Norah Kirby, whose regard for him bordered on idolatry. There were times when, even then, I realised that he could not have been quite the perfect human being portrayed by Norah. A forceful and articulate person herself, she brooked not a single word of criticism or questioning of any aspect of his life or music, and viewed any failure to further his cause as evidence of malicious conspiracy, as for example his exclusion from the Proms after the BBC music department was taken over by William Glock and Hans Keller (though she much appreciated the hoax perpetrated by Keller and Susan Bradshaw when they recorded and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme music alleged to have been by the Polish composer Piotr Zac). She could take against perfectly good performances or recordings if she thought Ireland would not have approved of them, as for example the singer John Shirley-Quirk, whose Saga LP of songs elicited her constant disparagement. Yet it was Norah who from the mid 1940s, when Ireland had returned to London after the war, had brought order and comfort into the last two decades of his life.

In the month after I left the Mill I was a Hesse student at the 1963 Aldeburgh Festival, one of a group of young people who helped with things like ferrying musicians to rehearsals and concerts, setting out chairs, and the like. A high point while I was there was a party for all the Hesse students given by Imogen Holst at her house. Britten and Pears both came. Bursting with adolescent pride and curiosity I told Britten what I had been doing at Rock Mill, then knowing only that he had studied composition with Ireland and not knowing of the difficult relationship that seems to have existed between them. I asked Britten for his opinion on Ireland’s music. All I can remember of what he said was, first that Ireland’s piano music was difficult to play because it had fistfuls of notes, and that in his answer to my question as to what Ireland was like to meet, Britten replied that he had a strong personality but a weak character.

Ireland was once asked, so the story goes, whether he thought he was a great composer. He is said to have replied after some thought: ‘No, but I think I’m a significant one’. This perhaps tells us something about Ireland’s character. Born the fifth and by some years the last child of Victorian parents—his father was 70 when he was born—his childhood seems not to have been happy. Details of his early schooling are sparse but what is clear is that somehow at the age of 13 Ireland was sufficiently certain of his interest and ability in music to take himself unaided to the Royal College of Music, sit whatever entrance examination or audition was required, and return to Manchester to tell his mother what he had done.

Ireland was never exactly prolific. He once described himself as ‘England’s most laborious composer’. His peak years were between 1910 and 1930, with the apex coming in 1913-23, the years in which The Forgotten Rite, the second piano trio and second violin sonata, the piano sonata, the cello sonata, the Housman cycle The Land of Lost Content and Mai-Dun were written. The 1930s saw the production of Ireland’s two great works for piano and orchestra, the Piano Concerto and Legend, plus A Downland Suite, A London Overture, the Concertino Pastorale for strings, and his one extended work for chorus and orchestra, his setting of John Addington Symonds’s poem ‘A Vista’ entitled These Things Shall Be, in which Ireland, with more than a little help from his friend and pupil Alan Bush, expressed an optimistic hope for an Utopian future seemingly at odds with his innately pessimistic outlook. During the Second World War came two masterpieces, Sarnia, begun in his beloved Guernsey, and the Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano. His Epic March was written in response to a BBC commission for a patriotic march. After the war came the overture Satyricon, a piece that deserves to be played more often if for nothing else for its glorious clarinet tune in the middle section. The immediate postwar period also brought Ireland’s only film score, The Overlanders.

In England we tend not to celebrate our native composers enough unless they have produced a string of symphonies, concertos, large scale choral works and operas— and perhaps not even then. Ireland’s music is never going to achieve the same degree of popularity, admiration and wide exposure as, say, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, or Walton. He is often described as a miniaturist, sometimes in rather patronising terms. We can regret that he did not write more orchestral music given his mastery of orchestral colouring. His legacy is that of an intensely self-critical perfectionist who has given us some exquisite pieces for piano, many beautiful and deeply moving songs, some splendid sonatas and piano trios, and a handful of arguably great pieces for orchestra. It is to be hoped that the John Ireland Companion will contribute towards explaining some of the background to the life and music of this very significant composer.

The John Ireland Companion, edited by Lewis Foreman (whose classic biography of Bax is also available from the Boydell Press), will be published in October. A further extract will follow shortly.


Thomas@Audio Hire,London said...

Very nice write up. Now, I have things on my mind cleared like crystal. Thanks for writing this up.

Anonymous said...

As a singing student at the Royal College of Music in the late 1970s, Alan Rowlands was my piano teacher. One day I arrived for my lesson to find him playing a most beautiful and haunting piece of music, Month's Mind. I expressed a desire to learn it, which amused Alan for it was way beyond my capabilities. We persevered though, and he also introduced me to the songs of John Ireland. One of these, The Trellis, is in my view one of the best songs written in the twentieth century. Alan asked me to turn pages for his recordings of the John Ireland songs made with Alfreda Hodgson and John Tomlinson. Then many years later, when I was living at Monk's House, the former home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Alan came to lunch with a friend. He bought champagne. We ate lunch in Virginia's sitting room and later in the afternoon we went out to the summer rooms where our grand piano was housed. The windows were open and it was a soft, balmy summer's afternoon. Alan played Month's Mind...I shall never forget it.