John Ireland

1879 1962

John Ireland

Composer

Biography

John Ireland was a 20th century English composer. His most notable contributions are his chamber music works, influenced more by the French and Russian models than the English folk song style employed by his contemporaries Vaughan Williams and Holst. Ireland never wrote a symphony or an opera, though he did compose one cantata. He much preferred the smaller intimate forms, such as those made famous byFauré.

Ireland was born in Bowden, England in 1879 to literary parents who were connected to well-established writers such as Emerson. Ireland entered the new Royal College of Music in 1893, at the age of 14. Soon after, both of his parents died, leaving him to fend for himself while he studied piano, organ and composition. He began with piano, under Frederic Cliffe, but became increasingly interested in composition and entered the class of Charles Villiers Stanford in 1897. Though Stanford was harsh and sometimes cruel, Ireland later spoke gratefully of his teacher.

Ireland produced many student works, but due to his own insecurity he destroyed all but one of the works, the Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet, which he only allowed to be published at the end of his life.

After graduating from the Royal College of Music, Ireland earned his living as organist and choirmaster at St Luke’s in Chelsea from 1904 to 1926. He also established himself as a top English composer at this time. From 1920 to 1939 Ireland taught composition at his alma mater. His students includedBenjamin Britten (who didn’t appreciate the lessons) and E.J. Moeran.

Ireland’s works were greatly influenced by his interest in English poetry and he created settings of A.E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, John Masefield and Rupert Brooke. Among his other inspirations were the Channel Islands and Sussex. HisChelsea Reach (1917-20) depicts the Thames river flowing through the Embankment near the Houses of Parliament. In the Channel Islands he also found evidence of pagan rituals, to which he was introduced to by Arthur Machen, a Welsh author. His interest in Paganism is reflected in works such at the orchestral poemThe Forgotten Rite (1913) and Legend (1933) for piano and orchestra.

Apparent in Ireland’s works is the teaching of Stanford, who insisted on solid workmanship. His youth was influenced by the German tradition with composers such asBeethoven and Brahms, which is evident in his Sextet (1898). Later, composers such asDebussy, Ravel and Stravinsky affected him more. The combination of these influences results in a unique sound world. His latest works also show a sense of the English lyricism ofElgar.

Ireland’s solo piano works are very romantic in nature. In particular, his Piano Sonata (1918-20) has been considered ‘one of the finest and most important sinceLiszt’s’. His later Sonatina (1926-7) is much thinner in texture and much more experimental. His short works for piano are perhaps his most interesting addition to his output. They consist of contemplative, Impressionistic and cheerful works. The contemplative works are very sentimental and includeFor Remembrance (1918) and Soliloquy (1922) while the Impressionistic works includeAmberley Wild Brooks (1921) and Le Catioroc (from Sarnia) (1940-1). The cheerful works are very upbeat with lively, yet simple rhythms. This category includesMerry Andrew (1919) and Ragamuffin (from London Pieces) (1917-20). Some of his short piano works also stand-alone in style, such asApril (1929).

Though Ireland was a gifted song composer, his output of songs differs greatly in quality. If he was inspired by a text, the work featured not only a brilliant vocal line, but a worthy piano accompaniment. Some of his songs which were quite popular in their time includeSpring Sorrow and The Bells of San Marie , though these are largely overlooked today.Five Poems by Thomas Hardy (1926) and theSongs Sacred and Profane (1929-31) are much more timeless.

Ireland’s earliest works which were widely acknowledged were the songs and piano pieces, though his chamber works, especially his Violin Sonata No. 1 (1908-9) and even more so his Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor (1915-7), Ireland rose quickly to fame and continued to compose many successful works including the Piano Concerto (1930), inspired by his friendship with student Helen Perkin. The Violin Sonata No. 1 won the Cobbett Prize while the Piano Concerto is often considered a landmark in English music, though it is not well-known today. The Cello Sonata (1923) and the Fantasy-Sonata for clarinet and piano (1943) are also excellent works. Of his chamber works for piano his second of three piano trios, composed in 1917, is the most fascinating.

Besides the Piano Concerto, Ireland’s other orchestral works worthy of performance include theConcertino Pastorale for strings (1939) and A London Overture (1936). He also wrote two orchestral poems, the pagan influenced Forgotten Riteand Mai-Dun (1921), which was not very successful.

Ireland retired to Guernsey, a place he found particularly inspiring, but this was cut short by the German invasion in 1940, and he returned to England, settling in West Sussex. His love of the islands, located between France and England is quite interesting, as his music also tends to bridge the styles of these two countries.

In response to a commission from the BBC, Ireland composed the choral work These Things Shall Be(1936-7), for the coronation of George VI. This work is his only cantata and suggests influences by both Parry andWalton. Though the work was immediately and widely admired, he found it challenging to compose as it should also be humanist and socialist. The work expressed Ireland’s greatest hopes for mankind and despite its great popularity, he grew to dislike the piece after the war. Ireland’s final score was the film scoreThe Overlanders, which show his great capabilities scoring for orchestra.

Currently, Ireland’s most popular works include his orchestral works, A Downland Suite(1932) for brass band, his sonatas for both cello (1923) and violin (1908-9 and 1915-7) and his motetGreater Love hath no man (1912). Ireland also composed many hymns for the church, the most popular of which isMy Song is Love Unknown(1919), which is frequently sung in English speaking churches worldwide.

Images courtesy of Hoerner Blog and public domain

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