Frederick May writes in 1947 about some of the issues which faced composers in Ireland in the post-war period. The article was originally published in the Bell Magazine.
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We have been governing ourselves for the past twenty-five years and this period is surely sufficiently long to have enabled us to hammer out certain minimum principles of musical policy which, once agreed upon, should infuse us with sufficient determination and energy to carry them to a successful conclusion. Up to the present, however, there has been no cohesive policy or platform of ideas which would encourage Irish musicians as such to develop their latent talent. There is not even the machinery for development. For our dramatists the Abbey Theatre provided the machinery and that is a principal reason why our level of dramatic creation is so much higher than our musical creation.
Now, it is broadly true that a composer can only come from a musical environment. The composer's craft is so complex that he must constantly test his own growing powers against the great masterpieces of the past and present ; also, he should play one or more instruments and sing in a choir if possible, thus enabling him to come into first-hand contact with a wide variety of great music. But, most important of all, it is a primary necessity that he should, in the early stages especially, be in the hands of a teacher who will not only give him a thorough theoretical grounding in the basic principles of the art, but who will kindle, instead of smothering, his own creative gifts, and encourage him to discriminate without, being captious, and to enjoy as much as possible by as many people as possible without falling into the opposite pitfall of an easy-going, uncritical tolerance.
It is pleasant to be able to record that the Government have been showing themselves increasingly alive to the necessity of vitalizing the educational aspect of music. Students of composition from all over the country were given the chance this Summer of bringing their manuscripts to one of the greatest of contemporary composers, Sir Arnold Bax, for discussion and advice. In addition, they were able to listen to, and, in some cases, take part in a wide variety of Chamber Music under the direction of Mr. Henry Holst. There were various other activities in connection with the course, but the most important, next to Sir Arnold Bax's composition classes, was the course in conducting held under the inspiring leadership of the famous French conductor, M. Jean Martinon. Everything this man touched blazed into an incandescent flame of beauty, and without doubt he has left an indelible impression on the minds of his students. These courses were all free, so that the poorer students were not deprived of entry : it is much to be hoped that these annual schools have come to stay, and that they will take their place henceforward as a feature of the musical life of Ireland.
Then, too, on the credit side, it is fair to mention the vast improvement which has taken place in recent years both in the Radio Eireann Orchestra and in the general quality of the broadcasts transmitted by the station. This has in its turn built up a wider general public for music, and the series of symphony concerts given every season in the Capitol Theatre is something that would have been undreamt of not so very long ago.
This gradually increasing activity where music is concerned, and heightening of interest on the part of the public, only serves to focus attention more sharply than ever before upon the one great lack which bids fair to destroy the very basis and fabric of music in Ireland : I mean, of course, the absence of a concert hall for Dublin or, more accurately, a concert hall for the nation, for this is such a small country that a concert hall in Dublin would be of national service. Each professional musician and music-lover in Ireland suffers grievously from the lack of a concert hall, but the worst damage of all is done to the composer, No survey of a composer's position in Ireland could afford to pass over this need in silence ; on the contrary it is the responsibility of anyone attempting such a survey to present the demand for a hall with force.
Any activity upon which the community sets store is pursued in surroundings appropriate to its dignity. Some of the greatest architectural glories of the ancient and modern world are associated with religion ; and the law is held in such high esteem that we demand for its administration a setting of befitting solemnity.
A great University, such as Oxford, is a living witness to the love and devotion which builders of genius throughout the centuries have laid at the feet of the goddess of learning. And those nations which have accorded to music her rightful place in their hearts have always erected in her honour temples worthy of her. I remember how deeply I was impressed some years ago, when studying music in Vienna, at the contemplation of the great concert hall near the centre of the city, known as the Musikvereinsaal. This magnificent building contains not only a spacious hall for big symphony concerts, but also a medium-sized one for Chamber Music, and one still smaller for recitals ; in addition, the same massive edifice houses the firm of Universal, the music publishers, and the Vienna Hochschule fur Musik.
It is indeed irrational for a nation to protest its love for music, and then oblige its musicians to peddle their wares in cinema houses and theatres.
Two recent instances of the dire straits to which we are reduced by such a situation may be given. Firstly, it was found necessary, owing to a difference of opinion between the Committee of the Feis Ceoil and the lessees of the Metropolitan Hall and adjacent buildings, to transfer the Feis to a different and less suitable venue, thus injuring it to some considerable extent. Secondly, it was felt by many people that when M. Jean Martinon paid us his extended visit to direct the course in conducting at the Summer School of Music, he should have been asked to appear in public on one or more occasions with the Radio Eireann Orchestra ; but as no suitable accommodation was available, he had perforce to conduct a series of studio concerts instead.
From this it follows that music-making in Ireland enjoys no proper dignity or self-respect, but is dependent solely upon the goodwill of others whose interests inevitably lie elsewhere. Is it necessary to emphasise the deadening effect which such a state of affairs must exert upon the composition of music in Ireland? If musicians had a hall which they knew was their own and which, in its architecture and acoustics, was designed expressly for the performance of music, composers, performers and public alike would be infused with a new purpose through being provided with a common forum. New chamber music groups, choirs and orchestras would spring into being, and those already existing would be spurred on to more intense activity. It would also be possible to remedy another serious shortcoming, namely, the thinness of music-publishing in Ireland. In the nature of things, a music publisher, in contrast with a publisher of book, caters only for a strictly limited market, and consequently an Irish composer, trying to force his music on the attention of an English firm, is labouring under an almost impossible disadvantage. What is required is a first-class publishing firm in Dublin with an intelligent and imaginative board of directors, which would extend a ready welcome to all work of proved merit, irrespective of popular appeal.
Altogether, there would be a great musical revival in Ireland, comparable to the dramatic revival which began many years ago and is still continuing. In this way, too, we could halt the migration of some of our best musicians from Ireland to England, and even hold out a practical inducement to many of them to return home. The threefold aim of musical education should be to produce composers, to produce performers, and lastly, to produce a receptive and constantly expanding public. Any system which stimulates the first and second of these, while denying to all three the opportunity of meeting together is a contradiction in terms.
After all, music is designed for an audience and a composer writes to be heard. Any educated musician can read a score sitting in his arm-chair by the fireside, but this is not the same thing as hearing it performed in public, for, if it were, he would keep away from concerts. Vaughan Williams once made the illuminating remark that whereas a composer starts off with a vision and ends up with a series of dots written down upon music paper, the interpreter pursues precisely the opposite path. It is his job to recreate the vision which originally inspired the composer, and to bear it across to the public. Without a good conductor, singer, string quartet or whatever it may be, the composer is utterly helpless. If he cannot get encouragement and stimulation from his own people in his own day, his inspiration will tend to dry up at its source. It is a mistake to suppose that he fills pages and pages of music paper in order that he may receive a problematical recognition on some undetermined date in the far distant future.
I have lately been permitted to examine a brochure issued by the Liverpool Philharmonic Society to mark the occasion of the opening of their new concert hall on 19th June, 1939. By a stroke of incredible good fortune this wonderful building, one of the civic glories of Liverpool, escaped not only destruction, but even damage, during the heavy bombing of the city. The Liverpool Philharmonic Society was founded about a century ago by a group of public-spirited citizens, who set before themselves the aim of providing the city with an orchestra and a concert hall which should house music not only during their own lifetime, but right into the foreseeable future. They bound themselves to a constitution which, by its terms, obliged them to become 'both the proprietors of the hall in individual holdings, and at the same time the obligatory subscribers to a series of concerts which have endured, almost uninterruptedly, from that day to this.' Of course, the new hall, built so lately, is a vast improvement, both architecturally and acoustically, upon the old one. An immensity of trouble was expended on its construction for—to quote the words of one of the contributors to the brochure—'a shape and form must be created that will typify or crystallize the purpose and significance of the building. Internally, by its planning and decoration, externally by its design and mass, even a stranger should be made aware that this is the home of music. . . . Everything else is subsidiary to this main effect, and in consequence the great auditorium gives that precious but indefinable quality, a sense of scale.' The completed building is an abiding testimony not only to the genius of the architect directly responsible, Mr. Herbert Rowse, but also to the practical idealism of past and present generations of Liverpool citizens which made its construction possible. In Malmo, also a provincial city, the citizens have, by public subscription, financed the construction of an entertainment centre which combines the functions of theatre, opera house and concert hall all in one. A full description of this theatre, which is the biggest in Scandinavia, may be found in the American journal, The Architectural Forum, for February, 1945.
We must, however, face up to the fact that the exceptionally favourable conditions which have enabled both Liverpool and Malmo to build so nobly are never likely to exist here. Therefore, it is obvious that, conditions being as they are, the main burden of costs would have to be shouldered neither by the ordinary citizen nor by the municipality, but by the State. Of course, all of us should be encouraged to subscribe according to our means, and a special effort should be made to enlist the support of the wealthier classes. The enthusiasm of the people should be fired by the idea that they were helping in a great national project and that the completed hall would be considered as a powerful national asset. As composers of sufficient merit arose their works would weave themselves into the traditions of the hall where they first were heard, just as the plays of Yeats, Synge and O'Casey have become a part of the tradition of the Abbey Theatre.
It is doubtful if any nation with such a wonderful storehouse of traditional music has made such a negligible contribution to art-music as we have, and it is high time we set about redressing the balance. Soft sentiment and barren theorising are vices which we must eschew; musical criticism must be creative, and not destructive, and one of the most destructive and useless types of criticism is that which starts out from an unwarrantable premise, such as that all good music must be demonstrably national in feeling, and then proceeds to chain down the unfortunate composer on this ready-made bed of Procrustes. On the contrary, we must receive all comers in a spirit of receptive inquiry, and only examine their credentials to the extent of asking if they have acquired the requisite technique to do the job they have contracted to do, that is, compose music.
But once we have this much-to-be-desired concert hall, with a publishing firm close at hand, our various problems will be in a fair way towards being resolved. And if we musicians can once create the conditions in which more and more music, both old and new, may be heard, discussed and heard again, in which orchestras, chamber music groups and choirs are encouraged and stimulated by public demand, then no criticism, however narrow, and no theories, however limited, will be able to stop the progress of creative music in Ireland.