Friday 23 June 2017

Classical: Archie Potter - a forgotten man of Irish music

St Patrick's Cathedral, where Archie Potter once performed.
St Patrick's Cathedral, where Archie Potter once performed.

George Hamilton

Greystones in County Wicklow may seem an unlikely place to start a musical musing. Its facilities don't stretch to a recital room, never mind a concert hall, but it does boast a thriving orchestra which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. And it has a couple of connections that suggest a seminal influence on music in Ireland.

Hamilton Harty, from Hillsborough in County Down, who directed the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester for thirteen years after making his mark as a composer of lyrical, distinctly Irish music, had a lot to thank Greystones for. His parents met in the church choir there.

Then there's Archie Potter, an Ulsterman like Harty. I'd no idea about the Greystones connection till I heard from Tom Monaghan who lives in the town.

I'd just played Archie's Fantasy for Clarinet and Strings on the radio when Tom sent me a mail. Archie used to live by the harbour in Greystones, he told me, in the house where Nigel Spendlove's ice cream is now the big draw.

Back in the early 60s, Tom wrote, his wife Stella used to hear Archie playing the piano as she passed by, and she and her friends were often invited in to listen. It paints a lovely picture.

Archie Potter's life was the stuff of a screenplay. He came from the Falls Road in Belfast, which was unusual for a Presbyterian. His parents were a mixed marriage. His father - who was blind - was a piano tuner and a well-regarded church organist. His mother had a fondness for the drink.

As a result, Archie was farmed out to a relative - his father's sister - in the south of England and she got him involved in music. He sang in the choir of All Saints Church in the West End of London and went on to the Royal College of Music where Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of his teachers.

He came back to Ireland to study for a doctorate at Trinity. He sang in St Patrick's Cathedral, won prizes for his music, and rose to become Professor of Composition at the Royal Irish Academy in Westland Row.

So little is heard of Archie Potter, it's amazing to think that his compositional range was so vast. Part of that is due to the fact that his material hasn't been much recorded and exists in large part only as handwritten scores. The Dundalk Institute of Technology has been involved in a project to produce a performing edition of Potter's works.

Apart from instrumental music like the Fantasy that sparked this story, there's a huge catalogue of material. There were four ballets, commissioned by a company that was based in Cork, and an opera for television, the brainchild of the first Director General of what would become RTÉ, Edward Roth.

As a singer, Potter had a particular interest in composing for choirs. In a book entitled Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, Nick Strimple - an American musicologist - described that area of Archie Potter's output in glowing terms. His choral work had romantic sweep allied to detail in its development.

"The ability to deliver a considerable emotional impact within the confines of an otherwise conventional style is perhaps the most impressive feature of his music," Strimple wrote. It's an assessment that applies across the board. Archie Potter's music is accessible, easy to appreciate and enjoy. It's a shame the opportunities to do so are so few.

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