Entertainment Book Reviews

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Brian Boydell, the composer who wished to be accepted as a true Irishman

Biography Rebellious Ferment: A Dublin Musical Memoir and Diary

Brian Boydell and edited by Barra Boydell

Cork University Press, hardback, 240 pages, €19.95

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Brian Boydell (1917-2000) was one of the most distinguished Irish composers and musicologists of the 20th century. His first string quartet, in 1949, was a key work in the development of music in Ireland and his In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi (1948) awoke his generation to the emergence of modern India as an independent state. As professor of music at TCD between 1962 and 1982 he completely restructured the music syllabus and degree system. As a budding artist associated with the White Stag group during World War II, and as a contributor to Seán Ó Faoláin's periodical The Bell, he developed a critical awareness of the role of art in a rapidly changing society which he later contributed as a member of the Arts Council (1961-83).

This volume of memoirs, edited by his son, Barra, was conceived by Boydell with the title The Roaring Forties, since it deals with that crucial decade in which a small number of musicians, critics and activists sought, through organisations such as the Music Association of Ireland, to give classical music a central place in Irish cultural life. Written in the 1990s, it had a legendary status since it was known by many but seen by very few.

The memoir has two predominant themes: first, the need for independence of spirit and self-criticism; and secondly the sense of being an outsider. Boydell, as an Anglo-Irish Protestant in a predominantly Catholic country, and also as someone who refused to conform to his own family's traditions and mores, never found a "home" in the new Ireland other than within his own conscience.

Boydell himself referred to his "great difficulty, owing to my accent, manners and religion, in attempts to be accepted as a true Irishman". He admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, to a vestige of "patronising British superiority" and "a certain arrogance". Despite his best intentions, he could never rid himself of a tendency to decry aspects of Irish nationalism and especially the emphasis on folk music.

In a Radio Éireann talk in 1959, he said: "I have never managed to work up any real enthusiasm about folksong. I'm afraid I positively dislike jigs and reels. Nevertheless, my music does, I hope, reflect in a less obvious way the profound effect which a country is bound to have on the character of an individual who is aware of his surroundings." If you were to hear him speaking those words in his plummy, "Anglo" voice, it would be difficult not to regard his attitude as condescending. Yet that was, in fact, Boydell's agony: his need to belong and yet his determination to follow only his own voice.

There are splendid vignettes of the pianist Charles Lynch, the early-music specialist John Beckett, the painter, writer and serial adulterer Ralph Cusack and the Czech couple Květa and Jaroslav Vaněček who introduced a new timbre of string playing to Ireland. Boydell quotes the Vaněčeks' view of the Irish "narrowness of outlook": "The Catholics not only can't think for themselves, but they are incapable of real work."

That view would be successfully challenged in later decades by massive figures such as TK Whitaker, Thomas Kinsella and Denis Donoghue, but at that time was a legitimate view from post-war central Europe.

There are scathing references to music critic Fanny Feehan ("unpleasantly pleased with herself"), and composers Gerard Victory ("his technique is very deficient") and James Wilson ("the music lacks any personality, rather like Wilson himself"). He refers with some fondness to his singing pupil Denis Donoghue - today, one of the world's greatest literary critics - and one would give much to hear Donoghue singing his party piece, 'Down by the Salley Gardens'.

The 1940s saw Ireland's neutrality leading to the first testing of the 1937 constitution and the wide debate about what it meant to be Irish and independent in the mid-century. Classical music had to make its own case in a potentially hostile cultural environment and Boydell was a persuasive, if forbidding, presence within that debate.

The final impression is of a first-class mind reluctantly celebrating the uneasy co-existence of the cosmopolitan with the provincial. The memoir, even published so long after its composition, is a valuable insight into the tensions between conservative and liberal, isolationist and international, in the emergent Irish state.

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