Tuesday 22 October 2019

Fantastic fantasias: perfect melodies for St Patrick's Day

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Bohemian composer Ignaz Moscheles
Bohemian composer Ignaz Moscheles

George Hamilton

Some years ago, in a letter to the editor of a rival publication, the Trinity College professor George Huxley wrote of the attractiveness of the sea crossing from Britain to Ireland as an alternative to "the humiliations of aeronautics".

It is doubtful if the Bohemian composer Ignaz Moscheles, had he still been around, would have agreed.

Of course, in January 1826, when Moscheles set off for Dublin on the latest leg of a concert tour, the aviation alternative wasn't available to him, but he must surely have wished for something other than the night crossing from Holyhead that he endured.

"The sea was so high," he wrote in his diary, with the boat lurching wildly in the gale, "that we soon betook ourselves to our berths (...) smothered in blankets and clothes", his feet "perished with cold".

Hours passed. "The water came hissing into the cabin. The storm howled fiercely; it was pitch-dark."

They didn't land in Howth until the following afternoon.

Musically, the trip was a great success. At a soirée hosted by the Marchioness of Wellesley, second wife of the Duke of Wellington's brother Richard, where Moscheles played the piano, the audience "were in raptures with my fantasia on Irish melodies".

Moscheles was in the habit of concluding his concerts with a solo performance of variations on selected themes. It wasn't always the same combination, but by the spring, he'd standardised a version which he brought to a wider audience.

The piece is called, in all its glory, "The recollections of Ireland - a grand fantasia, in which are introduced the favourite airs: 'The Groves of Blarney', 'Garry Owen', and 'St Patrick's Day', for the Piano Forte with Orchestral Accompaniments."

This published fantasia - a four-movement mini concerto lasting only around 15 minutes - was first performed in London several months after he his visit to Dublin.

Typically for the time, it opens with a broad orchestral sweep, before the piano makes its entrance. A bit like an operatic overture, there are hints of the tunes that are on their way.

The first of those is the launch pad for the second movement, which sets the framework for the remainder of the piece. The piano delivers the melody, then the variations follow with orchestral accompaniment.

'The Groves of Blarney' - better known as the musical backdrop for the words of Thomas Moore's 'Last Rose of Summer' - is a song with literary connotations as well.

James Joyce used it in both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake.

Movement 3 is based on 'Garry Owen', a popular marching tune of the time. The piano part gives it great vitality, with the added ingredient of orchestral beef.

'Garry Owen' wasn't just an inspiration for Moscheles.

Beethoven, whose arrangements of folk songs remarkably outnumber any other form of composing he did, and who set more traditional Irish tunes than those of any other country, had two versions of 'Garry Owen' to his name.

The reason for featuring Moscheles here is the fourth movement of the fantasia.

It's a reworking of a number that'll be getting many an airing this weekend, one that sits deep in the folk memory, the one best known as 'St Patrick's Day in the Morning'.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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