Monday 17 June 2019

Ireland's classical links - from Handel to Bax

Arnold Bax
Arnold Bax

George Hamilton

Classical music's connections with Ireland run deep. There is a distinctive green thread that can be traced across the centuries. Dublin was very much on the map when the form was flourishing.

It was in our capital city that Handel first staged his Messiah. Kerry boasted a philharmonic society. Catherine Hayes and Margaret Burke Sheridan were two internationally renowned opera singers, the former from Limerick, the other from Castlebar.

And while Irish composers like John Field and Michael Balfe, to name but two, were making their mark, international stars like Franz Liszt were coming to Dublin to perform.

What's now the Rotunda Hospital had a concert venue built in where they could stage concerts to raise funds. Liszt played there.

It was my radio collaborator, Eoin O'Kelly, who reminded me of another connection. Irish classical music includes the contribution of an Englishman, Arnold Bax.

Bax, who was born in London in 1883, was not the first from across the sea to fall under Ireland's spell. He spent a lot of time here, and he took inspiration from Irish sources for his work.

During time spent in Dublin, he had a brief encounter with Pádraig Pearse. This meeting made quite an impression.

When Pearse was executed, Bax wrote music in his memory. The story of this piece - 'In Memoriam' - became the basis of a programme my colleague Eoin produced for RTÉ lyric fm to coincide with the 1916 commemorations.

You'll find it online here:

Bax had become fully smitten with Ireland, and despite finding his niche at the heart of the British establishment - he became Master of the King's Music in 1942, the melodic equivalent of the Poet Laureate - he couldn't keep away from here.

In fact, his life ended on a visit to Cork in 1953, and he's buried in St Finbarr's Cemetery on the Glasheen Road.

This week, in Barcelona for a football game, I was struck by the image of James Joyce on a billboard.

This wasn't a come-on for the eponymous Irish pub in the city. We should never underestimate the impact our artists have made.

Quite apart from John Field - whose invention of the nocturne helped Chopin by providing another vehicle for him to paint his melodic pictures - and Michael Balfe, Rossini's favourite baritone, who composed no fewer than 28 operas of his own, there's a whole raft of our own who've written music to enjoy.

Not all of them are necessarily well known. Like Archie Potter, whose connections, like my own, involve Belfast and Greystones.

Then there's Hamilton Harty, from Hillsborough in Co Down, one time principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. He gave us some beautiful lyrical music, unmistakably Irish.

Joan Trimble and Charles Villiers Stanford will reward you if you search for their music.

I've a particular soft spot for Arthur Duff. He wouldn't have been the most prolific. One contemporary said he didn't leave a heavy amount of baggage, but what he did leave included some very precious parcels.

One of those is his 'Irish Suite for Strings', which includes a tribute to Handel and the première of the Messiah - Fishamble Street, Dublin 1742.

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

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