John Ireland

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John Ireland (1879-1662), English composer, was born into a literary family, entered the Royal College of Music to study the piano at 14, before studying composition with Stanford. He made a living as an organist and choirmaster and came to the public’s attention with some notable chamber works and a large number of lyrical little piano pieces, but only gained a serious reputation when he was approaching forty. He was back at the RCM as a teacher between 1923 and 1939.

Unlike his contemporaries, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, he had no abiding interest in English folk music, however his love of the literature of his country is evident in his songs. Much of his music has fallen in and out of favour. He wrote few “big” works, a Piano Concerto being the only large scale orchestral piece of any length, although there are shorter works for orchestra that enjoy some popularity, including a suite from his sound track for the film, “The Overlanders” and an evocative “Legend” for piano and orchestra. He has a well-regarded sonata for piano, two violin sonatas, one each for cello and clarinet and three piano trios that are not performed as often as they should be.

One work that is bigger in construction, sound and intent than its 20-odd minutes duration, is the cantata commissioned as a coronation anthem in 1937 - "These Things Shall Be". As well as this now somewhat controversial work, his popularity today relies on certain shorter pieces:

The hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown
The anthem, “Greater Love hath no Man
The Piano Prelude, “The Holy Boy” that would later appear as a part song (carol) and in settings as different as for full orchestra, violin and piano, flute and piano,and string quartet.
Songs: Ireland believed that to write a song like Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” was of greater value than a concerto or symphony”. He himself wrote about 90 songs, beautifully crafted and appropriate settings of poets from the 16th century to his own time. One of them, his setting of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”, is to the treasury of the English art-song, what “The Man I Love” is to the “Great American Songbook”.

References:

  • "Oxford Companion to Music"
  • The Complete Songs of John Ireland - Hyperion CDA67261/2
  • John Ireland. The complete music for violin and piano - Helios CDH55164
  • John Ireland. “Greater Love Hath no Man”, "These Things Shall Be" etc. - Chandos CHAN10110X
  • John Ireland. Piano works, Vol. 3 - Naxos 8.570461
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