"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Silent Symphony

Barra Ó Seaghdha

Music in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Michael Murphy & Jan Smaczny (eds), Four Courts Press, 336 pp, €55, ISBN: 978-1846820243

That Music in Nineteenth-Century Ireland should be the ninth in a series of Irish Musical Studies might not strike the general reader as anything remarkable. But such continuity of effort (under the general editorship of Gerald Gillen and Harry White) is unprecedented in the field of classical music in Ireland.

It is not the only sign of unusual activity. The last two decades have seen a number of other significant publications: the Thomas Davis Lectures series Music in Ireland 1848-1998 and a hefty volume on the Royal Irish Academy of Music, edited and partly written by Richard Pine, who has also written a comprehensive history of music in Irish broadcasting; The Keeper’s Recital (a study of classical music in Irish culture) and The Progress of Music in Ireland by Harry White; Passing It On, a study of music in education by Marie McCarthy; biographies of Charles Villiers Stanford (by Jeremy Dibble and Paul Rodmell) and the first two volumes (on Aloys Fleischman and Raymond Deane) in a projected Field Day series devoted to individual composers; and so on. Again, largely under the leadership of Harry White, Irish musicologists now have a society of their own (with its online publication at www.music.ucc.ie/jsmi) and a large-scale Encyclopedia of Music in Ireland is under way. The Journal of Music in Ireland gives space to both contemporary/classical and traditional music. With music of various kinds attaining greater presence in third level education and increasingly featured in the broad field of Irish studies, the stream seems unlikely to dry up.

The satisfaction engendered by all this activity does not translate into a benign interpretation of the past, however, or into optimism about the future. Ireland rarely features in international histories of classical music or in works of reference. Even well-informed lovers of classical music abroad would have difficulty in naming a significant Irish composer; a minority might be aware that John Field, Michael Balfe and Charles Villiers Stanford were born in Ireland but such composers will probably be assimilated to British musical culture; an even smaller minority might be aware of present-day composers such as Gerald Barry, Raymond Deane or Donnacha Dennehy. With centuries of history as an elite form behind it, classical music has a strong symbolic presence in most central and western European countries. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Schönberg, Berg, Stockhausen; Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Verdi, Puccini, Berio; Rameau, Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Boulez – the lists of names speak for themselves. Even those countries without a developed court culture or whose cultural autonomy is relatively recent can boast names that will be known to most lovers of classical music: Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen, Janacek, Bartok … And with a leap across the centuries (to which we shall return), the names of Byrd, Dowland, Tallis and Purcell join those of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten when we look across the Irish Sea.

It is not surprising that some Irish historians of classical music will feel resentment or discomfort at the fact that, whereas in many countries with which they feel an affinity debate centres on interpretations of musical culture and recognised works of art, in Ireland it is the poverty or absence of musical culture and of works of art that must be interpreted. In addition, Ireland is unusual in Western Europe in that its folk music is better known abroad than its classical music and that, when the country represents itself abroad, the place of honour that would elsewhere be offered to classical music is frequently offered to some version of the folk tradition. Rather than take a broad view of the particular conditions of the country or look to cultural models other than the established court cultures of Europe, leading Irish academics tend to see the absence of a highly developed culture of classical music (with a full panoply of educational and infrastructural support) as something approaching a cultural crime and, as in old-fashioned detective stories where the protagonists find themselves on a small island or sealed off from the rest of the world, the detective’s job is to identify the guilty party. Again and again, however, it is not thought necessary to question all those present: it is enough to point the finger at the sinister figure of nationalism, the cause of all our musical woes.

Music in Nineteenth-Century Ireland does not purport to be a comprehensive history but it does contain an impressively wide range of material under a variety of headings: nationality (in opera, in musical expressions of nationalism and in visual representations of music); traditional music (as modified for the piano and in the activity of folk music collectors); church music (through the influx of Belgian and German organists and through the Armagh Cathedral Collection); education and society (song transmission in primary schools, the temperance movement and the lectures of Robert Prescott Stewart); musical institutions (the Society of Antient Concerts, concert auditoria in Belfast and the musical press); and finally European perspectives (the Czech experience compared with the Irish and Irish attitudes to Wagner and Germany). Some of these topics might seem of limited interest to the general reader, some have been aired elsewhere in some fashion and some open up territory deserving of further attention. However, almost any topic can be made interesting by a good writer with an idea – and a sense of how one small topic can throw light on a much wider area. It need hardly be said that the nineteenth century was hugely important in shaping the political, social and cultural forms that have prevailed in independent Ireland.

Before looking at the history of music as reflected in the work under review, let us remind ourselves of how dramatic the nineteenth century was in Ireland. After the shock of 1798, the Act of Union entailed a serious remodelling of the political structure of the country. The failure to grant Catholic Emancipation as promised, and O’Connell's long campaign to achieve it, meant that political activity was soon channelled along sectarian lines. In an unfortunate piece of political timing, the gradual self-assertion of the emerging Irish Catholic middle class and the growth of what we might call Catholic infrastructure (churches, schools, convents, orphanages and so on) coincided with both an increasingly dogmatic and politically inflexible Vatican and a surge of evangelical renewal among Protestants in Britain and Ireland – with obvious consequences for a state whose identity was closely bound up with Protestantism. There were to be huge changes in literacy, education, transport, family structure, political organisation and levels of democracy. The mid-century was to prove a turning point: O’Connell’s mass campaign for Repeal of the Union was faced down; economic growth and the expansion of urban centres (other than Belfast) slowed down, while the Famine removed a quarter of the population through death and emigration, dramatically accelerated the shift from English to Irish among the peasantry and set up a pattern of population decline that contrasted sharply with the rest of northwestern Europe. Meanwhile Dublin, already deprived of the patronage and display that had been part of the eighteenth century order, settled into its role as a provincial city rather than a capital. It was a city strongly divided on sectarian lines and with little business or cultural enterprise, with a teeming underclass lapping at its main thoroughfares and a new Catholic middle class eager to share in the respectability of its established Protestant counterpart. But Ireland was never properly integrated into the political order – as was made clear by the presence of a viceroy in Dublin and by the British state's willingness to sacrifice the interests of its Irish fellows in its own long-term interests (as made manifest in Catholic Emancipation, the abolition of tithes, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and eventually the concession of tenant rights and the overturning of the semi-sacred rights of property). In the later decades of the nineteenth century it became clear that, despite obstacles and divisions, nationalist Ireland was moving towards political autonomy. In the end, it was the young generation involved in movements towards political and cultural separatism that was to come to the fore in the emerging state.

The cultural history of classical music in Ireland cannot be separated from that broader story. It is of course possible to listen to the musical products of the nineteenth century in Ireland with very little knowledge of historical context. But why, even the least historically curious may wonder, are there are so few products of the nineteenth century to listen to? This is the simple question that is variously addressed, evaded or simplified in some of the books mentioned earlier and in some of the essays in the collection under review.

To be interesting, historical writing needs to tell a familiar story refreshingly well, to reinterpret some or all of the existing story in plausible fashion (thus challenging readers to modify the story as they have known it) or to uncover (or at the very least point towards) previously hidden material that will provoke thought in others. Given that gaping holes remain in the story of classical music in Ireland, one might expect these to be welcomed as opportunities for excited digging and reconstruction. Instead, too often we are invited to look on as conscientious workers fill in and tar over a series of potholes. Whereas history as a discipline has attracted some of the brightest and best Irish minds of the last half-century, the history of classical music has been a matter of largely unsupported personal endeavour.

If we look back to the decades before the recent surge in activity, among the few peaks rising from the lonely plain are Brian Boydell’s contribution to the New History of Ireland (as well as his many other publications) and Ita Hogan’s Anglo-Irish Music 1780-1830 (Cork University Press, 1968). We can take Hogan's book as opening a path towards the history of music in the nineteenth century. The contrast with key present-day writings is striking. Her introduction is frank in situating classical music amid the socio-political realities of the day: the institutionalised sectarianism of the eighteenth century, the rural/urban divide and the unsettled identity of the Anglo-Irish elite:

Owing to the chasm, political, social and religious, which existed between the Anglo-Irish and the native Irish, Irish folk music, which is acknowledged to be the finest and most varied produced by any nation, was not incorporated into the broader medium of art music. In the country districts the natural expression of the people was to be found in the spontaneous song in the vernacular. Music-making in the towns had few points of contact with that of the countryside. It was based on the English pattern and was confined to the church and theatre.

We might wish to qualify some of this in the light of subsequent historical research and we might be a little more discreet in our claims for Irish folk music, but Hogan’s broad perspective should be acknowledged: there is nothing evasive in her depiction of social realities; she does not treat folk music simply as raw material for a superior art form; and she cannot conceive of Irish classical music of this period as separate from the English and Continental movements of which it is a part. Writing of the more confident urban Anglo-Irish culture that developed as the century progressed, Hogan writes:

The theatre flourished, not as a native product but as an imported commodity, and plays and players were brought over from London. In Dublin, public life revolved around the viceregal court, and theatrical performances, balls and concerts ensured a continual round of entertainment. As a centre of performance Dublin was one of the most active capitals in Europe, attracting during the first half of the century many of the great masters, such as Handel, Arne, Giordani and Geminiani. Several musical societies came into being, and there was also a large amount of private music-making.

It should be pointed out that any history of classical music in Europe or Britain in this period will acknowledge that British music was itself in an extremely underdeveloped state – hugely dependent on imported performers, with no coherent school of composition of its own, and much given to chopping, changing and interpolating regardless of context or musical integrity. This was the musical culture that prevailed in Ireland into the nineteenth century. As Hogan moves on to the years from 1780 to 1830, which are her prime concern – years which saw a shift from late baroque, through Haydn and Mozart, to early romanticism – she points out how shifts in musical style penetrated to Ireland but with a time-lag, how important Handel continued to be as an influence, how (as in England) vocal music far outweighed the purely instrumental, how important the weakness of music education was in this regard (again, as in England), and how the Act of Union removed a large element of aristocratic patronage and reduced opportunities for musicians.

The clear separation between historical background and detailed research material is one of the characteristics of Anglo-Irish Music. This may reflect the continuing influence of nineteenth century positivistic thinking in Irish scholarship. In Hogan’s case, the line is not difficult to trace, as she was a pupil of Aloys Fleischmann, who dominated and inspired musical life both in UCC and in Cork for half a century and who contributed much to music on a national level. The separation between the broad introduction and the carefully marshalled material that follows – with chapters on the Anglo-Irish composers, the theatre, concerts, musical societies, folk music collections, music sellers and publishers, treatises and articles, Anglo-Irish composition and brief biographies – allows later readers and scholars to pick and choose the material that suits their own purposes, or to weave it into patterns of their own, regardless of the author’s views. But the separation between fact and interpretation that is implicit in this approach causes problems when the basic narrative or framework is contested and questions have to be asked about what material to collect and what presuppositions might lie behind such choices. It also risks producing a form of de-energised cultural history – all vocabulary and no syntax as it were. It is interesting to note that, forty years after the publication of Anglo-Irish Music, many of the articles in Music in Nineteenth-Century Ireland follow a similar approach.

Among these, appropriately enough, is an article by Hogan who, having disappeared from view as a writer for quite a period, has been writing again under her married name, Beausang. Whether or not her article “From national sentiment to nationalist movement, 1850-1900”, is part of a larger project, it does rather replicate the method of her book. The epigraph from Ulysses – “A nation is the same people living in the same place … Or also living in different places”– leads into a brief evocation of “the Dublin musical landscape”:

The musicians who peopled Irish musical life during the second half of the nineteenth century certainly lived in the same place. However, as decreed by professional, religious and class distinctions they also lived in different places, sometimes overlapping but more often sealed into separate domains. As Ireland recovered from the effects of the devastating famine which had reduced the population by half, musical life continued as usual in Dublin in the churches, theatres and concert halls. The dominant musical figures such as John Smith, professor of music at Trinity College Dublin, his successor Robert Prescott Stewart, and the numerous members of the Robinson family, belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy. The founders and professors of the Irish Academy of Music were connected to the Protestant cathedrals, and were active as members and conductors of the principal musical societies.

The paragraph that follows describes how the emergence of a Catholic middle class led to the growth of a separate musical sphere, one in which some attempt was made to cater for working class musicians without the means to participate in existing structures. This is all very clear (though the sentence on the Famine seriously distorts population patterns from the Famine to 1900) and might be elaborated on or refined in the context of a book. Thereafter, however, the article largely becomes a chronological catalogue of information about concerts with a view to demonstrating a shift over the decades from generalised national sentiment to more politically directed nationalist musical activity. Some of the material unearthed is very interesting but there are occasions where a broader perspective would be welcome or where opportunities to make connections are lost.

Beausang’s story begins with the “Grand National Commemoration of our Gifted Countryman, Thomas Moore Esq.” held on two consecutive nights a few weeks after his death. Just as Moore was able to pursue a highly successful career in the salons and drawing rooms of England while evoking Irish national feeling – one that on the whole was about pride in past glories and resignation to defeat – this event was able to draw on the resources of both Christchurch Cathedral and the (Catholic) Royal Choral Institute. Clearly, Moore was not a politically divisive figure. Clearly too, Davis’s call for a more vigorously national style of music had not been answered and Moore’s songs would remain extremely popular throughout the following decades. Given the taste of the period and the nature of musical activity in general, it is likely that Moore occupied a musical space that would otherwise have been filled by sentimental ballads or songs drawn from the opera rather than by efforts to emulate Beethoven’s string quartets or piano sonatas.

A little over a quarter-century after his death, had Daniel O’Connell lost his power to divide and disturb? Beausang mentions without comment that Joseph Robinson conducted two concerts for the O’Connell Centenary in 1875. We should perhaps have been told a little more of his politics (and those of other members of this musical family). Robinson was to compose a song for a concert of music of strongly nationalist colour in 1883 held on the day after the Parnell banquet and attended by many of the same people. (Could it be that, coming to Dublin from Yorkshire, Robinson’s father had been less constrained by negative cultural assumptions than those around him? Certainly, the ethos behind his own activities and that he transmitted to his sons was unusually dynamic and open.) It would have been interesting to be told something of the content of the speech on Irish music delivered at a benefit concert organised by the Gaelic Union, a smaller and less dynamic precursor of the Gaelic League. Is it not worthy of comment also that, when the Irish tenor William Ludwig – was this his real name or yet another example of the practice, common in both Britain and Ireland, of adopting continental names? – gave concerts of Irish national music in 1890, works by Stanford and Prescott Stewart, both strongly unionist in politics, were included in the programme? Beausang might sometimes have let the winds of history blow a little more vigorously, but the material she presents is interesting.

Though it also deals with the rather cloudy evocation of Irish music in Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl, Barra Boydell’s article focuses principally on visual representations of Irish music in the nineteenth century. We are shown artists avoiding both the squalid realities in which music would often have been played in favour of prettified images. Boydell notes that even Petrie, a collector of music with intimate experience of the lives of ordinary people, chose not to portray musicians in his drawings and watercolours and in his topographical work generally followed the idealising artistic conventions that then prevailed in Britain and Ireland. Curiously, Boydell himself seems at one point to have been touched by a similar idealising tendency: in his analysis of Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia by Robert Fagan, he passes in silence over both the prominently bare bosom of the lady in question and the fact that the “highly stylised harp whose strings are broken, symbolizing the country’s spirit broken by the Act of Union of 1800”, incorporates a blatantly sexualised naked female figure whose connection with the Act of Union we can only speculate on.

David Cooper analyses in close and ultimately rewarding detail how the piano came to play an increasingly important part in musical life and just what happened to Irish traditional music as it was transcribed or adapted for the piano. Cooper demonstrates that Edward Bunting’s aim chiefly “to give the remaining airs of the collection arranged in true harp style, for the piano forte” was not realised in practice. Regarding Bunting’s choice of keys, Cooper suggests that “Bunting’s tonal mindset was aligned to the art-music models which achieved particular prominence in Britain and Ireland during the period in which he was working”. He observes Bunting’s bending to this mindset; as a cultural historian, he is not shocked by Bunting’s failure to reach beyond the practice of his time to theoretical perfection.

The question of authenticity crops up again in Jimmy O’Brien Moran’s article, which traces the origins of Irish musicology to the practice and philosophy of folk music collectors of the early nineteenth century. In his reaction to Bunting’s claim that no modern air had the characteristics of traditional melody, Henry Hudson diverged dramatically from correct musicological practice, but there is something more than creative perversity to what he did:

To prove him wrong Hudson set about composing melodies based on traditional ones. To this end he analysed tunes and identified scale patterns and structures on which he based his own compositions. He published his music as genuine folk melodies giving false sources and suggesting similarities to, for example, Carolan tunes.

The case could be compared with that of Sylvester O’Mahoney (“Father Prout”), who went to the trouble of writing foreign language translations of poems by Moore and ascribing them to fictitious authors – purely in order to ensnare the original author in controversy over claims of plagiarism.

In a minutely researched article, Paul Collins traces the story of the Belgian and German organists who found employment in Ireland because the Catholic Church here did nothing to provide training for native musicians until 1970. Anne Dempsey examines the Armagh Cathedral Collection in detail and casts some light on the musical life of the city. With opening and closing paragraphs that refer to Armagh as a “vibrant” musical centre, the writer becomes a little carried away. In the body of the article, we read that the Armagh Musical Society “had a short-lived existence, surviving only a few years. Over the next 30 years there was evidence of a growing desire by a significant portion of the Armagh community for the revival of such a musical society.” A vibrant aspiration, then, rather than a reality. And a term like the “Armagh community” needs cooler analysis than is offered here. However, the Collins and Dempsey articles provide significant detail that may eventually feed into an overarching study of music in the Irish churches. Roy Johnston’s article on concert auditoria in nineteenth century Belfast takes its place in his grand project of uncovering the musical life of Belfast over the centuries. His book on Bunting’s Belfast has received less attention than it deserves.

There was of course a strong religious impulse behind the pre-Famine temperance movement. Maria McHale’s article supplements Paul A Townend’s Father Mathew, Temperance and Irish identity by looking at the place of music in that remarkable social phenomenon. The alliance between Father Mathew and the German sight-singing instructor Joseph Mainzer makes for a fascinating story. For those who sought “to raise the moral condition of the People”, music-making provided a healthy and uplifting alternative to the dangerous delights of the public house. The music itself had to be elevating as well, which meant the creation of a new repertoire – or at least the adaptation of existing music to temperance purposes. William Young’s The Catholic Choralist was dedicated to Father Mathew and put songs on temperance themes to airs taken from “the Masters including Haydn, Mozart, Pleyel, Webb, Beethoven, Spohr, Bach”. It is unlikely that many of these airs were already known to a typical member of the temperance movement. It is hardly surprising that an alternative publication, William MacNamara Downes’s Temperance Melodies for the Teetotallers of Ireland, was far more successful, as it set temperance-inspired verse to a selection of Moore’s Melodies. McHale’s political reading of this and related matters is open to question. She suggests that “the choice of music was central to their nationalistic character” but elsewhere acknowledges how strictly non-political and non-sectarian the movement was in its speeches, publications and the song that she quotes:

Oh what could so deeply degrade her,
Or fix on her sons such a stain?
It was not the hostile invader
It was not the sword or the chain.
Ah no – but the rank dregs of madness
She drained – and that ill-fated bowl
Brought on all the woes and the sadness
That chill’d the pure fire of her soul!

If we take into account the need to bind together as quickly as possible thousands of people without a technical musical education, the choice of Moore’s Melodies makes perfect pragmatic sense and the nationalist issue is secondary. Moore provided the nearest thing to a common musical language that could be found in the country. McHale sees Downes as underpinning “the familiar rhetoric of temperance with music that unequivocally conveyed Irishness”. She then suggests that to read Downes in context, “it is necessary to overstep revisionism” –whatever that may mean – “and assess Moore’s Irish Melodies in their cultural framework” – which means, it would seem, recognising that they “abound in contemporary nationalist aspirations, albeit expressed through a romanticized voice”. For McHale, “Downes’ and Mathew’s decision to set temperance verses to twelve of the Irish melodies was a clear signal to recognize and promote a particularly nationalist slant to the movement”. This statement is not borne out by the evidence she makes available. This is not to deny that, like the majority of the Catholic population, the majority of the temperance movement would have been in favour of Repeal.

Lisa Parker is still at work on a doctorate on Robert Prescott Stewart (professor of music at Trinity College, composer, organist and public lecturer) so her article here on his public lectures may not be definitive. Unlike some of her fellow contributors, she shows awareness of issues outside the narrow world of musicology in Ireland. Thus, alongside substantial archival research, she makes reference to works on British history, on popular music in Victorian Britain (Ronald Pearsall and Dave Russell), on orientalism and on empire. She is not afraid to detail the areas in which Stewart (the leading figure in Dublin musical life in the second half of the nineteenth century) was entirely imperial and, by today’s standards, clearly racist in his thinking. When writing about Stewart's contributions to public life in Ireland, however, she fails to ask some obvious questions or to question her own terminology. What was the public which Stewart addressed? If public lectures were held on weekday afternoons in Trinity College, who was free to attend and who would have felt free to attend? Is there any evidence that Stewart showed any interest in those outside the Protestant middle class, Trinity College and the cathedrals? If Stewart was racist and imperial as well as public-spirited and genial in manner, what was his thinking about the natives of his own city and country? And how representative was he of his class?

These and similar questions have implications not only for an understanding of Stewart himself but for an understanding of the history of classical music in Ireland. If ownership of classical music passed from the amateur aristocrat to the Protestant middle class in the early nineteenth century, it is important, first, to be realistic about the underdeveloped nature of that musical culture and, second, to know how concerned those with symbolic ownership of the music were to share it. (Paul Rodmell's article on The Society of Antient Concerts is quite illuminating in this regard.) The current orthodoxy within Irish music departments holds it as an unquestioned truth that it was the pressure exerted by nationalism that created the strong association of classical music with Ascendancy/Unionist culture; it also holds that the prime culprit in the failure of classical music to develop here was nationalist insistence that any developing school of Irish composition should be in the service of nationalist feeling and make explicit use of traditional material. Setting aside broader arguments with this simplistic theory for the moment, we can ask a simple question: is there anything to suggest that Robert Prescott Stewart’s creativity was undermined by pressure from nationalist Ireland? Nothing in Lisa Parker’s article, or in Vignolles’s Memoir of Sir Robert P. Stewart (1898), suggests so. In Irish musical academia, cosmopolitanism is too often invoked in facile opposition to nationalism (the writings of Joseph Ryan are a prime example) but what kind of cosmopolitanism is it that treats Irish nationalism as a cultural aberration and that refuses to connect Irish experience with the rest of the world? There is little in the writings of her seniors in musical academia that would encourage Parker to explore the possible convergence of colonialist and unionist ideologies in a figure such as Stewart. Joseph Lennon’s Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History (which does not appear in her bibliography) demonstrates more genuine cosmopolitanism – and not a mechanical application of Edward Said’s vocabulary to Irish matters.

The analytical and historical weaknesses of Harry White’s The Keeper’s Recital have been detailed elsewhere, but his terminology and perspective have penetrated the writings of many who have followed him in exploring the role of music in Irish cultural history. White’s version of the nineteenth century revolves entirely around nationalism: its literary bias; its utilitarian attitude to music; its rejection of European art music because of its historical association with Ascendancy culture and so on. Among the many problems with this view is that it takes so little account both of the thinking and practice of composers and musicians and of the music that Irish audiences actually favoured. White has never responded to or even acknowledged the existence of critiques of his work. In his article “Cultural theory, nostalgia and the historical record: opera in Ireland and the Irishness of opera during the nineteenth century”, however, the necessity of reconciling the historical record with his theoretical construct produces signs of strain:

The ghosts of opera in Ireland during the nineteenth century … are the ghosts of a tradition which, were it not for Joyce’s attachment to it, might seem irrelevant to that reception history of the Irish mind which fastens upon musical constructions (and deconstructions) of nationalism at every turn.

It is possible that White is here somewhat cloudily acknowledging his failure to integrate a hugely important cultural form into his writings on Irish cultural history. He goes on to state that this “historical record has been, until recently, a largely undiscovered country”. By citing Joseph Ryan, Christopher Morash and Axel Klein as explorers of near-virgin territory, he occludes the fact that – with no disrespect to recent scholarship – Hogan’s Anglo-Irish Music provides a detailed map of musical practice in the early nineteenth century, in the field of opera as in others. It was hardly to be imagined that opera had vanished under a nationalist tsunami by mid-century. But “the achievement of this record”, White acknowledges, “has brought its own bewilderments, and chiefly the bewilderment occasioned by the act of recovery itself”. At this point, the wisdom of Joseph Ryan is invoked – “The study of Irish opera offers a good example of the gap between what one might reasonably expect and what actually occurred” – but rather unavailingly.

As was pointed out to White in 1999, any theory that the low level of Irish composition in the nineteenth century can be explained by the pressure of nationalist discourse has to explain the fact that Irish composers – notably Balfe and Wallace – produced more half-worthwhile musical products in that period than their English fellows and that the musical history of the two countries was inextricably intertwined. It is difficult to see the logic of White’s belated engagement with the issue:

Klein is right to observe that the history of English opera in the nineteenth century is dominated by Irish (or Irish-related) composers, but it is likewise fair comment to note that Ireland was especially receptive to the English operas of Balfe, Wallace, Benedict, and Sullivan. The sporadic existence of “Irish” opera must therefore be distinguished from the sustained reception of Italian and English variants, especially in Dublin theatres from the 1840s onwards.

When discussing the absence of infrastructure for opera, most historians of music would look to the state, to the aristocracy, to the wealthy bourgeoisie (hungry for validation through participation in prestigious cultural forms). White adopts a different approach:

But those conditions did not arise, nor could they in a country so dramatically denuded of the infrastructural provisions which opera requires. “Young Ireland” and Italian opera did not consort with each other in the formative years of cultural nationalism …

It is a measure of White’s obsession with nationalism and of his continuing inability to engage with power, class and other economic factors that he turns immediately to this group of young journalists and agitators. Along with some slight recognition that the English musical renaissance is relevant to what happened in Ireland, this article provides further evidence that – as foreshadowed in the Heaney references at the end of The Keeper’s Recital and confirmed by The Progress of Music in Ireland – White has turned from the unhappy history of actual music in Ireland to the happier world of music as imagined in literature (about which he has written very illuminatingly). Is there something more than coincidence to the literary turn taken by both Harry White and Roy Foster in recent years?

As Harry White, Joseph Ryan and Michael Murphy have never responded directly to criticism, there is a certain poetic justice to the fact that the research over which they preside and the increasing interest in Irish musical history which they have encouraged is creating deep fissures in their theoretical monolith. Without overt polemical intent, Marie McCarthy continues to lay bare the structure of music education in Ireland. She knows that to do so means engaging with the political, cultural and social assumptions underlying the British education system as it interacts with specific Irish factors. Michael Murphy contributed a well-argued piece on Charles Villiers Stanford to the Thomas Davis Lectures volume Music in Ireland 1848-1998. His subsequent writing on Irish matters has been marked both in tone and content by Joseph Ryan and Harry White, the chief carvers and keepers of the monolith mentioned above. Murphy’s unconvincing venture into nationalist theory in Musical Constructions of Nationalism has been capably dissected by Patrick Zuk. His contribution to Music in Nineteenth-Century Ireland is a useful survey of the musical press. He opens with an extract from an adulatory review of a performance in Cork by the soprano Catherine Hayes – “Criticism is out of the question. The audience had merely to record by their applause a succession of triumphs …” – before making more general points:

… it reminds us that the majority of the notices were pre-occupied with Anglo-Italian opera, the genre that dominated classical life in Ireland for the majority of the century. The operas by Balfe, Wallace, Verdi, Bellini and Rossini inter alia were funded by the lessees of the theatres, and were performed by visiting companies from England under the management of an impresario who sometimes may have been one of the singers or conductors. The majority of musical criticism was an adjunct to that model of music-making. It was only in the final three decades of the century that this model was eroded … Indeed, notices were remarkably similar over the decades. Also, they typically reflected the style of the British press, a pervasive presence in Irish newspapers until the advent of national ideals.

It is clear, therefore, that classical music in Ireland and England were not separable, that for most of the nineteenth century classical music in Ireland continued in the pattern set in eighteenth-century England, that where classical criticism and performance are concerned Ireland could be seen as a provincial British sub-culture, that classical musical activity was little influenced by theoretical debate about what Irish music should be, and the period when standards were raised and real debate occurred coincided with nationalist cultural self-assertion. (Murphy acknowledges that sustained debate on musical matters took place in the pages of DP Moran’s Leader, the voice of a particular version of Irish essentialism.)

Murphy’s section on “The twin cultures of music and musical criticism” is also suggestive:

Dahlhaus’ notion of the “twin cultures of music”, Franco-Italian opera on the one hand and German instrumental music on the other, specifies “a dichotomy [which] extended to the very roots of the nineteenth century concept of music, far transcending differences of genre or national style”. Time and again that dichotomy was reinforced in the Irish musical press.

The fact is that, without a comprehensive system of music education, without a musical infrastructure requiring either state support or investment and patronage from the private sector, there was little likelihood that a coherent German-style musical culture would emerge. The particular social and economic conditions prevailing in Ireland – the rural population base; the country’s status as a food supplier for industrial England rather than as an entrepreneurial culture in itself; the sectarian divisions that impeded cultural unity – meant that Ireland stagnated musically and in other respects while in Britain, and in England in particular, the economy was expanding, the cities were growing, and there were reasons both pragmatic and idealistic why some of the newly wealthy would think the working class should be offered cultural outlets. The English musical renaissance at the end of the nineteenth century was built on several generations of effort (both infrastructural and educational) and on English musical nationalism (impatience with generations of imitative and imported music combined with a wish to move from a humiliatingly subordinate position in European classical music to one of achievement and prestige befitting the country’s economic and political position in the world).

At the level of detail, there is a lot to learn from Music In Nineteenth-Century Ireland (though it has to said that many dozens of errors in the use of the comma disfigure the text, along with a number of other solecisms). What emerges from the collection as a whole is the importance of a frank engagement with the realities of Irish history – something which seems to come more easily to writers based outside Ireland. If Irish music departments throw off their restrictive ideological shackles, we may witness a release of intellectual energy worthy of the publishing and organisational structures that are already in place.


Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, cultural politics and music to publications ranging from Graph, which he co-edited, and Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press) to the JMI (Journal of Music in Ireland). He works in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language sector.

Categories