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COFFEE BREAK | Eight Irish Composers To Celebrate For Saint Patrick’s Day — And Any Day

By Anya Wassenberg on March 17, 2023

Turlough O'Carolan (US Public domain); John Field in 1820 (Public domain); Charles Villiers Stanford in 1921 (Photo: Bassano Ltd./National Portrait Gallery, public domain); Ina Boyle (US Public domain)
Turlough O’Carolan (US Public domain); John Field in 1820 (Public domain); Charles Villiers Stanford in 1921 (Photo: Bassano Ltd./National Portrait Gallery, public domain); Ina Boyle (US Public domain)

We’re celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day with a look at Irish composers. Our list of eight composers from the 17th century to the present day isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but a cross section of creators from the Emerald Isle.

Turlough O’Carolan (1670 to 1738)

Turlough O’Carolan was a blind composer, harpist, and singer. His works are noted for their melodic nature, and drew from both ancient Gaelic harping traditions as well as the Baroque music of his European contemporaries. He’s considered by many to be Ireland’s national composer. In his time, his works for harp were considered too modern by some performers. His career spanned five decades of crisscrossing Ireland to play and compose his pieces.

In the video: Sí bheag, sí mhór by Turlough O’Carolan arr. Marja Gaynor, performed by Camerata Kilkenny & David Power, uilleann pipes from their album The Piper and the Fairy Queen.

John Field (1782 to 1837)

John Field was an acclaimed concert pianist in his day, and he toured as far as St. Petersburg as a performer. He first studied at home with his father and grandfather, and later in London with Muzio Clementi.  He had a three-decade long career as a performer all over Europe, along with his work  as an influential composer. His music was an inspiration to many other composers, including Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt. He is credited with inventing the Nocturne as a musical form.

In the video: Lisa Yui plays John Field’s Nocturne No. 1 in E-flat Major.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Charles Villiers Stanford became a key figure in the realm of British music. He was born into a wealthy and influential Dublin family, and educated at the University of Cambridge before going on to study music in Berlin and Leipzig. One of the founding professors at the Royal College of Music, his influence extended as an educator. The list of his prominent pupils includes Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams. Stanford wrote seven symphonies, and a number of choral works for the Anglican church, as well as nine operas.

In the video: The King’s Singers perform Stanford’s The Blue Bird as part of the City of Derry International Choral Festival in October 2015.

Ina Boyle (1889 to 1967)

As is the case with many women composers of her day, the works of Ina Boyle are more often presented today than during her lifetime. The Irish composer worked in a variety of forms, including chamber and orchestral works, choral pieces, ballet, and opera. She was a pupil of the British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had an appreciation for his pupil’s work. She spent her life in Ireland, caring for relatives, rather than making the move to London to pursue a career. Nonetheless, she composed daily, inspired by the countryside around her family home in County Wicklow. The Trinity College Manuscript Library contains many stacks of her manuscripts that are waiting for their premieres.

The video: The world premiere of Boyle’s Phantasy for violin and chamber orchestra, composed in 1926. Violinist Erin Hennessey typeset the first edition of the work; now available through the Contemporary Music Centre in Dublin. Erin Hennessey performs here with faculty, students and alumni of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 2021.

Aloys Fleischman (1910 to 1992)

Aloys Fleischman was born in Munich, Germany to a family of musicians. His mother hailed from Cork, and had studied piano in Munich, where she met his father, also a church musician. The couple and child returned to Cork. Aloys went on to study music at the University College Cork, and the National University of Ireland, obtaining his PhD. He followed his parents’ footsteps to Munich, where he studied composition. Aloys left a large body of work, including choral and orchestral pieces, five ballets, a symphony, several song cycles and varied pieces for chamber ensembles and soloists. He played a key role in founding many of Cork’s musical institutions.

In the video: The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) conducted by Laurent Pillot, plays Aloys Fleischmann’s Time’s Offspring Overture at St John’s Smith Square, London in 2013.

Seóirse Bodley (b.1933)

With an international profile as one of Ireland’s leading living composers, Seóirse Bodley is also an educator, broadcaster and conductor, among other roles. His influences range from ancient Irish music to contemporary and avant-garde music, and crosses genres. He is Emeritus Professor in music at University College Dublin, was awarded the title of Saoi of Aosdána (Ireland’s academy for creative arts) “for singular and sustained distinction in the arts”.

In the video: An excerpt from a concert and interview by composer Seóirse Bodley and soprano Sylvia O’Brien at the Hugh Lane Gallery on 20 April 2008 on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Gerald Barry (b.1952)

Gerald Barry first studied music at University College Dublin before continuing on to Amsterdam, and then Cologne, where he studied with Stockhausen and Kagel. It’s the latter experience that most influenced his composition, and his public career was launched in 1979. His unpredictable works draw from a widely disparate range of influences, from Handel arias to folk music, and are often described as sharp-edged. He’s written music for films as well as concert pieces and operas, including the hugely successful The Importance of Being Earnest, which received its world premiere at Los Angeles, and a European premiere at the Barbican in London.

In the video: Gerald Barry’s Piano Quartet No. 1 is peformed by Time’s Arrow in 2018.

Deirdre Gribbin (b.1967)

Deirdre Gribbin began composing during her studies at Queen’s University in Belfast, where she was born. She went on to study in London and Denmark, and received her doctorate from the University of London. She won the PRS Woman in Music award, with a premiere of her piece for solo cello at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Her work has been commissioned and performed around the world. Deirdre is involved in a variety of work, including developing music-based motivational healthcare apps in association with Holland Bloorview Kids Hospital in Toronto, and serves as Artistic Director of Venus Blazing Music Theatre Trust, working with young people with cognitive delays. Along with her orchestral pieces, she has written music for film, as well as BBC Radio dramas.

In the video: Pacifica Quartet perform the World Premiere of Deirdre Gribbin’s Dark Matter Hunting in 2021.

Sláinte one and all.


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