Culture - Music and Dance


In common with most of the great art music of the world, the art music of medieval Gaelic Ireland was non-literate. The harp was the dominant and characteristic instrument in historical times, and was adopted as the arms of Ireland in the 17th century. Since the music of the old bardic system was not written down no record of it survives. One of the few early composers whose work has survived is the poet, harpist and composer, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). Since his death, 220 of his works have been collected and published. Following the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 Edward Bunting transcribed and published the traditional airs of the participants. This collection, together with the later collections of Petrie, Joyce, and others was the principal source of the airs adapted and made popular throughout Europe in the 19th century and afterwards.

The European art music tradition is also well represented in Ireland. In the 18th century Dublin became an important centre of music attracting such composers as Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) who played and taught music in Dublin; Thomas Arne, the leading English composer of his day; and Handel who held the premiere of the Messiah in the city in 1742. An Irishman with considerable influence on Romantic composers from Chopin to Glinka was John Field (1782-1837), creator of the nocturne and one of the foremost pianists of his day.

Two Irish-born composers of the 19th century who achieved distinction through their operas were Michael Balfe (1808-70), whose best-known composition was The Bohemian Girl, and Vincent Wallace (1812-65) who composed Maritana. Charles Villiers Stanford, born in Dublin in 1852, and who later became Professor of Music at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, London, was a prolific composer of operas, orchestral and choral music. Many of his compositions, such as Irish Symphony and Six Irish Rhapsodies, reflect his origins. Victor Herbert (1859-1924), principally known for his operatic compositions, and Hamilton Harty (1879-1941), whose most widely known work was his Irish Symphony, based on folk songs, was also highly regarded. Brian Boydell (b. 1917) has written for both orchestra and for string quartet and his work has been mainly influenced by Bartok and Hindemith.

Composers A.J. Potter (1918-80), and Gerard Victory (1921-1995), through his links with the RTE Symphony Orchestra after 1967, have been major influential figures on the music scene in recent times. Other well-known composers are Seoirse Bodley (b. 1933) and John Buckley (b. 1951), and in the case of composers who have studied and established themselves abroad major figures are Frank Corcoran (b. 1944), Gerald Barry (b. 1952) and Raymond Deane (b. 1953). Within the past decade a number of composers have emerged who are experimenting with traditional music within an orchestral context. These include Shaun Davey, Míchéal Ó Súilleabháin and Bill Whelan.

One of the most striking features of the music scene this century has been the resurgence of interest in Irish traditional music. It was the advent of the Fleadh Cheoil (Music Festival) in the 1960’s which unlocked the doors to allow the older rural-based traditions access to the streets and halls of the newly emerging urban Ireland.

The country’s discovery of its own music went hand in hand with a period of economic growth and a consequent attitude of self-confidence. This culminated in the 1960’s with the work of Seán O Riada (1931-71) who as well as engaging himself in orchestral composition (in a quasi-serial style) also created something of a musical revolution by forming a band of traditional musicians of the highest calibre, Ceoltóirí Chualann. While it is widely accepted that his original intention of creating a uniquely native art music fell short of his hopes, there is no denying the influence which his particular brand of traditional music had in other areas. The most notable example of this influence, and the most loyal to the O Riada model, is The Chieftains group, whose largely uncompromising concert arrangements of traditional music have brought them acclaim from audiences around the world.

A most fertile fusion of elements of acoustic-pop and traditional music took place in the 1970’s. This resulted in a blend which was at once Irish (as represented by traditional musicians playing in authentic style on traditional instruments) and popular (as represented by musicians from more popular forms of music playing stringed, fretted instruments in accompaniment). Traditional instrumental music, therefore, enjoys great popularity in Ireland at the present time. The main national collection of materials relating to traditional music is housed in the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.

Traditional vocal music includes English and Scottish ballads imported centuries ago, and Anglo-Irish songs and ballads dating mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which were popularised by Thomas Moore and Percy French. Above all, the form of singing Irish in the old style or sean nós must be mentioned. Sean nós is usually sung solo, and the music relies on the melody ornamented by melismatic, rhythmic and intervallic variation. A great number of sean nós songs have been collected by the Irish Folklore Commission (now the Department of Folklore at University College, Dublin). Traditional instrumental music is played on instruments such as uilleann pipes and includes dances such as jigs, reels, hornpipes, slides and polkas as well as slow airs based on the vocal music.

The two main varieties of popular music at the present time are ‘country’ music and the more cosmopolitan rock music. The growth of maturity in Irish rock bands since the seventies has seen rock music emerge as a natural expression for a growing number of musicians. Some of the most widely known Irish rock artists of recent times have been U2, Van Morrison, Clannad, Enya, Sinéad O’Connor, Chris de Burgh, The Cranberries, Paul Brady and the Saw Doctors. The successes of Irish bands and writers internationally have brought growth to the music industry, currently valued at over IR£150 million p.a. and employing some 10,000 people. In 1988, the Arts Council appointed its first Popular Music Officer and the post led to the establishment in 1992 of Music Base, a national organisation which provides services to support the development of popular and rock music.

Radio Telefís Éireann is the backbone of professional music performance in Ireland. RTÉ maintains the National Symphony Orchestra, which has been the platform for the launching of most large-scale modern Irish compositions, and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Other orchestras include the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Cork Symphony Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestras.

Dublin Grand Opera Society presents two seasons of opera in Dublin annually, principally of mainstream operatic repertoire from the l9th and 20th centuries. Opera Theatre Company, also based in Dublin, specialises in small scale touring productions which it brings to centres throughout the country. Wexford Festival Opera, a l5-day event at the end of October, has achieved a major international reputation. There are regular recitals organised in the premises of the Royal Dublin Society, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and the National Concert Hall, each presenting eminent international ensembles and soloists, as well as Irish artists. Music societies in all of the major regional cities present a season of concerts and recitals each year. Major music festivals which attract participants of many nationalities include the Cork International Choral Festival, the Waterford Festival of Light Opera, the Kilkenny Arts Week, and the Guinness International Jazz Festival (in Cork).

While there is no national ballet or dance company a number of small dance companies and dance organisations are active, particularly in the area of modern and contemporary dance. These receive State support through the current Arts Council Dance policy of providing financial assistance for public performances on a project basis. In the past number of years there has been an increased emphasis on youth dance and on dance-in-education. A professional dance-in-education company, Daghdha, is based at the University of Limerick. The national folk dance tradition is represented by the Siamsa Tíre company based in Tralee, Co. Kerry.

by Michael Green
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