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John Ireland (1879-1962)

Songs

Lisa Milne (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone)
2CDs
Recording details: September 1998
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Mike Clements & Mike Hatch
Release date: June 1999
Total duration: 148 minutes 42 seconds
 

Three marvellous young singers come together with Graham Johnson to present this 2-CD set of virtually all of the songs of this reticent but much loved English composer. Before his death in 1962, John Ireland wrote many more songs than the famous 'Sea Fever' (which is sung here by Cardiff prize-winner Christopher Maltman). No less than 69 of them are here, several recorded for the first time. The poets include Shakespeare, the Rossettis, Thomas Hardy, A E Housman, John Masefield and Sir Henry Newbolt. Full texts are included in the booklet.

Reviews

'Perhaps these discs will at last bring the best of his songs back into live recital' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Three excellent young British singers share the treasures recorded here under the sage aegis of Graham Johnson. Lisa Milne's bright, keen soprano is lovely, John Mark Ainsley is a model of style and verbal clarity and young Christopher Maltman continues to show the promise that won him the Cardiff Lieder Prize in 1997' (The Sunday Times)

'A welcome, long overdue event. Excellent introduction to unduly neglected repertoire' (Classic CD)

'Ireland was a songsmith to rival the finest this country has produced, and Hyperion's generous anthology will hopefully encourage others to explore this rewarding and rapt repertoire' (Hi-Fi News)
"Symphonies? Concertos? Bah! Who wants another symphony if he can write a song like that?"

The song was George Gershwin's The Man I Love; its admirer, John Ireland. This wasn't the only time Ireland—defensively?—talked up the art of the specialist song-writer, citing for example the importance of song to such composers as Roger Quilter and Edvard Grieg. And although Ireland wrote underrated masterpieces in a variety of genres (from the exquisite Second Violin Sonata to the still frustratingly neglected Piano Concerto), his vocal compositions stand at the heart of his output alongside the solo piano music, the two interests combining in many of the songs where the 'accompaniments' offer such rich challenges and opportunities for the pianist, reflecting Ireland's own skills as a player.

The solo songs (the greater number of which are included in this anthology) span some thirty-five years of Ireland's life, from the Songs of a Wayfarer, written in part as early as 1903 (the year in which the composer was twenty-four) to the 1938 Five XVIth-Century Poems. In a way, the range in style of the songs reflects the decline in domestic music-making that some will argue has been far more damaging to music appreciation (in the long run) than what has or has not been happening in our schools. Many of Ireland's early- to middle-period songs embrace the feel of the once money-spinning ballads that were staple fare in so many homes—the style of The Bells of San Marie, Sea Fever and Great Things. Then there are the 'art' songs, still accessible but written for more serious-minded performers of varying abilities, embracing, for example, Songs Sacred and Profane and the Five XVIth-Century Poems. Finally, there is the clutch of songs which take the art song into an intensely personal realm, most clearly heard in the soul-searching Five Poems by Thomas Hardy—mirroring the century's broad movement whereby composers have become less and less embarrassed to place self-expression before saleability.

Rather than sound off myself, let me refer you to the opinion of the distinguished writer and critic William Mann for a line on Ireland's songs. As far as English music is concerned, he wrote as long ago as 1975, these songs are 'perhaps the most important between Purcell and Britten'. Such a Statement of confidence by a leading authority has not, it need hardly be said, been reflected commensurately in terms of concert performances of the breadth of Ireland's songs—whether from lack of knowledge, belief, or the fear of being thought lacking in judgement or gravitas by sober-faced critics. Sad. Not least because, for one thing, these songs lack for nothing in terms of range of subject matter, colour and emotion. Which might prompt the familiar question of just how much we can expect to learn about a composer from his or her music.

What would we say of this Dr Ireland from the evidence purely of the mood of his songs? There is nostalgia and wistfulness, but also exuberant high spirits. There is romance feeling, but also tortured anguish and a rather blatant sentimentality. He knows how to write sensuous, even sexy, music. There is passion ail right, and that much under-rated E-word as far as English composers are concerned—ecstasy—is part of his emotional palette. All this from a man with a centreparting, steel-rimmed spectacles and a preference for jackets rather than jumpers.

What then is confirmed if we are allowed the additional clue that Ireland's choice of texts was meaningfully informed by a passionate rather than passing love of literature? Well, above all we can't miss his love of nature—landscapes and seascapes, seasons of the year (e.g. Sea Fever, Earth's Call, Songs of a Wayfarer). He could apparently be given to bouts of sentimentality (Spring Sorrow and the cycle Mother and Child). He seems to have been someone who held friendship as an especially sacred trust (Love and friendship, Friendship in misfortune and more), but who was nothing if not emotionally insecure in the area where friendship moved into love (not just the Hardy songs mentioned above, but in the acid sounds of The Rat and the passionate cry of The Heart's Desire). A feeling for the sensuously mystical hovers here and there (The Trellis, Tryst) but equally this Dr Ireland is not beyond displaying a keen, uncomplicated sense of humour (Hymn for a Child) and certainly enjoys—when the mood takes him—a rollicking good time, pint-glass in hand (Hope the Hornblower, When lights go rolling round the sky and the cider-stained Great Things). Religion hovers ambivalently somewhere in the background {The Adoration), but when his guard is down, he will colour his views on the Establishment with a certain sharp-edged cynicism (The Scapegoat). And so on.

Such an analysis of course runs the risk of being simplistic. Human beings are often even more complex and elusive than we can imagine. So how much evidence is there from Ireland's life for what prompted the subjects and moods of his songs? As far as the core of his psyché is concerned, his friend and biographer John Longmire wrote of a man for whom life was a 'maelstrom of uncertainty', who spent his days trying to lay the ghosts of childhood pain. A man who needed love more than admiration, who was possessive in his friendships and could put those friends through an emotional mangle. As a spin-off from that, Longmire paints a picture of a composer who viewed his own music with wry self-deprecation.

If we take it that childhood and adolescent years are indeed crucial to personal development, then Ireland had a somewhat mixed send-off as far as his family background was concerned. He was born on the 13th August 1879 in Bowdon, Cheshire. His mother, Annie, was thirty years younger than her husband, Alexander, who was then still active as the editor of The Manchester Examiner newspaper, despite being seventy. A large gulf in age for a father and son to span, perhaps, which was maybe one reason why 'Jackie' was very much his mother's favourite—the prime beneficiary of her artistic and musical interests. She played the piano, the instrument at which the young Ireland was swiftly to excel. He carried her maiden name, Nicholson, as his second name.

On the positive, life-enriching side, Ireland's parents provided him with the artistic matrix that was in many respects to hold w his life together. Apart from providing musical opportunities, Ireland's home life gave him a lifelong passion for literature. As far as poetry was concerned, he was wedded to Victorian writers and to poets of his own day, not least the so-called 'Georgians', proponents of realism and colloquialism under the leadership of such figures as Rupert Brooke and Edward Marsh. Ireland's | choice of poetry to set is clear evidence of his wide reading—through such familiar names as Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Masefield, Robert Louis Stevenson and A E Housman, to those who these days are mainly remembered on the pages of literary dictionaries—Harold Monro, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Alice Meynell, for example. Aside from the ready availability of books and presumably dinner-table discussion, the Ireland home in Bowdon was visited by leading literary and musical figures of the day.

So, more than once it has been observed that Ireland was not so much a songwriter as a setter of poems, a composer who valued above all the skill of enhancing words through music, using every device at his disposal, from catching the native inflection of words (rarely going beyond one note per syllable) to painstakingly seeking out the most appropriate colours and harmonies—inventive harmonies, whether of simplicity and directness or of astringent chromaticism. Not for nothing are two song-cycles described by reference to poem rather than song. Time and again Ireland seems exactly to capture the mood of his chosen texts, not least in his Housman and Hardy settings, although he was the first to admit that he found the act of composing a struggle.

But whatever the intellectual stimulation, other of Ireland's youthful experiences left him—in an emotional sense—frozen in childhood. Both parents were to die in his early teenage years, but it seems that even by then the roots of insecurity had long been growing silently and steadily. He was something of an outsider among his siblings, suffering humiliation and even beatings from his three sisters and brother. Apparently capable of callousness and cruelty (at least, through a young child's sensibilities) they acted in loco parentis as far as their young brother was concerned during their mother's bouts of sickness, which must have been threatening enough in themselves. He hated being sent away to school and absconded from it at the age of seven. After experiencing the pain of his parents' death soon after enrolling as a fourteen-year-old piano Student at the Royal College of Music in London, Ireland underwent the indignity of having his financial affairs scrutinised by a pair of guardians who sought to out-scrimp Scrooge in overseeing his financial affairs. Hardly the best preparation for standing on one's own two feet, although Ireland made the best of the situation by winning scholarships, playing the organ for churches and even tinkling the piano in a London restaurant.

The Royal College of Music itself was no haven from the harshness of his life. Having decided to major in composition the year after entering, Ireland was by no means the first to find his teacher of choice, Charles Villiers Stanford, a hard taskmaster. Student compositions would be tried out by the college orchestra, occasions used by Stanford publicly to demonstrate when things just wouldn't do. All his life, Ireland was indignant about the ways of 'musiCOLLEGEists', was sensitive to criticism, prone to feelings of inferiority.

How these early experiences fed into Ireland's complex personality is a matter for psychologists but there can be no doubting that they left their mark. How far they contributed to his apparently repressed sexuality—surely evidenced (passionately!) in many of the songs—is a more complex question still. What are we to make of one particular clue—the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his marriage in 1927 (at the age of 48) to the young pianist Dorothy Phillips? Ireland attracted women but was wary of them throughout his life, from landladies and sisters to housekeepers and bounty-hunters, regarding them as 'a nuisance … unreliable'. Maybe the song An Aside from the Five XVIth-Century Poems was intended as more than just a passing humorous observation on womankind. Where did this all come from? Did women fail to come up to the ideal of his mother, to whom he was so close, who was his musical inspiration as a pianist herself? Whatever, Ireland was still capable of being infatuated with an idealised view of feminine beauty. He seems to have entertained the prospect of marriage to Dorothy Phillips not as an expression of feeling (direct emotion) but of honour (abstract concept)—as a way of becoming her protector or guardian in the face of an overbearing father. However, the marriage was a disaster from the beginning and was annulled. Another talented—and by all accounts, pretty—young pianist, Helen Perkin (the dedicatee of the Piano Concerto) helped Ireland get over the whole unhappy episode, becoming for a time an inseparable companion, only for the relationship to be ended when she started to play the music of other composers. This was viewed by Ireland as something of a betrayal. Not that he was intending to tie the knot himself. Once bitten, twice shy. He always insisted on the Who 's Who entry of 'bachelor'.

Whatever may be the evidence from the occasional song (Ladslove, for example), the accepted view from those who knew Ireland well is that he was not overtly homosexual, although he may have found his breath caught by the looks of the occasional choirboy who carne under his charge at St Luke's Church, Chelsea, in his more than twenty years as organist there. But the same could be said of his response to a particular vision of femininity. Still, male friends whom he could trust mattered enormously to Ireland, though many found him capable of putting them through the emotional shredder. He could be the life and soul of a party, jolly and loquacious, a man who loved the ambience of the traditional English pub—the composer of Great Things and When lights go rolling round the sky. Others found him capable of cutting friendships short—notwithstanding the fact, as suggested above, that the theme of reliable, long-term, cast-iron friendship is a surprisingly strong thread, pointed up, it seems, within his body of songs. Two sides of the same basic insecurity.

Ireland's professional life consisted of three main strands, all of them London-based: playing the organ at St Luke's starting in 1904; from 1923, teaching as a professor at the Royal College of Music (Britten was a pupil); and composing—which he did for over forty years in the studio at 14a Gunter Grove in Chelsea. The affection for London is evident enough in his piano and orchestral music, though not directly in the songs. But for all that the capital was clearly the focus for work and friendship, for pubbing and gossip, the English countryside (foreign parts never held much attraction) had great pulling power for Ireland. Regularly he would motor down to Dorset and Sussex—often would be found rambling on the Downs. He also adored the sight and sound of the sea. He notably loved Jersey, his first visit being on a choir trip in the early years of the century. The island provided inspiration for several works, among them the ubiquitous Sea Fever. On the outbreak of the Second World War he actually settled on Guernsey, only to suffer evacuation—at speed—in 1940 on account of the Nazi invasion. When finally the noise and pollution of London outweighed its advantages, Ireland settled in a converted windmill, Rock Mill, near Washington in Sussex, surrounded by glorious scenery. He carne upon Rock Mill—'For Sale' notice and all—by chance, while on a country drive in 1953.

The love of the outdoors—so vital an inspiration for Ireland's songs—was given added potency and spiritual depth by his discovery in 1906 of the writings of Arthur Machen, the Welsh novelist x whose works convey an eerie, misty mysticism, paganism and a sense of the grandeur of history. He and Ireland became good friends, meeting at The King's Arms in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, where Machen would hold forth unrelentingly to the amusement of the locals. Ireland was to insist that no-one could understand his music unless they had read Machen. If this is the case then the 'mysticism' which informed the wild, white-haired Welshman is presumably what lies behind the hypnotic, sensuous sounds and the trademark chromaticism that inform so many of Ireland's songs. How Machen's philosophies interfaced with the High Anglicanism that Ireland favoured (and blessed with some marvellous music) is unclear. As in much else, perhaps, he was able subtly to embrace both the orthodox and unorthodox.

Ireland once said that a fortune-teller had predicted he would live to the age of 81. In the event he made it to 82 before slowly succumbing at Rock Mill in 1962. He wrote almost nothing in the last fifteen years of his life. By all accounts the prospect of old age made the ancient insecurities still worse and^ when it arrived, was scarcely warmed by any pride in what he had achieved. Rather there was more a sense of loss. Without doubt such feelings were heightened by an awareness that his music was now out of favour in the harsher compositional climate of the post- War years—a great divide which it has taken far too long to re-cross in respect of many more composers than John Ireland. But he never lost his belief in tunes. That most famous of his melodies, Sea Fever, is what arches across the top of his memorial window in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in London—'the musicians' church'.

One summary of Ireland's life describes it as having been 'relatively uneventful'. On the outside, maybe. Inside, as the songs make clear, great battles raged and rich passions stirred. In them Ireland reveals himself as perhaps he couldn't have done in any other way. He once said that he had always written music he wanted to write … had only written it when he had something to say. For our part, connecting with the inner life of music that's new to us, striving in some way to relive the act of creation, is always going to require effort. The reward is not just that of getting to know something, but someone. May these songs of John Ireland not rush past the ear by virtue of the fact that so many are unfamiliar. Give them the time and space to tell his story.

Chronological notes on the songs
The early cycle Songs of a Wayfarer (cl903/5) hints at the extent to which a love of literature was deeply rooted in Ireland from childhood years—each of the five songs features a different poet. The cycle is dedicated 'To my friend, Robert Radford', the English bass who came to prominence in the first decade of this Century through such exploits as singing Wagner's 'Ring' cycle under Hans Richter in 1908.

If the musical language of the cycle is not yet highly individual, the mood is already personal. As the title suggests, this is largely music reflecting a kinship with the great outdoors, although a young man's languor after love steals into English May and, more emphatically, into the hypnotic I was not sorrowful, a song whose chromaticism and emotional centre of gravity hints at the more mature Ireland.

The cycle's texts feature poets both well- and (now) lesser-known. The innocently pastoral Memory—a nostalgic journey via the mind's eye to remembered scenes—sets the familiar poem by William Blake. The words for When daffodils begin to peer come from Act IV Scene II of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The rhythmic complexity of Ireland's setting vividly heightens the sense of ecstasy at the arrival of spring. English May is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet to whom Ireland returned regularly for inspiration. The opening line, 'Were God your health were as this month of May' refers directly to the chronic illnesss of Rossetti's mistress (and model for so many of his paintings), Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti married her in 1860, two years before she died from an overdose of laudanum.

The atmospheric, other-worldly I was not sorrowful uses words by Ernest Dowson, the English Symbolist poet who died in 1900 at the age of thirty-three. Described by W B Yeats as 'timid, silent, a little melancholy', Dowson became infatuated in 1891 with the twelve-year-old Adelaide Foltinowicz, who became the focus of love and innocence in his often world-weary poetry.

The cycle closes in bracing, swaggering fashion with I will walk on the earth—a no-holdsbarred paean of praise to the outdoor life, with words by another Blake—James Vila Blake. The use of his poetry is perhaps one index for the scope of Ireland's reading. Blake seems all but forgotten now, and only from an obscure 1908 Chicago publication (in the possession of the John Ireland Trust) comes the intriguing assessment of him as 'poet, preacher, theologian, litteratur … a master-mind in sweep of prophetic vision'. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The early cycle Songs of a Wayfarer (cl903/5) hints at the extent to which a love of literature was deeply rooted in Ireland from childhood years—each of the five songs features a different poet. The cycle is dedicated 'To my friend, Robert Radford', the English bass who came to prominence in the first decade of this Century through such exploits as singing Wagner's 'Ring' cycle under Hans Richter in 1908.

If the musical language of the cycle is not yet highly individual, the mood is already personal. As the title suggests, this is largely music reflecting a kinship with the great outdoors, although a young man's languor after love steals into English May and, more emphatically, into the hypnotic I was not sorrowful, a song whose chromaticism and emotional centre of gravity hints at the more mature Ireland.

The cycle's texts feature poets both well- and (now) lesser-known. The innocently pastoral Memory—a nostalgic journey via the mind's eye to remembered scenes—sets the familiar poem by William Blake. The words for When daffodils begin to peer come from Act IV Scene II of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The rhythmic complexity of Ireland's setting vividly heightens the sense of ecstasy at the arrival of spring. English May is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet to whom Ireland returned regularly for inspiration. The opening line, 'Were God your health were as this month of May' refers directly to the chronic illnesss of Rossetti's mistress (and model for so many of his paintings), Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti married her in 1860, two years before she died from an overdose of laudanum.

The atmospheric, other-worldly I was not sorrowful uses words by Ernest Dowson, the English Symbolist poet who died in 1900 at the age of thirty-three. Described by W B Yeats as 'timid, silent, a little melancholy', Dowson became infatuated in 1891 with the twelve-year-old Adelaide Foltinowicz, who became the focus of love and innocence in his often world-weary poetry.

The cycle closes in bracing, swaggering fashion with I will walk on the earth—a no-holdsbarred paean of praise to the outdoor life, with words by another Blake—James Vila Blake. The use of his poetry is perhaps one index for the scope of Ireland's reading. Blake seems all but forgotten now, and only from an obscure 1908 Chicago publication (in the possession of the John Ireland Trust) comes the intriguing assessment of him as 'poet, preacher, theologian, litteratur … a master-mind in sweep of prophetic vision'. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The early cycle Songs of a Wayfarer (cl903/5) hints at the extent to which a love of literature was deeply rooted in Ireland from childhood years—each of the five songs features a different poet. The cycle is dedicated 'To my friend, Robert Radford', the English bass who came to prominence in the first decade of this Century through such exploits as singing Wagner's 'Ring' cycle under Hans Richter in 1908.

If the musical language of the cycle is not yet highly individual, the mood is already personal. As the title suggests, this is largely music reflecting a kinship with the great outdoors, although a young man's languor after love steals into English May and, more emphatically, into the hypnotic I was not sorrowful, a song whose chromaticism and emotional centre of gravity hints at the more mature Ireland.

The cycle's texts feature poets both well- and (now) lesser-known. The innocently pastoral Memory—a nostalgic journey via the mind's eye to remembered scenes—sets the familiar poem by William Blake. The words for When daffodils begin to peer come from Act IV Scene II of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The rhythmic complexity of Ireland's setting vividly heightens the sense of ecstasy at the arrival of spring. English May is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet to whom Ireland returned regularly for inspiration. The opening line, 'Were God your health were as this month of May' refers directly to the chronic illnesss of Rossetti's mistress (and model for so many of his paintings), Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti married her in 1860, two years before she died from an overdose of laudanum.

The atmospheric, other-worldly I was not sorrowful uses words by Ernest Dowson, the English Symbolist poet who died in 1900 at the age of thirty-three. Described by W B Yeats as 'timid, silent, a little melancholy', Dowson became infatuated in 1891 with the twelve-year-old Adelaide Foltinowicz, who became the focus of love and innocence in his often world-weary poetry.

The cycle closes in bracing, swaggering fashion with I will walk on the earth—a no-holdsbarred paean of praise to the outdoor life, with words by another Blake—James Vila Blake. The use of his poetry is perhaps one index for the scope of Ireland's reading. Blake seems all but forgotten now, and only from an obscure 1908 Chicago publication (in the possession of the John Ireland Trust) comes the intriguing assessment of him as 'poet, preacher, theologian, litteratur … a master-mind in sweep of prophetic vision'. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The early cycle Songs of a Wayfarer (cl903/5) hints at the extent to which a love of literature was deeply rooted in Ireland from childhood years—each of the five songs features a different poet. The cycle is dedicated 'To my friend, Robert Radford', the English bass who came to prominence in the first decade of this Century through such exploits as singing Wagner's 'Ring' cycle under Hans Richter in 1908.

If the musical language of the cycle is not yet highly individual, the mood is already personal. As the title suggests, this is largely music reflecting a kinship with the great outdoors, although a young man's languor after love steals into English May and, more emphatically, into the hypnotic I was not sorrowful, a song whose chromaticism and emotional centre of gravity hints at the more mature Ireland.

The cycle's texts feature poets both well- and (now) lesser-known. The innocently pastoral Memory—a nostalgic journey via the mind's eye to remembered scenes—sets the familiar poem by William Blake. The words for When daffodils begin to peer come from Act IV Scene II of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The rhythmic complexity of Ireland's setting vividly heightens the sense of ecstasy at the arrival of spring. English May is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet to whom Ireland returned regularly for inspiration. The opening line, 'Were God your health were as this month of May' refers directly to the chronic illnesss of Rossetti's mistress (and model for so many of his paintings), Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti married her in 1860, two years before she died from an overdose of laudanum.

The atmospheric, other-worldly I was not sorrowful uses words by Ernest Dowson, the English Symbolist poet who died in 1900 at the age of thirty-three. Described by W B Yeats as 'timid, silent, a little melancholy', Dowson became infatuated in 1891 with the twelve-year-old Adelaide Foltinowicz, who became the focus of love and innocence in his often world-weary poetry.

The cycle closes in bracing, swaggering fashion with I will walk on the earth—a no-holdsbarred paean of praise to the outdoor life, with words by another Blake—James Vila Blake. The use of his poetry is perhaps one index for the scope of Ireland's reading. Blake seems all but forgotten now, and only from an obscure 1908 Chicago publication (in the possession of the John Ireland Trust) comes the intriguing assessment of him as 'poet, preacher, theologian, litteratur … a master-mind in sweep of prophetic vision'. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Hope the Hornblower (pre-1911) is the archetypal galloping song. The words are by one of the masters of stirring, patriotic verse, Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938). Newbolt had a special interest in the sea but here remains a landlubber, depicting the thrill of riding out to hunt. Such hearty, fresh-air music may not be to everyone's taste, but taken on its merits Ireland's setting is nothing if not exhilarating, the music matching the excitement of the poem in every bar.

When lights go rolling round the sky (c1911) again features the words of James Vila Blake. Ireland wrote nothing more extrovert than this—a song to banish melancholy, with a little help from Molly, Polly and 'John so Jolly'. For Ireland, a marking of 'Allegro con brio' was really pushing the boat out.

Sea Fever (1913) remains Ireland's best-known song. It was an immense popular success once a publisher was found after a dispiritingly long search: the firm, Augener, finally accepted it the year before the outbreak of The Great War. Augener himself was then promptly interned by the British government for the duration of the war, a sequence of events which gave Ireland a lifelong cause for merriment. The song sets one of the Salt-Water Ballads which first announced John Masefield (1878-1967) as a poet in 1902. It is said that Masefield disliked Ireland's setting, despite the royalties it must have earned for him. A measure of the song's popularity was its success in a 1930s BBC poll of all songs of any description heard over the airwaves. Sea Fever effortlessly beat all-comers, a fact which in part indicates the nature of its appeal to the slowly dying breed of ballad-lovers.

The words are a passionate expression of excitement at the sight and sounds of the sea (specifically prompted by Ireland's love of Jersey, it seems) matched by a chordal accompaniment which for the most part features Ireland's trade-mark nut-brown richness of sound. For all the urgency suggested by the words, the song is marked 'Lento', and the performance featured in this recording adopts a broad tempo. The question of the appropriate speed has nonetheless long been a matter of some debate. Ireland made it clear that he preferred a slower speed to make sure that the rich piano harmonies shone through. John Masefield, on the other hand, hated the song largely on account of the dirge-like performances that were usually served up. Apparently only the singer Gordon Cleather received his imprimatur for the speed and urgency he brought to the song.

Bed in Summer was written just before the outbreak of The Great War and published in 1915. Ireland's simple setting, with it's hopalong dotted triplet rhythm, catches delightfully the mood of an infant tantrum over bedtime schedules as caught in the accurately observed (!) poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. The child's confusion and resentment are all down to changes in daylight hours with the seasons.

The period from the latter part of The Great War to 1921 was the most fertile of Ireland's career as far as songs are concerned. Clearly there are those which reflect the composer's horror at the conflict, especially poignant for someone who was a lifelong pacifist. Among these are the two sets of Two Songs to poems by E T Cooper and Rupert Brooke respectively (not recorded here) which reflect the tragedy and futility of war. But paradoxically there are also songs of very different moods, conveying everything from a delight in nature and love to rollicking good humour.

The Heart's Desire is Ireland's 1917 setting of the final three of the five stanzas of A E Housman's poem 'March' from A Shropshire Lad. Housman never liked composers 'tampering' with his verse, so what he made of this blatant truncation is anyone's guess. The rolling, richtoned melody marks this off as one of the most overtly passionate of Ireland's songs. As boys and girls go to the fields in search of daffodils and palms, so should lovers be able to fulfil their hearts' desires … 'lovers should be loved again'—full of meaning for Housman—in his case as a repressed homosexual—and apparently also for Ireland, who repeats the final two lines with great force.

Earth's Call (subtitled 'A Sylvan Rhapsody') from 1918 takes us back to the world of the Songs of a Wayfarer, with its ecstatic evocation of the 'innocent' discovery of nature by two travellers—sky, birds, trees, ploughed land … with a culminating impassioned invitation: ' … press your heart against the ground / Let us both listen till we understand / Each through the other every natural sound'. For my money this is one of the finest of all Ireland songs, the atmosphere, especially at the start, bringing to mind some fresh-painted Impressionist picture of a breezy, airy, light-drenched country scene. Anyone with scruples about musical imitations of cuckoos may, on this occasion, be missing the point. Ditto anyone in doubt as to whether passion or ecstasy lurked within the breast of Ireland, the well-groomed bachelor. And what interest, challenge and sheer enjoyment there is for the pianist! The poem is from Harold Monro's volume Strange Meetings. Monro was born in Belgium in 1879 but came to England at the age of seven.

He was renowned as the founder of The Poetry Bookshop which from 1913 highlighted the work of contemporary poets through publications and the staging of public readings. Monro's own work was championed by T S Eliot.

The hauntingly simple, perennially popular Spring Sorrow marked a return for Ireland to the poetry of Rupert Brooke, an early victim of the war. (He died on a hospital ship in the Aegean in 1915.) While initially seeming to breathe relief at the arrivai of another spring, the ultimately bitter-sweet message is summed up in the final lines ' … the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds / And my heart puts forth its pain'—perhaps intended by Ireland as an expression of hope viewed through the suffering of almost four years of war. It is said that the published ending was selected by a pupil of Ireland's to whom the composer played three possible conclusions. An early example of musical multiple choice.

1918 also saw settings of two poems by Mary Coleridge (great-granddaughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's brother) who died in 1907. Both The Sacred Flame and Remember extol, with more than a sliver of sentimentality, the virtues of long-lasting love, a theme to which Ireland returned on several occasions, more than hinting at the insecurities within.

If there were dreams to sell, again from 1918, is a setting of the poem Dream Pedlary by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849). The dream the poet wishes to buy, to 'heal my ill', is a 'cottage Ione and still'. A complex character, Beddoes trained in medicine but was regarded as too much of a political revolutionary to be allowed to further his career as a university academic. He died by his own hand. Dream Pedlary remains his best-known poetic work, in part thanks to Ireland's direct, straightforward setting featuring a tune that you can start humming from memory as early as the second time around.

Christina Rossetti's often sombre, introspective poetry attracted Ireland in much the same way as did that of Thomas Hardy, notwithstanding the fact that Rossetti was a card-carrying High Anglican and Hardy a convinced atheist. The 1918 Mother and Child song-cycle contains some of Ireland's most spare, straightforward musical textures and ideas, matching the simplicity of the texts. The songs are settings of eight 'Nursery Rhymes' from Rossetti's anthology Sing-Song—naive and over-emotional to modem sensibilities and reflecting the preoccupation with domestic death which haunted both the Victorian mind and Rossetti's poetry. What drew Ireland to such mawkish material is an interesting psychological question, perhaps reflecting the sentimentalism and mood of loss that infected so many minds as The Great War drew to a close. Having said that, he was once quoted as having referred to himself as 'an emotional old sod'.

There are no fewer than three lullabies (Newborn, The Only Child and Baby). Hope describes the child's frustration with the fact that neither snow nor sand are any good for growing things. Skylark and Nightingale displays the joy of discovering birdsong by day and by night. In The Blind Boy a child blind from birth looks forward to seeing 'beautiful flowers and birds in bow'rs' in the afterlife. Despite Rossetti's religious convictions, Death-parting carries the flavour of Victorian doubt in the pessimistic, gloom-laden line on the death of a child, 'Never to meet again, my dear / Never to part again'. And smell the flowers at the funeral in The Garland. The cycle is dedicated to one of Ireland's sisters.

1918 and 1919 saw work on Three Songs to poems by Arthur Symons (1865-1945), the Welshborn critic and poet, friend to Oscar Wilde and W B Yeats, and himself a risqué society figure of the 1890s. Here we more obviously enter the world of Ireland's more mature music—darker, more introverted, less direct … mystical, chromatic, even acidic. Having said this,

The Adoration also manages at times to suggest the simplicity in line and cadence of an Elizabethan Iute-song. In the poem, Symons borrows the imagery of gold, frankincense and myrrh from the Nativity. They become gifts laid at the feet of an intended lover, who nonetheless rejects the offerings in favour of her 'Whom you have loved of old.' The Rat is also concerned with rejection. The pain of remembered love 'gnaws at my heart like a rat that gnaws at a beam / In the dusty dark of a ghost-frequented house.' In Rest Symons and Ireland create a magical, drowsy picture of a warm and peaceful summer day, although the spell is threatened by the plea to the 'Heart' not to find rest—'Or if thou must, cease to beat in my breast'.

Less reflective in character is I have twelve oxen (1918), a setting of an early English text from the days when oxen (clearly of many different colours and hues according to the poem) strode these lands. The poet does nothing more than show them off to a 'little pretty boy'. On more than the surface this seems robust, high-spirited stuff (and can be sung and played as such) but intriguingly the song is marked 'Allegretto grazioso' by Ireland, emphasised by 'con grazia' in the opening bar. One commentator has even referred to the 'gentleness' of the setting.

The Bells of San Marie dates from 1919. A foursquare four-bar introduction doesn't bode well, but the ballad style of this simple bell-haunted song about the delights of a mythical seaport ensured for it a lengthy popularity. Ireland here returned to poetry by John Masefield in familiar salt-encrusted mood. The 'sonsie seamen' look forward to San Marie's main attractions—drink and campanology. Happily, bell-ringing and beer-drinking remain companion pursuits to this day. Or so they say.

The Journey (1920) sets words by Ernest Blake—another Blake whom time would seem to have forgotten. A gently galloping accompaniment frames his depiction of a journey by horse through landscapes of trees and rivers.

The set of Two Songs from 1920 features poems by Aldous Huxley (The Trellis) and the Elizabethan courtier and scholar Sir Philip Sidney (the ever-admired sonnet My true love hath my heart, and I have his). In the 1920s Huxley was on the threshold of the kind of fame as a novelist which would eclipse his extended early efforts as a poet. The Trellis, which dates from 1918, describes the silent kisses and white caresses enjoyed behind the thick flower'd trellis protecting the lovers from 'prying eyes of malice'. Another intriguing choice of subject-matter by Ireland, who weaves round the words hypnotic, hazy, sensuous lines. Ecstatic moments for the lovers, but what secret inner world of Ireland's desire/frustration is reflected here? In Ireland's full-hearted setting of lines selected from My true love hath my heart, the melody is reminiscent of, say, Roger Quilter, above a passionately chromatic accompaniment.

Ireland returned to Housman in 1920/21 for the song-cycle The Land of Lost Content, one of the more searching examinations of the full emotional depth of Housman's Shropshire Lad poems, with their heady sense of loss, fatalism and nostalgia. Significantly perhaps, the title of Ireland's cycle was culled from a Shropshire Lad poem ('If truth in hearts that perish') which he in fact didn't set—suggesting the words had special significance to him. The cycle was written for the ténor Gervase Elwes who was unfortunately killed by a train before the first performance took place. This collection contains only the second song in the cycle, Ladslove, with its musing on the story of Narcissus, the Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.

The words of Love is a sickness full of woes (1921) are by Samuel Daniel (1562/3-1619), a poet, translater and writer of tragedies and masques who did service at the court of Queen Anne. Ireland's music has the whiff of an Elizabethan feel to it and imaginatively offsets the basically straightforward rhythmic pattern of the poem, which lightly muses on the pains associated with love.

The Vagabond (1922) is not to be confused with the first song in Vaughan Williams's Songs of Travel, although the theme and sentiments are much the same—namely, the simple pleasures of an outdoor life spent on the road. Ireland's setting of John Masefield's words has the flavour of a music-hall monologue, the natural speech rhythms shadowed by a discreet accompaniment.

When I am dead, my dearest is a plea by the poet, Christina Rossetti once more, that her death should carry no burden of remembrance to those left behind. Although its date of composition is given as 1924, the music carries the dedication: 'To A.G.M: Cerne Abbas, June 1925'. 'A.G.M.' was Arthur Miller, the son of a Chelsea antiques dealer who enjoyed Ireland's regular custom. Miller the younger was a close friend of Ireland and the dedicatee of several of his works, which were usually composed to mark Miller's birthdays on 22 February. Given the song's date, it is unclear whether or not this is another birthday gift, but at least we are offered the serendipitous information that Ireland seems to have holidayed in Dorset in the summer of 1925. The apparent simplicity of the song shouldn't mask Ireland's masterly economy of means and his skill at the deft placement of chords in the accompaniment. This song also exists in Ireland's own version for string quartet. A further 1924 Rossetti setting, What art thou thinking of? belongs alongside the Mother and Child cycle, reflecting as it does a child's vision of heaven, and pleasure at the thought of living there now.

Thomas Hardy's poetry and John Ireland's music were in many ways made for each other—most essentially in terms of the introspection and fatalism common to both, factors which also made Hardy the perfect inspiration for the composer Gerald Finzi. The surprise is that it took Ireland quite so long to set words by one of his favourite writers, whose work he must have known for many years. Amusingly though, Ireland's first Hardy setting—which in a way opened the floodgates—was'as convivial and extrovert a song as he wrote. Great Things (1925, three years before Hardy's death in his eighties) is Saturday-night-down-the-pub stuff (Ireland was a keen drinker), tipsy from the piano part in the very first bar (excuse the pun). The song extols the virtues of cider, dancing … and most of all, Love, which flies in the face of death.

Great Things was followed by the Three Songs to Poems by Thomas Hardy (also 1925). For all the apparent lightness of the setting, coloured by a gentle melancholy, Summer Schemes as a poem carries the very hallmark of fatalism, personal insecurity, fear of commitment to the future. There may be feverish excitement at making plans for exploring the world of nature once summer comes, 'but who shall say what may not chance before that day'. In Her Song, the female voice tells of how a favourite song served her through bright and despairing days. In the simple, mildly chromatic accompaniment Ireland demonstrates once again that less is sometimes more. Weathers dances along in a jaunty triplet rhythm marked 'Allegretto pastorale', the song simply contrasting fair weather and foul.

The sea once again looms large in Santa Chiara (1925) to a poem by Arthur Symons. The song is subtitled 'Palm Sunday: Naples'. Here, though, the sights of the sea have lost their allure: 'I have grown tired of ali these things, And what is left for me?'

1926 saw the composition of the three settings which two years later were published under the collective title Three Songs. In the first two, Ireland returns to the themes of The Sacred Flame and Remember—the solid virtue of constant, through-thick-and-thin friendship. Love and Friendship is dedicated 'to A.G.M for February 22nd 1926', so another birthday gift for his friend Arthur Miller. It has a poem by Emily Brontë (1818-1848) as its text, which in quintessential Victorian fashion likens love to Nature—Love is like a wild rose from which the petals fall all too soon, but holly remains green to the end of the year. The second song of the set, Friendship in Misfortune (to an anonymous text), compares the love that springs from such friendship in misfortune to the ivy that 'clings, when every hope has flown'. The One Hope marks another of Ireland's excursions into verse by Dante Garbriel Rossetti. This poem teases with a guessing game ('When … all is vain, what shall assuage the unforgotten pain?' etc)—with the key word ('Hope', naturally enough) being revealed only at the last.

The short 'cycle' We'Il to the woods no more (1926/27) sees Ireland once more picking up the threads of his admiration for A E Housman, and in the process providing yet another birthday offering for his friend Arthur Miller. The cycle in fact consists of two songs plus a poignant, extended postlude for piano, Spring will not wait. Both songs deal with Ireland's and Housman's deep sense of the fragility of fife and friendship. The source is not A Shropshire Lad but Housman's Last Poems, published in 1922, for which We'll to the woods no more formed a kind of prelude. Its haunting lines are ostensibly concerned with sadness at the onset of winter—'the laurels are all cut'—but clearly is caught up in a more universal sense of loss. In Boyhood returns to the familiar Ireland theme of lasting friendships, but the 'winter' of the first song finds its counterpart here in the knowledge that 'the hearts I lost my own to' have gone overseas where 'they died for me' … one of those uncanny pieces of apparent prescience to be found so often in A Shropshire Lad, giving it that relevance during The Great War which made it a best-seller.

The Five Poems of Thomas Hardy, from 1926, are immediately more chromatic than the previous set, more intensely personal, somehow presaging the anguish and embarrassment that must have surrounded Ireland's brief excursion into marriage the following year. Many have seen this cycle as the summit of Ireland's achievement as a songwriter—dense, fibrous, deeply serious, passionate—and it is hard to argue against that, whatever one's personal favourites among the composer's songs.

Unlike the previous set of Hardy songs, this sequence is presented as a genuine cycle, on the 'theme' of love remaining always painfully, tantalisingly out of reach. The first song, Beckon to me to come, is an unspoken plea for a sign from the intended lover that feelings might possibly be reciprocated. In my sage moments muses on the idea of setting hope of that love aside, but builds to a extraordinarily passionate call of 'Come!'. It was what you bore with you, woman is the emotional hinge-point of the cycle—firstly a hushed, breathless expression of the lover's appeal, followed by the bitter realisation that she is unaware, unresponsive. The same idea is carried through into The tragedy of that moment, expressing the pain of being in the same room as the person who has not returned love. The mood of the song recalls some of Gerald Finzi's darker settings of Thomas Hardy. The cycle nonetheless ends with the love being transfigured, in Dear, think not that they will forget you. Excitement builds swiftly from a whisper to a shattering climactic moment on 'I will build up a temple'—a shrine to the woman who has rejected him. If love cannot be shared, then the temple will make men marvel at her charms. Ireland's setting ends in deep (literally, in keyboard terms) introspection after we hear that though men may indeed wonder, none will ever know who constructed the temple.

In his second set of Two Songs (1926) Ireland returned again to poetry both by Arthur Symons (Tryst) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (During Music). As with The Trellis, the setting for Tryst is a drowsy summer day, the context sexual, the music sensuous. But the singer waits only—by the end of the song the tryst is yet to be kept, despite the passionate imploring of 'Come soon'. Rippling quavers define the similarly hypnotic mood of During Music. The poet—musically illiterate himself—marvels at the power of music expressed in the piano-playing of his lover … which only enhances his awareness that the rise and fall of the fingers on the keys 'stirs that shade within thy breast'.

If we must part (1929) returns again to the poetry of Ernest Dowson. The theme is a variant on the by now familiar one of friendship … this time, how to say goodbye. Words are useless, displays of emotion too painful. The alternative is very British, very stiff upper lip, very Ireland. Just say 'Until tomorrow or some other day' and leave the rest to silence. Never mind the hurt inside. Another setting. of words by Ernest Dowson, When I am old, seems to date from the 1920s. This only recently came to light when the manuscript turned up in Zürich. It is now lodged with the Syndics of Cambridge University Music Library who have generously facilitated the first recording of this song. The poem is a plea to a loved one to dwell on earlier, happier times when old age comes—the choice of the text by Ireland being evidence perhaps of his morbid fear of growing old. The rich-harmonised setting builds to a heartfelt climax, marked 'passionato', on the repeated words 'My life's one love'.

The Songs Sacred and Profane, written over two years on either side of 1930, principally showcase two female poets: Alice Meynell {The Advent and My Fair) and Sylvia Townsend Warner {Hymn for a Child, The Soldier's Return and The Scapegoat). Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was also an essayist and critic. A convert to Roman Catholicism in 1868, she gained a special reputation for the poetry she wrote reflecting a sense of religious mystery. Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was the daughter of a master at Harrow School. A novelist as well as a poet, she also joined the editorial board of the Church Music project in 1917 and then spent ten years working on the milestone ten-volume Tudor Church Music publication. In some literary circles her poetry was considered to fit her for the title of the 'female Thomas Hardy'. The one other poem in the set, The Salley Gardens, is by W B Yeats.

Working on this sequence of songs formed a significant element in Ireland's emotional and musical recuperation from the shock of his disastrous marriage. This is no cycle, rather a loose assemblage of songs reflecting aspects of human and religious experience. The Advent expresses the ordinary human side to the extraordinary fact of the incarnation of Christ. Hymn for a Child is a deliciously witty retelling of the Biblical story of the young Jesus confounding the elders in the temple, complete with rhymes so dreadfully droll they are delightful. The song ends with an ironic (child's?) prayer for help in emulating such discreet behaviour as displayed by Jesus, the 'nicely brought up child'. My Fair is a passionate love song, though one which is fully aware of the finite nature of that love. Its complexities are then cleaned off the palate by the beautiful, wistful lines of The Salley Gardens, about a youthful experience of being rejected in love. The Soldier's Return pictures the arrival home to his girl of a soldier—on foot, as the tramping, martial accompaniment would make clear to us even if the words were indecipherable. Lastly, The Scapegoat is a laugh at the expense of 'righteous' men in town snootily pleased with themselves for finding redemption from sin through the services of the goat. But it is the goat (as the skipping, jumping accompaniment makes clear) who really is free. Ireland was the pianist for a performance of this song during a Festival of Britain concert at London's Wigmore Hall in 1951. By all accounts he had the audience belly-laughing at his playing of the accompaniment under the words 'Dances on, and on, and on!'.

Tutto è sciolto (1932) was Ireland's contribution to 'The Joyce Book' in which thirteen different composers set poems from James Joyce's collection Pomes Penyeach. Among the other contributors were Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss, E J Moeran, Roger Sessions and Albert Roussel. The book was edited by Herbert Hughes, who also composed a setting. The title of Joyce's poem Tutto è sciolto, as Ireland noted in lines attached to his song, derives from Elvino's lament over his bride Amina's apparent infidelity at the beginning of the second act of Bellini's opera La Sonnambula, to which several allusions are made in Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce's poem is a twilight reflection on lost romantic opportunities, to which Ireland responds with music of subtle, if chromatic, tenderness, while making no musical reference to the Bellini aria.

Ireland's last song-cycle, the Five XVIth-Century Poems (note the literary title) dates from 1938 and harks back to his very first cycle—again five songs, again five separate poets and a similar common thread of a feeling for nature. What marks the Poems off from the vast majority of Ireland's songs is the use of the kind of early texts which normally he avoided, unlike many other composers of his day. Complexity gives way to a generally more simple style which—especially in some of the long, flowing lines—again brings Quilter to mind.

The words of the first song, A Thanksgiving (for the sights and sounds of spring) have gained in familiarity thanks to their use in Benjamin Britten's ever-popular A Ceremony of Carols. The poem, by Bassus, has a precise date: 1530. The verse for All in a garden green (a celebration of the delights of June) is by Thomas Howell, who died around 1580. A West Country man, he was educated at Oxford, then spent his life in the service of the noble Herbert family. Disappointingly, no poet can be assigned to the pithily humorous observation of womankind expressed in An Aside, which dates from the reign of Henry VIII. Then again, it is in the nature of the cowardly poet's observations that, we are told, he will not repeat them in company. Ireland's spiky accompaniment wittily suggests sharp-tongued whispering. A Report Song is a cheerful 6/8 pastoral number in praise of country pursuits from dancing to wooing, with words by Nicholas Breton (c1545-c1626), one of whose favourite themes as a poet was the poverty of those engaged in his profession … though this is not his subject here. Finally, The Sweet Season practically overdoses on the pleasures inherent in the month of May, the words being by Richard Edwardes (1523-1566).

Andrew Green © 1999

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