Ethel Ireland the composer

Portrait of Walt Whitman, Camden, New Jersey, c.1891 (gelatin silver print)

Walt Whitman, c. 1891

Of all his family, Ireland was closest to his sister Ethel, and a long and regular correspondence between the two saw the composer repeatedly looking out for his sister during her years of hardship following divorce and during the Second World War. What is less known is that she was herself a published composer after her studies at the RAM. The British Library holds a copy of her accompanied recitation, Come up from the fields, father, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poignant words concerning a young man who does not return to his Ohio village. Instead, his parents, in their peaceful setting, with its sky, ‘so transparent after the rain and with wondrous clouds’, receive a letter telling how he was shot in the back in a cavalry skirmish. Ethel’s setting captures the rural opening of the poem, with a compound time ‘Alla pastorale’ in G major, before moving into unaccompanied recitation, and then alternating these two styles. The piece ends with an ‘Alla marcia’ in D minor as we move from innocence to hope then despair, with the words ‘Alas! poor boy’. Ethel’s piece was published by Weelkes & Co. in 1894. She doesn’t seem to have taken her composing career further, and indeed was soon married with two children. Her piece can be viewed in the British Library at Music Collections G.385.k.(3.) .

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