Holy Week was a special time for John Ireland. Although not a practising Roman Catholic, he longed to be part of what he perceived as ‘permanent and absolutely age-long’ (letter from Ireland to Kenneth Thompson, 16 July 1936). From early in his life in London he always attended Easter services. Sometimes these had special significance for him. For instance, in 1931 or 32 he first met his close friend Father Kenneth Thompson after the Maundy Mass at St Cuthbert’s, Kensington (right). The sculptor Percy Bentham, mentioned in an earlier post, also worshipped at this church, where he was responsible for supervising the carving of the reredos.
In the same letter above Ireland continued: ‘The deepest religious emotion I have ever felt has been at the ceremonies on the Thursday & Friday before Easter – and the ceremonies on the Saturday before Easter as practised by the Roman Church – something everlasting – the re-kindling of Fire – Lumen Christi.’ This perhaps rambling letter refers to the Holy Saturday ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle.
Other Anglican churches with which Ireland was associated, including St Andrew’s, Deal, and St Stephen’s, Guernsey, appealed to him on account of their strong sense of ritual. Yet he was also nervous of the ‘high state of spiritual exaltation’ created by the Roman church (letter to Thompson, 1 April 1947), Thompson having now converted to Catholicism. There are many other comments on this subject in Ireland’s letters.
Holy Week also colours his musical output:
- 1898 Vexilla Regis is a hymn for Passion Sunday
- 1912 ‘Greater love hath no man’ is a motet for Passiontide
- 1919 Sacrifice is the focus of the hymn ‘Love unknown’
- 1944 ‘Ex ore innocentium’ revisits this theme
In addition, the spiritual fervour of Easter pervades a number of songs, among them ‘The bells of San Marie’ and ‘The sacred flame’. One of the most potent of is ‘Santa Chiara’, in which Arthur Symons’ ecstatic images of a personal Palm Sunday in Naples are perfectly matched in Ireland’s rapt interpretation. This song was featured at the Proms on 2 October 1930, following the first performance of the Piano Concerto, sung by George Parker with Berkeley Mason at the piano.