The formation of the John Ireland Society

On 4 May 1960 the recently-formed John Ireland Society put on its inaugural concert in the Purcell Room, in a programme of songs and chamber music. ‘Adroit and persuasive’, Eric Parkin played a number of Ireland’s piano works, among them Sarnia. The tenor John Steel sang The Land of Lost Content and other songs, accompanied by Alan Rowlands, who also played for Vyvyan Kendall in the First Violin Sonata and for Thea King in the Fantasy-Sonata. The composer, now aged 80, was present, and given a huge ovation. Lawrence Norcross, best known for his work in education, was responsible for the event, and indeed for the society more broadly.


Musical Opinion 83 (June 1960), p. 600.

Singing Ireland

A number of singers are well known for their close associations with Ireland’s music, among them Gervase Elwes and George Parker, and later Peter Pears. Another to have performed his music was the contralto Muriel Foster, one of the composer’s former fellow students at the RCM and already well-known for her associations with Elgar. In June 1917, for example, Ireland gave a  concert of his works at the Wigmore Hall. As part of the programme, the Second Violin Sonata was reprised following its recent enthusiastic reception, and Miss Foster performed a number of Ireland’s songs to that date.



Competition judges

In 1910 Ireland won first prize (a handsome sum of £40) in the Cobbett competition for his First Violin Sonata in D minor. It is interesting to look at the panel of judges. One was naturally the sponsor of the competition, Walter W. Cobbett (1847–1937). The other three were tenor and composer William Shakespeare (1849–1931), violinist Paul Stoeving (1861–1948) and the millionaire Baron Frédéric Alfred d’Erlanger (1868–1943). Erlanger (right) was a composer and banker, and as such became an important patron of the arts, especially music. Although he worked primarily for the family banking business, he also wrote a number of operas, including Tess (after Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles), and ballets, such as Les Cents Baisers, produced by the Ballets Russes in 1935.

It’s an interesting bunch, if not the most obvious panel for a chamber music competition. But it does make it easy to see why this prize attracted serious prize money: an inflation calculator shows £40 in 1910 as worth £4,296.16 today. Incidentally, second prize went to Eric Gritton (a young student at the RCM), third to a Mr O’Connor Morris and fourth to Susan Spain-Dunk. The monies were provided by Cobbett and Captain Beaumont, who was already an important benefactor and great supporter of William Hurlstone. An anonymous donor contributed a further £20, thus enabling four composers to benefit from this competition.

Source: Musical Times 51/804, February 1910, p.116.



A Macnaghten Concert

The Macnaghten Art Gallery Concert of 2 October 1959 focused exclusively on Ireland’s chamber music, in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday. It was a programme of great variety, with an array of top soloists. Eric Parkin played Decorations, with Antonia Brosa and Angus Morrison performing the First Violin Sonata in an interpretation ‘so sensitive to Ireland’s lyrical invention’. Together with Anthony Pini on cello they then went on to play the Third Piano Trio. On the vocal side, George Parker sang a selection of popular numbers such as ‘Sea Fever’, as well as the complete Songs Sacred and Profane, this time with Alan Rowlands at the piano, whose ‘insight and stylistic command’ were much admired. Ireland and Goossens were both present to hear this concert.

A slice of January

Looking over old records of performances of Ireland’s music reveals quite how busy he was, and how much played. A slice of the year 1925, focusing only on January, and by no means complete, includes:

  • 2 Jan   ‘The Island Spell’, played by Stephen Wearing in Liverpool
  • 5 Jan   ‘Santa Chiara’, sung by Harold Craig in Manchester
  • 6 Jan   A John Ireland concert in Newcastle that included ‘The Bells of San Marie’ and ‘The Vagabond’, sung by Dale South; ‘Chelsea Reach’ , ‘Ragamuffin’ and ‘The Island Spell’, played by John Ireland, and the Cello Sonata, played by Ivor James with the composer
  • 11 Jan Phantasy-Trio in Bournemouth
  • 13 Jan ‘Prelude’, played by Harriet Cohen at the Wigmore Hall
  • 20 Jan A John Ireland concert at Leeds University that included ‘Chelsea Reach’ , ‘Ragamuffin’ and ‘The Island Spell’, played by John Ireland, and the Cello Sonata, played by Carl Fuchs with the composer
  • 25 Jan A chamber music concert in the York Hotel, Berbers Street, London, that included the Cello Sonata, played by John Barbirolli with the composer, and the Second Piano Ttrio, played by Samuel Kutcher, John Barbirolli and Joseph Holbrooke
  • 26 Jan ‘Soho Forenoons’, played by S. Midgley in Bradford

Ireland in Bournemouth

In April 1924 Ireland took the train to Bournemouth, along with fellow composer Granville Bantock. Travelling there for the Third Bournemouth Festival, they stayed at the Grand Hotel. Bantock was there to conduct his ‘Hebridean’ Symphony, but Ireland too was there to conduct – his relatively recent tone poem Mai-Dun. In the same festival Harriet Cohen played Bax’s Theme and Variations for piano and orchestra, and a number of other composers conducted their own works, among them Dunhill, Howells and Moeran. All concerts were given by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, a review in the Telegraph commending them for their Herculean labours (in Lloyd, p.163).

Source: Stephen Lloyd (1995). Sir Dan Godfrey: Champion of British Composers, London, Thames.

Versions of ‘My song is love unknown’

In 1918, while still in his post as organist and choirmaster of St Luke’s, Chelsea, Ireland dashed off a potent little setting of Samuel Crossman’s words of 1664, ‘My song is love unknown’, the first stanza of which is shown below:

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?

Ireland’s version, written for The Public School Hymn Book of 1919, became a popular and well-known hymn, heard here as sung at King’s College, Cambridge. In many ways this fluid melody bears all the hallmarks of Ireland’s personal musical style, with its wistful, drooping turn at the end of the first line, and harmonic twist at ‘who am I’.

Less well-known, or rather less knowingly connected to the composer, are two recent works based on Ireland’s hymn tune. One of these is by the Sydney-based composer Paul Stanhope (b.1969) (seen left), who has written a piano quartet bearing the title of the hymn. Stanhope is one of Australia’s most talented creative musicians, with a particular gift for writing chamber and choral music as well as having produced several large-scale orchestral and choral works. His quartet, written in 2000, uses Ireland’s melody, repeating the phrase ‘My song is love’ and passing fragments of the tune across the ensemble. The effect is of a meditation on the hymn, akin to the way in which English composer Judith Weir ruminates on one of her own tunes in her chamber work, Distance and Enchantment, with the full tune gradually emerging before the piece takes off in a different direction altogether. The piece can be heard on Stanhope’s Soundcloud site.

In 2013 Stanhope returned to this hymn for another piece, this time a Piccolo Concerto. His fascinating account of how the piece was written, including his cutting up of Ireland’s melody, turning bits upside down and reconstructing them, can be read here.

Back on the other side of the world, another version of Ireland’s hymn tune appeared in  2005. This time it had a new title, ‘A Message’, part of Coldplay’s third album, X&Y, and one of a number of songs on this album that bears homage to other musicians. In this version the text is only loosely retained, with the words ‘My song is love’ assuming central importance, and Ireland’s melody for these four words forming the basis of the song. In this version it has appeared numerous times across continents.