Aside from the obvious attractions of its climate, landscape and historic dolmens, there are other reasons why John Ireland might have been drawn to Jersey. It is an island full of the sorts of customs and legends that fascinated him. One distinctive tradition is the Jersey perquage, a sanctuary path leading from the island’s churches to the sea. As long as a person seeking sanctuary remained either in the church or on one of these roads, then they enjoyed the protection of the ecclesiastical authorities. Few traces of these ancient and unique paths remain, however, as land was gradually sold and incorporated into private property. However, the tiny chapel at St Brelade’s Bay still has its perquage, the shortest on the island, given that the chapel is virtually on the beach.
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.
One of the books on Ireland’s shelves was John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities. This is a fascinating collection of ceremonies and customs, with all sorts of little nuggets contained within. For example, laurel was an emblem of peace, joy and victory, and Saturn was worshipped by pagans. On May Day there was a custom to go to the woods the night before, break down branches and adorn them with flowers in honour of the goddess Flora.
The folklore in this book finds its way into Ireland’s music, most notably in these two piano works:
The Boy Bishop
‘Boy bishop’ was a name for a custom common from medieval times whereby scholars/choristers elected three of their number. One had to play the role of the bishop, the other two the deacons. The ‘boy bishop’ was escorted by other boys in solemn procession to the church where he wore a mitre and presided over worship. The boys then went singing from door to door, demanding money as the Bishop’s subsidy. The custom was widespread across Europe. In England the boy bishop was elected on Saint Nicholas Day, his authority lasting until Holy Innocents’ Day.
The wistful little piano piece, Month’s Mind, is prefaced by a quote from Brand’s book, referring to an ancient custom whereby it was possible to arrange for a special service, a ‘Month’s Mind’, to be said a month after death.
John Brand (1744-1806) published his Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain: Including the Whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1777, the work generally abreviated to Popular Antiquities. Into it he incorporated the earlier (1725) complete Popular Antiquities of Henry Bourne. Brand’s volume was added to and revised a number of times, eventually reworked by William Hazlitt as an alphabetical dictionary in 1905, becoming Brand’s popular antiquities of Great Britain : faiths and folklore ; a dictionary of national beliefs, superstitions and popular customs, past and current, with their classical and foreign analogues, described and illustrated. It is almost certainly this edition that Ireland owned and used.
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.
On this day in 1914 Ireland met up with his good friend Thomas Dunhill, who recorded this in his diary:
29th Jan: . . . met Jack at Sloane Square. To his flat – a long talk on many subjects. We played the new Schoenberg pieces, and laughed over them! – I cannot somehow believe that there is anything real in them, with all the will in the world! And I hate being a Conservative!
The pieces that caused such consternation were Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, published in 1913. This was in more ways than one a controversial year for Schoenberg: in March he conducted what came to be known as the ‘Skandalkonzert’, a concert in which the audience rioted and fighting broke out.
Dunhill showed a certain horrified fascination for this composer, having earlier in the month attended a Queen’s Hall Symphony Concert, at which Schoenberg conducted his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op 16. On this occasion Dunhill wrote: ‘Of course I could make nothing coherent of this extraordinary stuff – it is like going back to primitive noise! The music of the past, I think – a real representation of chaos!’.
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.
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