One of Ireland’s pupils at the RCM was the renowned ethnomusicologist, composer and BBC Producer Peter Crossley-Holland (1916–2001). On the face of it very different personalities, they went on to become good friends.
A sequence of letters from Ireland to Crossley-Holland is held at the Royal College of Music. They span a period from 1935–52, and contain many fascinating little observations and revelations. The letters cover a decade when Ireland was living away from London, and end when he was back in his Chelsea home following the end of the war. In the letters Ireland always refers to his former pupil by his surname, and writes fondly of many of his students.
In 1939 Crossley-Holland invited Ireland to his wedding. The latter was then living on Guernsey, and declined the invitation, while suggesting the island as a honeymoon venue – somewhat ironic given that Guernsey was invaded only 8 days later. In the following year, now living in Radlett, Ireland gives his comments on Crossley-Holland’s Piano Sonata, hoping he will not get the ‘Celtic or “bardic” fever – it does not lead to conciseness or clearness of expression or form’ (24 July 1940). His pupil was at this time working as an ARP warden. Crossley-Holland asked Ireland to be the godfather of his new son Kevin in 1941, with the composer politely deflecting the request.
In 1945 they met at the Albert Hall. Crossley-Holland was now living in Wilmslow, Ireland back in Gunter Grove. They met again in 1948, soon after which point the surviving correspondence concludes.
Source: letters from John Ireland to Peter Crossley-Holland, RCM: http://www.rcm.ac.uk/media/rcmacuk/content/documents/Letters%20from%20and%20writings%20on%20John%20Ireland.pdf
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!’.