John Ireland: piano trio no. 3 in E

performed by The Holywell Ensemble

(Golly Gee Willikers, another with no YouTube. I should check on that more often, but I also won’t let the free availability of music on YouTube influence what I share, especially if I’ve spent the money to buy the album in the first place. I can’t insist that this is a must-have, life-changing work that you must spend your hard-earned money on, but it’d sure be nice if you could give it a listen instead of read my words alone. It can be found here, also on iTunes, where I got it, but I can’t seem to find it there now.)

John Nicholson Ireland was born 13 August, 1879 in Bowdon, near Altrincham, Cheshire, into a family of Scottish descent. His father was 70 years old at his birth, and the boy was the youngest of 5 kids in Mr. Ireland’s second marriage, after the death of his first wife. John’s mother died when he was 14, his father the following year.

He entered the Royal College of Music in 1893, studying under (yes, that’s right) C.V. Stanford. Ireland is largely known for his songs and chamber music, and his second violin sonata was a large success. The composer said (per Wiki) that “It was probably the first and only occasion when a British composer was lifted from relative obscurity in a single night by a work cast in a chamber-music medium.”

Thirty years after he himself entered the RCM, he began teaching there, and among his pupils included Richard Arnell (will discuss), Ernest John Moeran (unfortunately will not discuss), Benjamin Britten (will discuss), among others. We won’t discuss his music in detail, and it’s hard to give an overall impression of it when I have heard very little of it. I can’t even be sure that this work is a good representation of his output, but Wikipedia says the following:

From Stanford, Ireland inherited a thorough knowledge of the music of Beethoven, Brahms and other German classical composers, but as a young man he was also strongly influenced by Debussy and Ravel as well as by the earlier works of Stravinsky and Bartók. From these influences, he developed his own brand of “English Impressionism“, related more closely to French and Russian models than to the folk-song style then prevailing in English music.

That’s a compelling description. So let’s get to it.

We’re actually jumping back a bit in our chronological order. I should have posted this last weekend if it were to be in the right place chronologically, but… #throwback or whatever, right?

The trio is in four movements, and plays for about 25 minutes. As Jerry Dubins mentions in Fanfare (reproduced on Amazon), the third trio was completed from “an aborted clarinet trio Ireland had begun a number of years earlier.” It’s also the first of the composer’s three works in the form to be in a standard four-movement form, the others in one continuous movement. It’s also twice as long. Dubins says:

The ghost of Brahms is gone now. The idiom is unmistakably modernist English, with William Walton, to whom Ireland dedicated his score, being prominent among its influences.

I haven’t listened to the other works, but even the oversimplification of calling Ireland an “English Brahms” can’t be too disadvantageous. The opening movement of the work is a richly Romantic, lyrical, almost Chopinesque movement, heavy on piano, fluid, but apparently also reminiscent of Walton, but I’ve literally heard nothing aside from his first symphony, so I can’t say.

After only reading about (and not listening to) Ireland’s second piano trio, it seems the third trio is of a much more carefree world. James Manheim’s review at AllMusic of a disc on which both of these works appear mentions “a point in the music that Ireland said was meant to evoke soldiers coming over the top of a trench” and “a feeling of anger.” He says almost nothing about the third trio, except that it’s dated from 1938 but draws on material written much earlier.

In any case, the first movement is warm and sunny, untroubled by war or angst or anything of the sort, like if Chopin had relocated to the English countryside and lived a few decades longer.

The scherzo, though, seems as if it’ll be a bit darker. It’s clearly a triple-movement dance-like thing, but at times almost feels like it wants to be a march. It’s quick and fun, and feels like there’s a bit more personality here. It’s no criticism of Ireland’s work to say it’s quintessentially Romantic and English. It’s beautiful, but the second movement is far more interesting, playful, but mischievous at first, but opening out to a playful, bucolic sound, with some truly breathtaking melodies.

The vivace scherzo is the shortest movement in the piece, and the andante cantabile is the first, most obvious inkling to my ear, and even then only in parts, that the piece was written as recently as it was, not in the late 19th century, but even then, there’s no trace in this work of influence from Schoenberg or Stravinsky or Shostakovich (not that there would be), no atonality, or any kind of modernist tendency, just beautiful music, and that’s why it rather suits the #throwback idea. We don’t hear a composer’s response to war, a broken marriage, a life left in shambles, any of that kind of thing, really just sublimely-crafted music meant to be enjoyed, sighed at with relief and pleasure.

The greatest intensity or tension in the work comes in the finale, marked con moto, and even it is characterized by shimmeringly lyrical melodic lines, the kind of thing that sticks in your ear for a day or two after you’ve listened. The writing for the trio is really exquisite throughout this work, as the instruments at turns maintain their independence or fall in line to sing together. After a more blustery opening, there’s a contrasting, folksy, almost song-like melody. The piece finishes with an exciting flourish.

I have to say that as well-crafted and beautiful, as carefree and textbook Romantic as the work is, with Ireland’s English flair, it’s still not the kind of music I tend to favor, at least lately. The ‘prettiest’ music I listen to lately has been Chopin’s mazurkas while I’m doing some reading or something before bed, but if I had to make a list of the qualities I’m looking for in music that interests me the most, ‘pretty’ wouldn’t be at the top of my list.

But then again, I wanted to include Ireland because, as we have seen, it seems everyone who’s anyone studied with him, and this piece shows him indeed to be in possession of exceptional talent as a composer, even if I haven’t heard anything else he wrote. Maybe that more war-inspired second trio is more my speed.

In any case, maybe you haven’t heard of John Ireland, but tomorrow’s featured piece is from a composer who is likely one of the first to come to mind, at least among musicians or music folk, when the words “English composer” are uttered, although not as much so when specifically talking about symphonies, even though he wrote one. Right? So tomorrow we’re getting a string quartet. Stay tuned.


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