Letters: Looking for the Irish Bartók

Béla Bartók

Letters: Looking for the Irish Bartók

David Flynn’s search for the ‘Irish Bartók’

Dear Editor

I applaud David Flynn’s search for the ‘Irish Bartók’, and I agree with almost everything he says, but I am afraid his ideas don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. On one side are people who say ‘Irish traditional music is a self-contained, self-sufficient world, which doesn’t need anything from the classical world’ (which is a much more negative attitude than anything Ó Riada ever said). On the other, there are those who say ‘You don’t have to sound Irish in order to be Irish – that is all part of a cultural nationalism that is now outmoded’.

One hundred years ago, Michele Esposito, piano professor at the RIAM, and a noted composer, said:

If your Irish composers use every modern device of the orchestra their music will be none the less Irish… The music that the future will call Irish will be written by Irishmen and will be Irish by virtue of something of his race-consciousness which his music will set free – no matter what his creed or political opinions may be. They will be ‘national’ in the same way that Dvorák and Grieg and Brahms are national.

When the late Joan Trimble first read this quotation in 1998, she told me that this expressed exactly her ambitions as an Irish composer: attempting to be Irish yet at the same time European. Esposito was right then, and he is right now. Composers who try to be exclusively ‘Irish’, whether ‘traditional’ or ‘classical’, become so self-conscious that the resulting ‘music’ will only really be at home on the ferry from Rosslare to Le Havre or from Larne to Trondheim.

Maybe Bartók wasn’t the best example for David Flynn to choose: Sibelius’ music is unmistakeably Finnish, yet it doesn’t contain a single direct quotation from any Finnish folk tune. With the exception of his ‘Shielmartin Suite’ Brian Boydell never once employed an Irish tune, yet his work is imbued with Irishness.

But there is, in my opinion, no promising ‘climate for collaboration’ between the ‘two traditions’ such as David Flynn supposes. The only prospect is for people like him to forge their own musical personality and to discover who or what they are, without reference to the gauleiters of the traditions or of musicology. When he writes (in an e-mail to me), ‘I do not intend to take traditional melodies and put them into classical structures, I do not intend to bastardise traditional Irish music, rather I want to create a new form of Irish music, contemporary classical “Irish” music, a music which draws heavily on traditional influences without directly taking any melodies’, I shout ‘Hurrah! – sense and courage at last!’ But he’s on his own, and both sides will be fiddling while he burns sul ponticello.

Richard Pine

Published on 1 September 2005

Richard Pine, Director of the Durrell School of Corfu, is a former Concerts Manager in RTÉ. He is the author and editor of books on Irish music history and of definitive studies of Oscar Wilde, Brian Friel and Lawrence Durrell.

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