A Classical St. Patrick’s Day

We’re fast approaching St. Patrick’s Day—a time when everyone celebrates their Irish heritage, whether they’re Irish or not.

Ireland is justly famous for its music, and in the spirit of this festive holiday I thought I’d share a playlist of classical works with a tie to the Emerald Isle.  So, grab a pint of green beer (or better yet, some fine Irish whiskey) and enjoy!

* * *

Arnold: Irish Dances. Malcom Arnold was one of Britain’s most popular and prolific composers of the late twentieth century, celebrated for his film scores, symphonies, concertos, and more.  His four Irish Dances, which premiered in 1986, are miniature marvels—rhythmic, festive, and brimming with joyous melodies.  (Check out his similar sets of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish Dances, too.)



Bax: Irish Landscape Although English by birth, Arnold Bax had a strong affinity for Ireland, and visited the island whenever he could as a source of inspiration.  He was a particular proponent of the writings of W. B. Yeats, and set several of Yeats’s poems to music.  His 1928 tone poem, Irish Landscape, is a love letter to the Emerald Isle—a gorgeous setting for harp and strings that captures the mystical aura of the land.



Beach: Symphony in E Minor, “Gaelic.”  This 1896 work by American composer Amy Beach premiered, suitably enough, in Boston. It was the first symphony by an American woman composer to gain public attention, written at a time when American composers as a whole had trouble breaking through onto the international scene. The Gaelic Symphony was Beach’s response to Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s call for American composers to explore their musical roots. In this case, Beach adapted the Irish-American music of her native Boston to stunning effect.



Cassidy: The Children of Lir Patrick Cassidy, a native of County Mayo, is best known for his narrative cantatas based on ancient Irish mythology.  His 1993 work, Children of Lir, was an instant sensation, topping the Irish classical charts for over a year.  The sonic world Cassidy creates in this 45-minute work is unique—a contemporary take on baroque music, with traditional Irish instruments thrown in to add color.  The text, in Irish Gaelic, tells a poignant story of children turned to swans by their stepmother; they are bound in these forms for 900 years until they are finally set free by a monk.



Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry, “Londonderry Air. “Londonderry Air” is a perennially popular Irish tune whose origins are shrouded in mystery.  The tune has been adapted by a variety of songwriters over the years; its most popular incarnation is as the song “Danny Boy,” with lyrics written by English lawyer Frederick Edward Weatherly in 1910.  Australian composer Percy Grainger came across the tune in 1901 and was immediately enchanted.  He made several arrangements of it over the course of his career, including this popular version for string orchestra.



Handel: Messiah The inclusion of Handel’s great masterpiece on my list may come a surprise—after all, it makes no reference to Irish music, nor to any Irish landscapes.  That said, the work premiered in Dublin in 1742, and was a resounding success.  At the premiere, Susanna Cibber’s performance of the solo aria, “He Was Despised,” was so powerful that a local clergyman rose to his feet and exclaimed, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”



Harty: An Irish Symphony. Sir Herbert Hamilton Harty was a bit of a Renaissance man when it came to music.  Born in County Down in the north of Ireland, he made a name for himself as an organist, but after moving to England he served as a noted composer, keyboardist and conductor.  In particular, Harty was appointed permanent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester in 1920, where he was committed to performing works by contemporary composers. An Irish Symphony was explicitly built off of familiar Irish tunes, which are referenced in subtitles for each of the movements.  The first movement was entitled “On the Shores of Lough Neagh,” the second was named “The Fair Day,” the third is a lament based on “In the Antrim hills,” and the finale is a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, “The Twelfth of July.”



Larsen: I Arise Today.  This 1993 choral work by Minnesota’s celebrated composer Libby Larsen is a setting of a prayer traditionally attributed to St. Patrick.  In the accompanying notes, she writes:  “The music of this piece using the text of ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate,’ reflects the broad affirmation of God’s strength and ever-presence described in the text in solid harmonic statements throughout. ‘I arise today, through God’s strength’ as shown in nature and Christ. It may be sung at any time and is well-suited to the Easter season.” Sure, but it seems a good match for St. Patrick’s Day, too.




Pärt: The Deer’s Cry.  Arvo Pärt’s breathtaking choral work was born from  a commission from the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland. Similarly to Libby Larsen above, He chose to set the closing verse of “St Patrick’s Breastplate,” a text attributed to Patrick directly, and dating back to the saint’s own lifetime in the fifth century. The title refers to an inscription on the shield of a knight, often spoken as a prayer before going into battle. In the case of St Patrick, the story goes that he and his followers evaded ambush in a forest by reciting this prayer, and by their foes seeing them pass by as a doe and twenty fawns; hence the prayer’s other name, The Deer’s Cry.



Stanford: Symphony No. 3, “Irish.”  Stanford is often credited with sparking a renaissance in British music during the nineteenth century—not only did he create stunning works of his own, but he served as a mentor for a future generation of composers including Edward Elgar.  His Third Symphony is a curious work, inspired by traditional songs from Stanford’s native Ireland as well as Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, which had debuted a few years earlier.  Among the tunes Stanford made use of are “Lament of the Sons of Usnacht,” “Molly McAlpin,” and “The Little Red Fox.”  Mahler was a particular fan of the symphony, and led two performances of it with the New York Philharmonic in 1911.



Sullivan: Emerald Isle. Arthur Sullivan achieved world-wide fame with W. S. Gilbert for their comic operettas, but he always wanted to be recognized as a legitimate composer of “real” works in his own right.  Emerald Isle is one of his independent works, and shows Sullivan’s conscious rejection of the absurd mayhem that features so prominently in the Gilbert & Sullivan works.  The plot centers around Irish patriots in the late 1800s who attempt to hold onto their culture in spite of government efforts to make them more English. Sullivan died before the work was finished, and the remaining music was composed by Edward German.



Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea This one-act opera is a masterpiece of mood, tension, and compressed energy.  The plot comes from a play of the same name by John Millington Synge; it centers around an elderly Irish woman who has lost most of her male family members to the sea.  Sensing doom for her last surviving son, she implores him not to go out with a storm approaching.  He reassures her that nothing will happen, as he is simply walking horses to market… but the fates have other plans.



Happy St. Patrick’s Day!





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