Foundations – Britten and John Ireland


“Either the boy is awarded a scholarship, or I resign”. The words of John Ireland, the first prominent composer to grasp the full musical potential of the young Benjamin Britten – who, in the event, did not have to relinquish his post at the Royal College of Music as his wish was granted.

Ireland taught the young Britten composition in the early 1930s, and had his own anniversary last year, having died in 1962. His music has tended to flourish in the recording studio rather than the concert hall, with a very impressive legacy secured through the championing of his cause by cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and pianist Mark Bebbington, among several others, and the record companies Chandos, Hyperion, Naxos and Somm.

As a composer, Ireland never received full credit for some distinctive and appealing if often moody music. Happily the anniversary year redressed that balance somewhat, with the John Ireland in Chelsea festival, curated by the John Ireland Trust. The creative acumen behind some very strong chamber, brass and choral works could be fully explored, and striking compositions such as the Cello Sonata and the Piano Trio no.2 could be heard in the church where Ireland was organist and Director of Music.

Complementing all this was an authoritative reference work compiled by Lewis Foreman, The John Ireland Companion. This functioned as a box of substantial cuttings on Ireland’s life and music, the reader able to take in features about different aspects of Ireland’s music, character and legacy.

Ireland taught Britten in the early 1930s, and Foreman’s book reveals that it was a troubled time for the teacher, who was often late or indisposed from composition lesions due to personal problems. And yet, barring a brief period in the 1940s, he was rarely less than fulsome in his support for his pupil as the years progressed, writing to Britten in praise of both Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. On hearing the latter, he saw Britten as ‘possessing ten times the musical talent, intuition and ability of other living British composers put together’.

Britten enrolled with Ireland at Frank Bridge’s request in 1929, and from his notes it is clear he took much from their composition lessons. As a teacher Ireland was strict, but he helped instill discipline and sound working methods. Under his tutelage, Britten wrote the early String Quartet in D, the Sinfonietta, the Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio and the choral piece A Boy Was Born.

Britten’s verdicts on Ireland’s own music were not always complimentary, with records from 1932 quote him praising the ‘magnificent’ Mai-Dun for piano and orchestra countered five years later by thoughts on the ‘tub-thumping, puking sentimentality’ of the choral piece These Things Shall Be. Far greater importance can be attributed to a more mature quote in 1957, recognising how Ireland ‘nursed me gently through a very, very difficult adolescence’.

By then, respect was much more forthcoming. Foreman details a delightful episode from 1951, where Britten turned the pages as Sir Peter Pears and Ireland himself performed his songs at the Wigmore Hall. Ireland’s companion Norah Kirby notes how, ‘He treated John rather as boy would have treated a much revered master’.

The pair recorded the brief cycle The Land of Lost Content for Decca, a performance characterised by delicacy and care. Britten’s softly oscillating figure in the piano for The Lent Lily is notable, as is the softer timbre of Pears’ high register in many of the songs. They also recorded some individual songs, including the intensely private The Trellis.

When Pears and Britten performed the work at Aldeburgh in 1959, Britten wrote in the program notes of a performance ‘given as a tribute to a composer of strong personal gifts and real single-mindedness of purpose’. He noted songs ‘contain his most individual thoughts’, and, quoting from a broadcast by William Plomer, said, ‘There have been many English composers to set Housman’s poems, and none, to my mind, more sympathetically successful than Ireland. There is much in common between Ireland and Housman, who ‘in his strange, magical, musical, and at times sentimental way…seems to say good-bye to the vanishing peacefulness of the country, and to the freshness and innocence of its young men’.

These sentiments stand out, for this ‘vanishing peacefulness’ surely became an integral part of much of Britten’s mature music.

The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist, which includes a number of Ireland’s finest compositions. A review of the John Ireland in Chelsea’s final concert can be found here, and the John Ireland Society operates from here. The John Ireland Companion, edited by Lewis Foreman, is published by Boydell & Brewer. The following recordings were used as reference:

Ireland: The Land of Lost Content; The Trellis; Love and Friendship; The One Hope – Sir Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Ireland: A London Overture – London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult (LPO)
Ireland: Sarnia – Mark Bebbington (piano) (Somm Recordings)
Ireland: Piano Concerto in E flat major – John Lenehan (piano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / John Wilson (Naxos)
Ireland: Mai-Dun – Hallé Orchestra / John Wilson (Hallé)
Ireland: Piano Trio no.2 – Lydia Mordkovitch (violin), Karine Georgian (cello), Ian Brown (piano) (Chandos)
Ireland: Cello Sonata – André Navarra (cello), Eric Parkin (piano) (Lyrita)
Ireland: Concertino Pastorale – London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult (Lyrita)

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