Top 5 Non-Musical Irish Influences on Classical Music

Thursday, March 17, 2011

For a country with a robust musical heritage, Ireland is underrepresented in the classical music canon. Few Irish composers have gained recognition within Ireland and ever fewer are known outside the country. The greatest classical event to happen there is still the world premiere of Handel’s Messiah held in Dublin in 1742. However, Ireland’s rich literary culture, from its Celtic fables to modern writers, has had an influence on classical music. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here are our Top 5 non-musical Irish influences on classical music:

1. Irish writer James Joyce was strongly influenced by his love for classical music. He even wrote a book of poetry called Chamber Music. Several composers later set selections from the work to music. Joyce returned the favor with works that inspired suites, symphonies and cantatas. Pierre Boulez, Lucio Berio, John Cage and Samuel Barber have all taken words or inspiration from Joyce. Last fall, The American Symphony Orchestra presented an entire concert of music based on Joyce’s work.

2. Ireland is poorly represented in opera and symphonic music compared to Scotland, which boasts Macbeth and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture respectively. But Wagner composed Tristan und Isolde for his heroine the Irish princess Isolde, a character out of Arthurian myth.

3. Oscar Wilde’s greatest contribution to the classical cannon is his play Salome. It was so scandalous that it was banned in England before it even reached a stage. Salome shocked Europe again when Richard Strauss set it to music in an opera of the same name. Composers paid attention to Wilde’s output of potential libretto subjects: his play A Florentine Tragedy and his sole novel The Picture of Dorian Grey were set to music by Prokofiev and Zemlinsky.

4. The Dublin-born George Bernard Shaw first won an audience as a music columnist for London newspapers writing under several pen names (among them: "Corno di Bassetto," the Italian word for bassett horn). Shaw scrutinized works of Berlioz, Brahms and Wagner and his influence is still felt in the world of criticism. Reviewers continue to quote Shaw when their own words fall short of his keen sense of insight, intelligence and ability to turn a phrase.

5. Like Joyce, Samuel Beckett was profoundly influenced by classical music, especially Schubert lieder. In 2009, actress Katie Mitchell, tenor Mark Padmore and actor Stephen Dillane built a program combining Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise with Beckett’s words. Several composers looked to the Irish playwright for source material, most notably Morton Feldman. The late American composer's meditative For Samuel Beckett recently kicked off Lincoln Center’s TullyScope festival. Philip Glass’s Company for String Orchestra was originally conceived as interludes for a stage adaptation of Beckett's prose-poem Company. Even Pierre Boulez was rumored to be writing a Waiting for Godot opera.

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