Two great Irish Symphonies!
Having already presented the first three works in our St. Patrick's week series of Irish Symphonies (don't worry if you missed them; we'll play them again soon), the two finest of the genre are coming up Thursday and Friday afternoon's in WFCR's classical music. Here's a little bit about the composers, both of whom are better-known for other things.
In the case of Sir Herbert Hamilton Harty (1879-1941, above left), that "other thing" was conducting the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England, which he did with notable success from 1920-1933. A native of Hillsbororough, County Down, Harty held positions as church organist in Dublin and other Irish towns from the age of 12 while also showing early promise as a composer, then went to London in 1900 to make a career as a piano accompanist. The story of how he came to compose his best-known work, and simultaneously launch his brilliant conducting career, would make for a good legend if it weren't fact.
For several years starting in 1901, the organizers of the Feis Ceoil, the annual music festival in Dublin founded in 1896, offered a special prize for symphonies based on Irish melodies. Whether they knew it or not, such a work had already been composed, Sir Charles Stanford's "Irish" Symphony of 1887. Either way, their inspiration was instead Antonín Dvořák's "New World" Symphony, which they mistakenly thought was based on authentic African-American melodies. In fact, while Dvořák was clearly influenced by the spirituals sung to him by Harry T, Burleigh, a student at the conservatory the composer directed in New York, all of the tunes in the "New World" actually sprung from Dvořák's fertile melodic imagination.
The first prize in the competition was given in 1902 to Harty's friend and mentor, the Dublin-based Italian pianist and composer Michele Esposito for his "Irish Symphony", Op. 50 — good luck ever hearing this or anything else by the once-prominent musician. Harty's "An Irish Symphony" was the second, earning great acclaim when the composer led the premiere in May 18, 1904 — the first time, he later admitted, that he had ever conducted an orchestra! It comes up during the 2:00 hour Thursday afternoon on WFCR.
Needless to say, the last of our five composers, Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900, above right) is best known for his comic opera collaborations with playwright W.S. Gilbert — The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and all the rest of the durable delights that keep countless light opera companies going to this day. (One of them, Amherst's own Valley Light Opera, will be giving an extremely rare performance of Sullivan's Haddon Hall on Saturday night). This is not how Sullivan would have liked to go down in history. He put far greater stock in his symphonic, choral and serious operatic works. But while the oratorio The Golden Legend and the opera Ivanhoe earned acclaim in the composer's day, and such hardy perennials as "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Lost Chord" are "retained in the vernacular memory" (as it's delicately put in the article on Sullivan in The New Grove Dictionary) , Sullivan's more serious output is now mostly regarded as little more than quaint Victorian artifacts — indeed, after Felix Mendelssohn, Sullivan was Queen Victoria's favorite composer.
A native of London and of partial Irish descent, Sullivan was moved by a holiday in Northern Ireland in 1861, as well as by the model of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony, to compose a symphonic work capturing the lore and landscape of the land of his ancestors. As with the Mendelssohn, Sullivan's Symphony in E major, "Irish", contains no folk tunes, though its melodies and rhythms leave little doubt of their Hibernian inspiration. Well, writing such a work was one thing; getting it performed was another. There was almost no tradition of performances of new English symphonies at the time, much less one by a young and unknown composer. But the symphony's premiere eventually took place in 1866 at London's Crystal Palace, thanks to an unlikely advocate — the legendary "Swedish Nightingale", Jenny Lind. Perhaps she saw in the young Sullivan an heir to her late, great admirer and perhaps lover (discussion and refutation), Felix Mendelssohn. In any case, Lind's drawing power brought 3,000 people into the hall, and gave Sullivan his first major success. You can hear Sir Arthur Sullivan's "Irish" Symphony Friday afternoon on WFCR. And happy St. Patrick's to all!