John Ireland ‘Decorations’: The Finest English Impressionism

Dearest readers, we have made it to Day ‘I’ of my jam-packed October Alphabet Challenge! Today, I shall be delving into the musical world of John Ireland, and his set of three miniatures for piano – Decorations. 

John Ireland was born in Bowdon, Cheshire in 1879, and was the youngest of five children. It has been widely documented that Ireland had a rough childhood. His mother and father died within a year of each other in 1893 and 1894, when he was just 14/15 years old. From 1893, Ireland had enrolled at the Royal College of Music, studying piano with Frederic Cliffe. From 1897, he then began studying composition under the tutelage of Charles Villiers Stanford. Like many composers of that time, Ireland was heavily influenced by landscapes, and he would make the effort to travel to the Channel Islands to soak up the views.

As well as a composer and working musician, Ireland was also a music educator and in 1923 he began to teach at the Royal College of Music. Ireland’s pupils include the likes of Benjamin Britten, Richard Arnell and Anthony Bernard. Although relatively well-known for his musical output, many have described Ireland’s personality and character. One has referred to Ireland as “a self-critical, introspective man, haunted by memories of a sad childhood.” Britten commented on Ireland as his student saying he possessed “a strong personality, but a weak character.” Ireland remained alone for the most part of his life, bar a brief marriage which ended in under a year. In 1953, Ireland retired in Sussex, where he lived in a converted windmill. In 1959, Ireland declined an OBE award from the Queen, but we are still unsure as to why this was. At age 82, Ireland died in 1962 in Sussex, UK.

Ireland was heavily influenced by the French Impressionism era, with Ravel and Debussy being at the forefront. This caused Ireland to develop his own ‘English Impressionistic’ style. Ireland wrote smaller works, meaning no symphonies or operas. His output includes chamber music, choral music and a large catalogue of piano works. Today, Ireland is best-know for his Piano Concerto, and many of his smaller-scale piano works.

Decorations was composed between 1912-1913, whilst Ireland was on one of his ‘landscape trips.’ The work, which takes around 10 minutes to perform, is in three movements:

  1. The Island Spell
  2. Moonglade
  3. The Scarlet Ceremonies

The imagery that is threaded through these movements are a testament to Ireland’s unique and thought-provoking style. Magic seas and fairy woods are evoked by the serene,and also dramatic first movement. It is compelling and charming and a wonderful example of pictorial writing in music. I find this movement very resonant of Debussy, and French impressionism. The gentleness of the piano glides as the simple melodies sing out. The music intensifies with the use of acceleration, dynamic and a gradual increase of shorter notes, which creates a beautiful wall of sound. The ending comes back down to a very quiet dynamic, and becomes chordal again, rather than note-driven.

The second movement is again, slow, remote and ‘pure impressionism’ some would claim. Small kernels of music are stretched out to create longer phrases. A quote from Arthur Symons is reflected in this movement – “Why are you so sorrowful in dreams?” and this can be interpreted through the sparse nature, the (largely) minor tonality, and the dragging feel at times. Throughout this movement, there is a sense of the music fading away, and this literally happens at the end, after every small kernel of material has been sounded.

The third and final movement of this set is entitled “The Scarlet Ceremonies” and is certainly the most striking of the collection. A relenting pulsating rhythmic frame can be heard throughout, with clear melodies being sounded in both the left and right hands. The whole movement is essentially based and developed from the initial twelve bars. The music is full of literal decorations such as trills and ornaments, which adds energy and excitement to the movement. The climax at the end, with the double glissandos on the black notes (ouch!), is the focal point of the piece.

An innovative, artistic and wonderfully put together. A trio that should never be forgotten! I do hope you have enjoyed today’s instalment, it is a work I like very much. Join me very soon for Day ‘J’ of my October Alphabet Challenge – you will not want to miss out!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

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