Monday, September 3, 2018

Rebellious ferment

‘We believed in our views, then considered so revolutionary, with burning intensity, and were completely intolerant of narrow nationalism or the academic establishment. The rebellious ferment also infected our social behaviour . . .’ This is Brian Boydell, one of Ireland’s major 20th century musical figures, writing in his introduction to a memoir focused on the 1940s. The memoir has just been published, for the first time, by Cork University Press with the title Rebellious Ferment, and includes a diary kept by Boydell for just a few months in 1950.

Boydell was born in Howth, County Dublin, into a well-off Anglo-Irish family. His mother was one of the first women graduates of Trinity College, and his father ran the family malting business. He was sent to England to be educated, first at the Dragon School, Oxford, then to Rugby. After a summer in Heidelberg, Germany, where he wrote his first songs and also studied organ, he won a choral scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, though studied natural science, graduating in 1938. At Clare, he became a member of the Cambridge University Madrigal Society (which gave him an abiding love of Renaissance music) and ran the music society. Subsequently, he studied at the Royal College of Music, before returning to neutral Ireland at the start of the war, and enrolling at Trinity College, achieving a Bachelor of Music in 1942.

Boydell was soon well ensconced in the Dublin music world - performing, composing and teaching. In 1943, he was appointed conductor of the Dublin Orchestral Players, and the following year he was appointed Professor of Singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. In 1944, he organised a concert featuring his own compositions; and the same year he married Mary Jones. They had three sons (one of whom, Barra, is a leading authority on Irish musical history and Emeritus Professor of Musicology at Maynooth University.) In 1948, Boydell helped found the Music Association of Ireland with the aim of promoting classical music throughout the country. And, in the mid-1940s, he began presenting radio programmes on music appreciation - he would go on to present 1,000 or so such programmes. In the late 1950s, he founded the Dowland Consort, a vocal ensemble with which he performed for many years.

By 1962, Boydell had obtained a Doctorate in Music, and he was appointed Professor of Music at Trinity College. He also also served on the Arts Council for several decades. Apart from music, his interests ranged widely, from painting and photography to cars, fishing and gardening. Following his retirement from Trinity, he devoted himself to musical scholarship, and wrote several books on Irish music history. Further information can be found online at Wikipedia, RTÉ, Trinity College, The Irish Times, The Journal of Music or The Guardian.

Boydell was not a natural diarist, but for the first half of 1950 he did keep a daily diary. This was only discovered in 2014 (down the back of his heavy writing desk). Barra Boydell has now included edited extracts from this diary in a handsome volume, published today by Atrium (Cork University Press), entitled Rebellious Ferment: A Dublin Musical Memoir and Diary. Apart from the diary, the book includes a substantial memoir written by Boydell in the early 1990s covering his life up to the early 1970s.

Cork University Press says: ‘Informative, entertaining and written with an engaging combination of passion and elegance, this is a highly readable book. It presents a vivid portrait not only of artistic life (including painting, poetry and theatre as well as music) but also of politics, religion, infrastructure, education and society in mid-twentieth-century Ireland. Brian Boydell presents a captivating account of his engagement with a wide range of often colourful people, including those associated with the White Stag Group in the early 1940s, and the European musicians who settled in Ireland and contributed so much to Irish musical life from the late 1940s.’

Barra Boydell’s introduction explains how, in 1992, his father turned his attention, somewhat hesitantly, towards writing a memoir (
he called it A Reluctant Slice of Autobiography) with a particular focus on the 1940s. Barra notes how his father uses the phrase ‘rebellious ferment’ to describe the artistic environment in this period - hence the title of the memoir/diary. Barra then also points out how, in the diary, his father writes often about other, non-musical interests and that ‘selected passages relating to these’ have been included so as to produce ‘a full picture’ of Brian Boydell the man, rather than just a musician.

Unfortunately, Barra Boydell has decided to leave out almost all passages concerning his father’s diary entries on ‘private, purely family matters’. This may be understandable given his relationship to the material in question, but such passages would surely have provided a yet fuller picture of the man. That niggle aside, this is a very well-produced book. The diary entries are annotated with useful notes, there is a comprehensive index, a select bibliography (though no list of musical works), and a good selection of photographs.

With many thanks to Cork University Press, here is an extract from Brian Boydell’s preface to his memoir (ellipsis in square brackets indicate my omissions). This is followed by several extracts from the diary (ellipsis NOT in square brackets are as found in the published diary and indicate where the editor has omitted text). NB: footnotes as found in the published volume are not indicated or included here.

Preface to Memoir - Dublin, 1994
‘There are not many of us left to tell, from personal experience, the story of that remarkable period in the history of artistic development in Ireland during the Second World War and shortly afterwards. In a country which had only recently broken free of foreign domination, there was a feeling that Irish creative artists should barricade themselves against foreign influence and proudly celebrate the long-suppressed achievements of a past Golden Age. [. . .]

In the 1930s, the doors that admitted winds of European change were beginning to open. Then, with the outbreak of war in 1939, a motley influx of artists and intellectuals, who for various reasons wished to escape to a neutral country, brought further stimulus. The barricades were down, and the doors fully open to admit a veritable gale which ignited the smouldering aspirations of those who wished to explore new fields of creative activity. [. . .] The lowered voices, which before the war had whispered of modern movements such as surrealism as though communicating some indecency, now became confident. With the encouragement of such ‘subversive’ leaders, the apologetic squeaks became a somewhat arrogant and rebellious roar. We believed in our views, then considered so revolutionary, with burning intensity, and were completely intolerant of narrow nationalism or the academic establishment.

The rebellious ferment also infected our social behaviour. An orthodox lifestyle was considered to be unutterably boring. Beards (not at all seemly in those days - even publicly revolting); corduroy trousers and ‘effeminate’ suede shoes; pacifism and left-wing views; people living together in socially unacceptable circumstances .... And then, of course, we dangerous intellectuals posed a threat to those authorities nervously trying to steer a neutral country through the political minefield of wartime diplomacy.’

17 February 1950
‘Incredibly mild yesterday and today - lovely feeling that spring is here .... Things are bursting out in the garden .... Spent much of the morning cataloguing and arranging a new batch of records which Ralph [Cusack] got for me from Douglas at about ⅓rd price. Fascinating stuff, mostly unobtainable now. Mahler Symphony no. 9, Walton Viola Concerto, Strauss Sinfonia domestica, Ferguson Octet, Bach Sonata in C for 2 violins, cello and harpsichord, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, quarter-tone music of Haba, Indonesian music and Dvorák Symphony no. 4. Played the Hába which is fascinatingly queer, and a bit of the Stravinsky which is of the very dry neo-classical period. Before this we went out to fetch the Lancia from Grattan Norman’s - grand to have her again, going beautifully, and so smoothly with the new transmission couplings and the clutch in order again. Mary drove the Lancia back, and I had quite a job to keep up with her in the Alvis.

... Have started copying really good parts for the leading desks of violas and cellos for The Buried Moon Suite so as to be finished with any possibilities of mistakes in the parts. Did the viola part of the March tonight.’

21 February 1950
‘It turned out to be quite a big job preparing the candles for the Haydn symphony spent the greater part of the morning at it ... At 4.30 yesterday the army rang up Charles to inform him that no instruments would be available for the DOP concerts after three weeks’ notice! So I had to rush down to the Phoenix Hall to collar two trumpets, an oboe and timpani player. It was like trying to catch kittens - for when the rehearsal finished they all made for the door at once; however I managed to book them - so that there is a great weight off my mind as regards the brass section of The Buried Moon Suite.

... [lessons to singing pupils in the afternoon] ... Wind rehearsal at the Academy at 7.30. Unfortunately a number of the section could not attend, so that it was not as useful as it might have been. We worked hard until 10.00.’

26 March 1950
‘… After lunch, we put the hood down on the car for the first time this year, and went off to Blessington. I spent the afternoon spinning for trout with the new threadline outfit, which I am beginning to master ...

Wolfram and Ingrid Hentschel and Rory Childers came for the gramophone evening. We played Bach Suite no. 3, and had a great deal of argument about speeds and appoggiaturas. Then Prokofiev Violin Concerto no. 2 - which didn’t impress Wolfram very much on first hearing. We then talked a good deal about romanticism, conductors, theosophy, etc., etc. After tea we played my Feather of Death and In Memoriam M. Gandhi - they were particularly impressed by the latter. We finished up with Bloch’s Second [String] Quartet which I enjoyed better than ever before. Everyone was very excited by it. I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is one of the masterpieces of our time.’

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