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1990 Cork International Choral Festival Seminar on Contemporary Choral Music

 1990 Cork International Choral Festival Seminar on Contemporary Choral Music

Aloys Fleischmann, Cork, composer of a work for the 21st Festival of 1974, commissioned (when no longer Festival director) in 1990

Introduction to his commissioned work Games in the context of his other compositions at the Seminar in the Aula Maxima, University College Cork 1990.

Link to Aloys Fleischmann's commissioned work Games

Transcript of the above audio recording:

"Having commissioned many dozens of works at these seminars over the years, let me say what a pleasure and honour, and indeed how astonishing it is to be commissioned myself in the distinguished company of Mr. Tavener and of Mr. Joly and the BBC Singers. Not even a major composer like Mr. Tavener would often, within the span of a few days, have three works performed, two of them first performances – not to mind a minor provincial like myself – and I owe this entirely to Dr. Spratt, who commissioned two of them. Now I don’t propose to subject you to the kind of analysis to which I used to subject composers in the past, nor to deal with complex thoughts about the composition of music and how it functions, because I suspect Mr. Tavener is likely to raise issues of this kind. I propose merely to offer a sort of personal apologia.

The best-known composer we have produced here in UCC, so far anyway, is the late Seán Ó Riada, and it is rather amusing to think that he and I went in opposite directions. When he was a student of mine he had no interest whatever in the Irish language, or in traditional music. It was only after he graduated, did a stint in RTÉ, went to Paris and came back for a holiday in the Dingle peninsula that he suddenly discovered a world of which he had been almost entirely unaware – Irish spoken as a daily living language, traditional songs sung in the cottages and the fields, Irish poetry coming from the people’s lips and later studied both in translations and the original tongue. All of this fused to make up an ideal world, for the realisation of which he worked for the rest of his short life. In making a wider public aware of the wealth of the authentic popular tradition, through his music, his recordings with Ceoltóirí Chualann, his numerous broadcasts and his immense personal charisma, he became a national figure.

Contrariwise, as a student I had already been to the Dingle peninsula summer after summer, spoke Irish fairly fluently, was enormously taken by the natural, unspoiled beauty of Irish folk song and especially of medieval Irish poetry, so much so that I felt my foreign name to be an anachronism, and my first three publications, a piano suite, a song cycle for tenor and orchestra with Irish texts, and a Carolan suite for string orchestra, were published under the pseudonym of Muiris Ó Ronáin (Maurice Ronan). After the turn of the century folk song had become a new inspirational force, with Vaughan Williams, Holst and Moeran and most of the few composers here in the 1930s and 1940s under the same spell. Brian Boydell and Frederick May being about the only exceptions. So when I was asked to write a work for the Thomas Davis and Young Irish Centenary in 1945, I thought of using the elements of a particular folk song as thematic material just as Kodaly had done ten years earlier in his Peacock Variations. As it was the Thomas Davis Centenary, I took his poem “Clare’s Dragoons”, and set it for baritone solo, war pipes, choir and orchestra. I propose to play for you just the latter part of the piece. Early on the war pipes are heard offstage but we’ll start with the section in which bits of the folk song are worked out polyphonically. This is followed by a baritone solo and, a male voice march episode, during which the war pipes start up at the back of the hall, and the piper advances up through the auditorium, and reaching the stage, the full tune is sounded “trionfale”. The baritone soloist is Austin Gaffney, the war piper is Miss Joan Denise Moriarty, who as a teenager won the piping championship of Ireland, with the BBC Singers, under Leslie Woodgate, and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Miles. This was a performance in the BBC Third Programme in 1957 (not many of you around then!) But as some of you may not know the tune, perhaps I had better play it, so that you will recognise the material which is involved. [Illustration] (The BBC balance and control man mustn’t have been in good form that night because he never balanced the war pipes.) I’ll raise my hand when the piper comes marching through the hall, and you can imagine the pipes sounding. Let me give you one further example of the folk influence, in which a folk tune is not actually used, but a tune which might actually be taken for one. When music was needed for a dance episode at our Choral Festival by the folk dance group of the Cork Ballet Company also in 1957, I wrote a choral dance suite, using string quartet, flute, harp and percussion, in five movements, called The Planting Stick, this being an occupation song during the planting of potatoes – one of the thousands of occupation songs sung by people spinning, ploughing, reaping, rowing or dandling, once widely sung, but now mainly unrecorded and forgotten. Just one planting stick tune could be found, so to match it a number of others had to be invented, and as no words survive, you may be amused to hear that the music was written first, and an Irish text added afterwards. This is the final section of the last movement. What you have just heard would probably be acceptable to the average Irish audience, but since then I have moved away from the folk idiom, thereby reducing the number of potential listeners. I have always been immensely interested in Irish poetry, and having been invited by Professor Boydell to write a work for the Bicentennial Concert Celebrations of the School of Music of Trinity College Dublin in 1964, I came across a book of epic poems on St. Colmcille by Robert Farren, who at the time was controller of programmes at RTE. He was about the toughest customer I have ever dealt with – he said he would only allow me to set his poetry to music if I agreed to keep strictly to the rhythms of his verse. I told him this was impossible, that music moves at a much slower pace than verse . Whereas the poet from one line to the next can leap to a different image, even to a different mood, the composer can only proceed bar by bar to build up a sequence of sounds, almost like raising a building brick by brick, and you can’t even construct a theme in the time taken up by three or four words, much less say anything significant. The time-scale of music would be anything from double to quadruple the time-scale of words. I showed Robert Farren examples from choral literature to prove my point, and in the end he grudgingly gave way, but didn’t even bother to listen when the settings were broadcast. one of the texts is a very slight but delightful poem about St. Colmcille’s pets. I have tried to convey the twittering of the wren, the buzzing of the fly and the stealthy movement of the cat, with a sombre Gregorian motif to suggest the monk’s sorrow on the death of his pets. The performance is by the RTE Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra, with myself conducting.

About ten years later, for the 21st anniversary of our Festival, I set a poem by Thomas Kinsella, performed by your North Country colleagues, the BBC Northern Singers, conducted by Stephen Wilkinson. This poem appealed to me as a rather novel one, showing the poet, not in the traditional garb of flowing locks, quaint or untidy clothes, and the look of a mystic or visionary, but the poet as an ordinary business man, taking the morning train to his office, lending a hand about the house, or looking after his onion beds – so there is a lot of throw-away accompaniment, fol-de-diddles and the hum-chum-chum of the train, and when the poet says “humming, as I catch the bus, something by Sibelius”, realising there must be a quotation at this point, I have the tenors sing, one of the main themes from the Sibelius tone poem “Tapiola”. Later an idea suddenly strikes the poet as be bends over one of his onion beds, and the first climax, is reached with the word “Babylon”, dying away and fading into the distance. In the latter part of the poem, the poet satirises himself, and his bored menagerie of words, his laziness, his lack of discipline, and his sense of the futility of it all as he slogs a tambourine, which gives a good opportunity to use tambourine rhythms, and finally there is a brief aleatory passage in which the singers can repeat as often as they like, until the conductor calls them together for a final rally. When I was asked to write something for this Festival, I thought of choosing a poem by Seamus Heaney, our Professor of Poetry at Oxford, but on looking through an anthology he has edited I landed on a set of poems by the Serbo-Croat poet Vasco Popa which seemed to leap from the page. I think it was Eric Satie who said that we composers are very modest people – we have invented the art of ruining poetry. And it’s my fear in this case that instead of enhancing the poetry, making it more vivid, giving it more impact, it would be better read, or declaimed, without being disturbed by a commentary in sound. However that may be, I did feel that because of its verve and the direct hits of its imagery, it would need percussion to point its edges, and a harp to give the percussion more colour. And so, without any sanction from the Director of the Festival, I committed the grave act of writing a work three times the length allowed, and inflicting extra cost on the Festival’s precarious finances by adding three artists to an already over-loaded seminar. So I remain in the Festival’s bad books.

Anyway, taking the first poem, I thought vibraphone and harp would make a good introduction to the first verse, with its quasi-comical introspection. Then in the 2nd and 3rd verses there is the jump “to the top of oneself”, with all voices leading to the peak of their registers, and then the “dropping down to one’s depths”, with voices and harp in lowest register, and a final flourish for the lucky survivor.

In “The Nail”, tugging a nail out of the floor obviously calls for the clatter of a xylophone, and pretty violent rhythms, with a solo soprano making a wry comment, and the last line spoken dryly.

The third poem “Hide and Seek” deals with someone hiding from the other and the other looking everywhere for the first character – so it’s full of dactylic rhythm: “Look for him, look for him, look for him”. In the next section you will notice that the major second is the main harmonic element, as it is here and there throughout these settings almost everywhere. In this search for the other character something happens which can happen any of us when we become engrossed in some unattainable goal, namely we lose ourselves. (Perhaps I should have mentioned before this that we have substituted conga drums instead of the bongos specified in the score, as being far more effective, and also tambourine rolls instead of the maracas.)

In the fourth setting, as the poem deals with a rose tree and the theft of a rose, there is somewhat rich, even romantic harmony [Illustration] and some words are painted, for instance “the wind’s daughters” [Illustration]. The thief who stole the rose is finally exposed, and at the end when his heart is opened with the rose in it, there is an upward movement to a ppp climax, on a spread diatonic seventh. The fifth poem is quite daft – everyone biting off bits of each other, burying the bits, with people then trying to retrieve their own bits again. So there has to be hectic movement throughout, imitative entries here and there, and a switch at letter C to waltz rhythm and back again to alla breve at the foot of the page, then back to 6/4 at letter E. To be candid I didn’t know how the swirling lines of the last three or four pages would work out, and if I asked Mr. Joly I’m sure he would be far too polite to say they don’t work out at all! I’ve done this sort of interweaving with woodwind, and it works out pretty well, but I don’t think it’s too good with voices. Now “Ashes” is a problem, remembering Eric Satie and the ruining of poetry. Because here we’re dealing with the evolution of the universe, with the dance of the planets, amid the immensity of space. Harp and vibraphone provide the main links in the attempt to portray night and the lighting up of each star, while the undulating tone of the vibraphone produced by its fan is meant to give a sense of timelessness. The black dance of the poem is suggested by a strongly rhythmic passage which leads to a climax, dying away as the star burns out. But the black dance is resumed again, and this time it leads in ever-diminishing circles to the slow revolution of a star around itself, until the basic interval of the major second drops slowly from vibraphone to voices, and on the last page remains immobile, while harp and vibraphone add their faint echo to the death of the last star.

(Incidentally, we felt that the harp harmonics on this last page are too dry, and better left to vibrate normally at the given pitch.)

The whole poem is so full of magical imagery, so potent in its evocation of the immense distances of the universe, that it would take a real master to do it justice" 

[Aloys Fleischmann]