The symposium The achievement of Sean O’ Riada (edited by Bernard Harris and Grattan Freyer, Irish Humanities Centre) gives the flavour of an era of Irish music now almost gone. Published in the wake of his death in 1971 at the age of forty (and long out of print), the book is enriched by memoirs from his contemporaries, including Seoirse Bodley and John Kinsella. From these it is possible to sense at second hand the fascination that his contemporaries felt for him and something of the self-destructive forces that tore at him.
One’s first encounter with a composer is always worth trying to remember. And like so many, mine with O’Riada was the music for the film Mise Eire, dealing with the 1916 Easter Rising. A music teacher briefly introduced the composer and put on the record. I was transfixed by the sound of the solo horn, the climax in the orchestra, cresting on a cymbal-crash, and the head-motif of the folk melody folding back on itself into a long cadence. The piece in its own way had something of the satisfying arch of the first movement of the Karelia Suite. And I suppose it must have registered somewhere in my subconscious mind that someone Irish could, after all, do this kind of thing too. A small awakening.
It is clear from the portrait that emerges in the book that O’Riada had the charisma and something of the protean musical capacity of Benjamin Britten. Like Britten, O’Riada covered a lot of musical ground in a short life, becoming everyone’s idea of the Irish composer. My parents and grandmother knew who O’Riada was. Why, then, did Britten achieve an international reputation while O’Riada remained, and remains, a strictly local figure?
The matter of traditional music must sooner or later come into the picture. O’Riada was a leader in its revival, and that world in the 50s and 60s was self-confident enough to welcome his ideas (about instrumental ensemble, incorporating the harpsichord etc.) into its sometimes stiflingly self-reflective orbit. But there remained a problem, for O’Riada the ambitious, classically trained musician knew that there had to be more to a catalogue that could stand the test of time than arrangements of traditional music. The book has an appendix in the form of a bitter public exchange with the Irish Times critic Charles Acton in which Acton dared to point this out. A petulant O’Riada did not take it well.
It seems to me that the tragedy of O’Riada was an Ireland that was prepared to accept his second and third best and to accord him the status of ‘national composer’ on that basis. He knew that he should not accept the bargain. But he did accept it. No one apart from Acton publically asked about the sustained, laboriously crafted output on which any lasting reputation must depend. O’Riada continued sporadically, half-heartedly (if the music itself is anything to go by) to turn out concert works, hailed by Acton and others as groundbreaking achievements, but in truth bitty, off-the-hanger imitations of Shostakovich with some nods in the direction of the avant-garde. But these works added, and add, little to his reputation as our ‘national composer’. When it came to asking the hard questions about productivity, discipline, and measuring oneself against an international standard, his audience was not going to bother, so why should the composer?
Conspicuously absent from the symposium is Brian Boydell. I remember Boydell in a lecture describing to us the upset over RTE’s refusal to mount a festival of the dead composer’s work. Boydell’s opinion: there was not enough of the work, and it was not good enough, to justify any such festival. The saying goes that if you want a foretaste of your final standing, listen to your enemies rather than your friends. Boydell’s will I think, sadly, be history’s verdict, at least on the concert output of Sean O’Riada.
But a question abides. What makes an Irish composer? If you write music, and are Irish, you are an Irish composer. Such, at any rate, is the non-committal, if liberating, answer that my generation has given. Frustratingly, it does not appear to be one that musicians from other cultures are satisfied with. Here is a curious anecdote. When Stockhausen (yes, Stockhausen) came to Ireland to receive a fellowship from the Royal Irish Academy of Music, he was asked what music he wished to hear. Any of our contemporary composers? No. Sean nos singing was what he wanted. To one strain of thinking about the destiny of music in this island – I am thinking of the strain that argues that if we can ape the latest tendency from Cologne, or Ircam, or wherever, we thereby become part of the international mix - this story is worth taking time to ponder over. For it embodies, it seems to me, the contradictions that Sean O’Riada had to live out, and that helped to destroy him. O’Riada is dead; however much we like to pretend otherwise, the dilemma he faced is alive and kicking.