One of my favourite parlour games (if there is still such a thing as parlour games) is to imagineyeats the world as it might be if Yeats (pictured right) and Sibelius (below, left) had switched places at birth. In this picture, Finland produces one of the great modern poets and Ireland unexpectedly gives birth to one of the great composers. It’s not such a stretch of the imagination. Both men were born in 1865 into small countries that had difficult relations with larger neighbours. Both based their early work on local mythology, and both became national symbols. Both became members of the artistic advance guard after a crisis that for both seems to have been caused by nothing more dramatic than turning 40. Both ended their careers by writing their greatest works, in both cases reflecting a timeless kind of majesty and poise.

It is what happens in Ireland after the death of Sibelius in 1939 that really interests me. The powers of the new state, spurred by the international standing of the recently deceased giant, initiate a system of universal music education beginning at the primary school level. Youth orchestras flourish in every county, and a system of academies trains the cream of students to the highest international level. A school of composers emerges eager to emulate Sibelius’s achievements. By the late century, Irish conductors are at the helm of several international orchestras performing works by some of the best composers in the world: Irish composers. Artists from larger cultures stare in wonderment: how did such a small country ever do it all?

JeansibeliusThe international standing of Irish music is high, but the situation at home is particularly heartening. We have a populace that, thanks to this early training, knows about and loves music. Not for Irish writers and painters the puerile rubbish that artists from other countries usually talk when they talk about music at all. When Aaron Copland says that if you ask a writer to say two words about music, one of them will be wrong, he famously exempts Ireland from the general infamy. Our artists and writers and engineers and doctors know their Beethoven and Stravinsky, and can hold their own on musical topics other than the adolescent whinings of the latest grunge band.


It didn’t happen. Well, it did - in Finland. Not a country with much in the way of musical tradition or material wealth (it suffered famines in the 19th C as bad as ours). Finland got Sibelius, and Ireland got Yeats. And it is part of my case against the great poet – and the dossier is an extensive one, I’m afraid – that he threw his weight behind the diminishment of music, and that this authority has now seeped into us to a deep, and perhaps irreversible, level. His tone-deafness was not his own fault. But his aggressive musical philistinism was, and it has given the imprimatur to many philistinisms, big and small, since.

Here is Yeats in an early essay on music:

I would even avoid the conversation of the lovers of music, who would draw us into the impersonal land of sound and colour, and I would have no one write with a sonata in his memory. We may even speak a little evil of musicians, having admitted that they will see before we do that melodious crown. We may remind them that the housemaid does not respect the piano tuner as she does the plumber, and of the enmity that they have aroused among all poets.

The reference to the housemaid is a reminder of Yeats’s snobbery. And it is interesting that he is so swayed by her taste when it comes to music: the housemaid doesn’t like it, so it must be bad. In matters literary, he would not have allowed her such scope. Music, in short, is the enemy.

Even with great artists we must take them as they are rather than as we would want them. But a great man’s foibles become those of a host of epigones, and the result has been the peripheral status, unique in Europe, of concert music in this country. It is of course argued that Germans and French and Italians do not comment on our musical poverty, and even laud us as a musical and cultured people. I’m not sure what this argument is supposed to prove. If I were to visit an Amazonian tribe I would consider it unfitting to comment on the paucity of nuclear physicists among them. But this is a different thing from assuring them that they are a great scientific nation.

Meanwhile, Finland had Sibelius.

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