‘Personal convictions of a practical musician who had engaged with music first-hand all his life’

Monday, April 9, 2018 - 10:30am

Composer KEVIN O’CONNELL’s musings as prepared for the Brian Boydell’s Centenary Conference 2017


Brian Boydell liked to quote a remark by Vaughan Williams to the effect that music was like a great river to which all the composers and schools formed tributaries. This remark was characteristic in its sanity. Plenty of composers are happy to allow the river/tributary analogy on the basis that they are the river and everyone else is a tributary. Boydell’s remark imposes a degree of modesty. But in talking about Boydell the composer one is at risk of over-emphasising the modesty, a danger in a world which, caring little for music, is often too happy to take composers at their own evaluation. 


Boydell was a very ambitious composer in the one sense that matters. He measured himself against Bach and Beethoven and found himself wanting. And somewhere in the gap between ambition and achievement, his own compositional voice emerged. This central plank of his aesthetic viewpoint being firmly fixed, all the other planks fell into place. I want in these remarks to look at one of them: his pronouncements about other composers. A composer’s remarks about other composers should never be taken as objective assessments: the nonsense that Stravinsky talked about Shostakovich, or Mahler about Sibelius should be fair warning. But they are often revealing nonetheless. Boydell’s opinions were fresh: they had not been plucked from books or newspapers, but were the personal convictions of a practical musician who had engaged with music first-hand all his life. I remember him first surprising us in a lecture on Baroque music. ‘Do any of you know Schutz?’, he asked. ‘I think he is one of the great figures.’ Not knowing who or what he was talking about, this is an opinion I have come to agree with. Like all good teachers, Brian said things that bore fruit only years later. 


Boydell was convinced that a virtue of the greatest composing was a strict adaptation of means to ends. His objection to the opening of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was that an E flat chord had no option but to impress when you have a thousand performers sounding it. Mahler’s Eighth to him showed a lack of imagination.  The tighter focus of Sibelius’ compositional approach was more sympathetic to him; one of his most detailed lectures was devoted to Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, a work that shows absolute economy in stating what it has to state, like chamber music writ large. This bias partly explains why Boydell’s finest music is in his chamber works. He knew what the string quartet from Haydn to Bartok was capable of, and his three major essays in the genre are, as with Bartok, the laboratory of his musical style.  


Boydell’s remarks about British and Irish composers were doubtless spiced by the inevitable rivalries that exist between contemporaries dealing, however differently, with similar problems. He thought that early success, including a contract with Boosey and Hawkes, had damaged Benjamin Britten’s talent. Automatic publication and promotion had lured Britten into over-production and a thinness in quality. Boydell found in Britten’s music moments of genius separated by too much that was prosaic. 


His remarks about Frederick May showed a deep affection tinged with exasperation at May’s impracticality. Scores would arrive to the Dublin Orchestral Players with impossible clarinet notes or wrong transpositions. All was readily forgiven because of the sincerity and artistic commitment of this composer. Another contemporary whom Boydell regarded with affection was A.J. Potter. Like many Irish composers, Boydell stood in awe of Potter’s technical accomplishment, while also seeing some of its dangers. But his admiration is a reminder that he and Potter belonged to an age when technical fluency, now often regarded as a badge of inauthenticity, still ranked high among a composer’s natural gifts. 


About Seán Ó Riada, Boydell was more equivocal. Indeed, Ó Riadawas one of the few composers that I ever heard him speak about damningly. Ó Riada’s early death was recent enough to be a painful subject, and RTÉ had been criticised for not organising a tribute to the dead composer in the form of a festival. Boydell’s opinion was that there should be no such festival because Ó Riada’s had not written enough concert music, nor was it good enough, to justify one. This is one of the few subjects on which I have come to differ from him. He evidently saw Ó Riada’s attempt to provide Ireland with a national style as a dead end. In fact the issues that Ó Riada’s career brought into focus, if not always his music, have proved stubbornly relevant not only in Ireland but internationally. I wonder if Boydell’s pacifism helped to create an inadvertent blind-spot. Pacifism is necessarily international in its outlook; I remember Boydell attacking even competitive sport for the way in which it set people against one another. To someone like Boydell, Ó Riada’s music must have seemed dangerously retrospective, indeed provincial. But if one is consistent in this approach, the composers one would surely have opposed at other times and in other places would have included Janáček and Mussorgsky (not to mention Vaughan Williams, one of Boydell’s heroes), provincial nationalists despised by the urban sophisticates in their own countries.  I dwell on this aesthetic knot because it is one that Irish composers, knowingly or not, are still teasing at. 


Boydell’s most trenchant remarks would often be made in the wake of a performance, and I wish I had been more systematic in noting some of them down. John Kinsella enjoyed a success with the premiere of his First Violin Concerto at the 1981 Festival of Contemporary Music. Boydell admired this work and said something to me about John having matured. I am sorry I did not press him to elaborate. But I am certain that he was commending Kinsella for abandoning the off-the-peg modernism of many 1960s composers in favour of a personal style, even at the expense of appearing out-of-date. 


This brings me to Boydell’s feelings about the avant-garde. Reading his long interview in The Life and Music of Brian Boydell, it is obvious that Boydell is uncomfortable with questions about the Schoenberg school and its followers. One honestly wonders how much of their music he knew, and I do not remember him discussing it with any sympathy. For Boydell, avant-gardism belonged with populism and a facile nationalism as ways of dodging the central, one might say, adult compositional concerns. These feelings extended to Stockhausen, mingled I suspect with some personal distaste. The starting point of Boydell’s music was frequently enough an intellectual problem, but the end-point is always the expressive purpose. In skirting this concern, avant-gardism made composing easy in the wrong way. 


Differences of opinion sometimes came into the open, and it was surprising to see Boydell not only defensive but sometimes cowed by a strongly held contrary opinion. One such exchange pertained to Poulenc. As a student I shared the common view of this composer as a lightweight, a sort of juggler in the dead-serious arena of musical modernism. In the middle of a discussion very critical of Poulenc, Brian first attempted to defend his music, but then joined the criticism by observing that Poulenc’s choral writing was unidiomatic. I have since made my peace with Poulenc and come to better understand his often extraordinary quality. In my memories of Boydell, I see a pattern. Thinking my understanding of modernism and other subjects was more sophisticated than that of my teacher, I see that it was simply narrower.


Like many former students, I kept in touch with Boydell, but less conscientiously than I, and perhaps he, would have liked. I last saw him in the Blackrock Clinic where he was being treated for the accumulating woes of old age but remained mentally as sharp as ever. He remarked that one came to a stage when one had to decide between Bach and Beethoven. That remark shows a side of Boydell that  is not mentioned enough – his toughness. Culture is now marketed as an inclusive playground that must keep everyone happy, when we all know that it is a battleground with winners and losers. Beethoven orBach. He had come down on the side of Bach. I am sorry that I forget the reasons he gave. That does not matter. It is when I feel like dodging the issues or taking a shortcut that his salutary example admonishes me. Boydell’s personality was at once larger than life and gentle. But it was also patrician: you felt you had to offer him your best, and I am sure I am not the only composer who is trying still to live up to his precepts and example. Somewhere in the middle of the opinions I have discussed stands the composer himself, individual, sometimes isolated, always courageous.


Kevin O'Connell www.cmc.ie/composers/kevin-oconnell

Image of Brian Boydell sourced from cmc.ie