Book Review: The Life and Music of James Wilson

Saturday, October 10, 2015 - 1:30pm

 MARTIN O'LEARY looks at Mark Fitzgerald's biography of a most important figure in Irish Twentieth-Century Music, James Wilson.

Mark Fitzgerald writes in the Conclusion of his biography of James Wilson that the aim of his book is “to steer interested performers on their own journey through the Wilson archive”, and to heighten “awareness of even one corner of Ireland's musical past”. The latter aim is still a valid and urgent one in Irish music scholarship, despite the publication over the past few years of books on composers such as Aloys Fleischmann, Brian Boydell, Seoirse Bodley, John Buckley and Raymond Deane among others, as well as Benjamin Dwyer's superb book comprising interviews and a wider historical context Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland. All these volumes provide valuable source materials for the informed consideration of Irish composers and their music, and go some way towards rescuing both the composers and their music from the obscurity in which they have dwelt for far too long. This is the first biography of James Wilson (1922-2005), an English born composer who settled in Ireland from 1949, and Fitzgerald succeeds admirably in presenting a cogent chronicle of Wilson's life and career which, in its discussion of selected works offers an accurate appraisal useful in introducing the music to an unfamiliar reader or listener. In addition to this, his commentary is underpinned by a close examination of the pieces under discussion. It is both general (in the best sense) and precise, both introductory and focussed.

Fitzgerald's approach to his subject is largely chronological, although he departs from strict chronology on occasion to discuss related works (such as vocal works or works for children). In this manner he is able to provide overviews of all corners of Wilson's sizeable output (176 opus-numbered works, plus several more without opus number), which is quite a considerable task, given how productive Wilson was throughout his composing career of about 40 years. The usual division of a composer's output into early, middle and late periods is to an extent followed by Fitzgerald, beginning with his first pieces written after settling in Dublin in 1949. The second creative period runs from the late 1960s through to his late works (after the reduced scoring of Grinning at the Devil leads to, as Fitzgerald puts it, “a move towards increased clarity of sound resulting in thinner textures). It is quite telling (and indicative of the conditions governing the Irish compositional scene, and the limited opportunities for performance) that his first major success did not occur until 1965, with the production of The Hunting of the Snark, op 8 in the Royal Irish Academy of Music.The seven performances in five days (including two matinees) were sold out — a statistic that loses none of its impressiveness with the passing of time since 1965. This piece combines two aspects of his creativity that recur throughout Wilson's subsequent output, namely works written for the stage, and a humorous, whimsical choice of subject material and texts. (Wilson's final, incomplete opera, Stuffed Raspberries, op 176, would unite these two areas once again). From then on Wilson pursued his calling ( “the constant desire to create new compositions(s)” as Fitzgerald expresses it) with purpose and dedication, building and sustaining working relationships with key performers and interpreters such as Colman Pearce, whose championing of Wilson's work was a major force in sustaining his profile and reputation. His collaborators also included the sopranos Jane Manning and Dorothy Dorow and the Israeli violist Rivka Golani as well as several of the top professional musicians in Ireland. Fitzgerald offers lucid and insightful commentary on a number of selected works from each creative phrase. This constitutes the fullest account yet written of Wilson's output, and for this alone, the book is invaluable.

Wilson's attitude to his own work is described as “diffident”, which sits oddly with his continual productivity (see Fitzgerald's assessment quoted above). He also stated that he was always “more interested in my subsequent work”, which I can attest to, as he once commented to me that the reason he kept composing was his hope that the next piece would be better. This diffidence, however, does not appear to be borne out in the case of a work like Capricci, op 33 for piano, written in 1969 but not performed until ten years later. Fitzgerald quotes the composer's comment on this — “I remembered it eventually, dusted it off, and showed it to Philip Martin” — to whom it is dedicated. This raises several questions — was it the meeting with Martin — a superb pianist, composer and champion of Irish music — that led him to revisit the piece (and dusting it off is a wonderfully imprecise description), or had he been trying unsuccessfully for years to interest other prospective performers in the work (which would be difficult for a sizeable work not commissioned for the performer being approached). The piece was subsequently recorded in 1985 by Nicholas O'Halloran — a recording which is mistakenly attributed to Wilson's Thermagistris, op 29 in the Discography — at a time when there were very few commercial recordings of the music of Irish composers. Wilson presumably chose this work as being representative of him for this series of three cassettes released by Goasco. This attests to an ambiguity in Wilson's attitude to his output as a whole, and his comments on this — it is difficult to disentangle the often anecdotal information in relation to the composer and his works. Fitzgerald manages adroitly to steer a logical course, and draws extensively on correspondence and documented interviews to allow Wilson to speak (however ambiguously) for himself.

One aspect of Wilson's creativity which is noticeably consistent is his attitude to the matter of revising works. His comment to me quoted above would appear to support this — Wilson rarely returned to a work once it was finished. There are a few exceptions, such as the first symphony, op 4 (which he revised with the assistance of Colman Pearce after its premiere for a radio broadcast) — and once again his comments are ambiguous — on the one hand being glad he did it while also admitting in an interview to finding it very difficult. The second case is that of Tam O'Shanter, op 12, where Wilson added piano and percussion parts to an unaccompanied choral work: a close comparison of the two scores (which Fitzgerald doesn't provide) might yield some interesting insights into what Wilson changed and why, or if there were any changes either in musical material or structure as well as instrumentation. To those colleagues (such as myself) who were in regular contact with him, he was unusually reluctant (for a composer) to talk about himself or his work in any detail, but he was always delighted to share his latest work and received one's reactions to it with the gentlemanliness and reserve typical of him. His love of music was pervasive (his greatest inspirations were Mozart and Ravel), and his combination of this with his enthusiasm for sharing compositional practise and experience were reflected in his teaching. This (in the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Ennis (now Irish) Composition Summer School) was directed towards enabling the student to find their voice, rather than writing in a Wilson-esque style — a thought which horrified him. This is a virtue of his teaching that even a cursory comparison of the divergent styles of pupils such as John Buckley, Derek Ball, Jerome de Bromhead, Roger Doyle and Paul Hayes makes abundantly clear.

Wilson is one of the most successful Irish opera composers in terms of performances in Ireland and abroad (along with Gerald Barry and Kevin O'Connell), and his operas are given a detailed and insightful commentary here. His perseverance in opera composition (and in particular large scale opera composition) is typical of his devotion to the creative act (as he said of Virata, op 153, it “had to be written”), sometimes in the face of the practical reality (which, for a composer interested in large scale opera in Ireland is all but hopeless). Wilson's two large scale operas — Grinning at the Devil, op 101 (1984)— in its original scoring — and Virata, (1999) remain unperformed, and Wilson reduced the forces required in Grinning at the Devil to enable it to be produced in Copenhagen, leading to a very successful run at the Riddersalen Theatre in 1989. With regard to A Passionate Man, op 139 (1995) and Virata, the fact that Wilson interrupted work on the latter to write the former is indicative of the often practical basis of Wilson's work — where the prospect of a performance of the opera on Swift (on a much smaller scale than Virata) was a major determining factor in this decision to put a work not scheduled for performance to one side to avail of the opportunity of hearing a different work. Fitzgerald offers an insightful commentary on Grinning at the Devil and is also quite critical of A Passionate Man, citing its lack of drama, despite it containing (in my opinion) some of Wilson's most strikingly lyrical music (in the final scene). He draws on Wilson's own remarks in an interview in Soundpost to highlight the weaknesses of A Passionate Man, and indeed notes that Wilson, according to Jane Manning, who sang in the first performance, “was not happy with the opera”.

Fitzgerald opines that “Wilson's output is variable in quality” but also singles out some of his most significant works for special comment and advocacy. These include the second symphony Monumentum,op 64 (“one of the most successful works in Wilson's output”) which Wilson, perhaps surprisingly, omitted from a list he made himself of key works. This work has been performed only once — and is sorely in need of a further performance and recording. Later works such as Angel One, op 112 and Menorah, op 123 are also viewed as key works, and in an output as large as Wilson's this selection is useful and may help prospective performers to choose works which will do the most to advance his reputation and profile. This is one of the most important achievements of the biography. There are some passing errors — the Ennis Composition Summer School is not, and never has been run by the Association of Irish Composers (as stated on page 179). There is an informative commentary on Letters to Theo, op 92 which states that it is based “on a twelve-note pitch collection” but there are only eight pitches in the following music example. While the commentary relates how Wilson often fragments the row (in a manner related to Alban Berg) the context of the musical example is nonetheless confusing.

The reader of this biography and musical commentary will find more revealed in relation to the music than with regard to Jim himself (as his friends knew him). This is not Fitzgerald's fault, but rather a consequence of two things: the reserve which was a quintessential part of the man, and the more anecdotal nature of his own manuscript autobiographical sketch From the Top in particular (and this would appear to be a characteristic of his letter writing as well). Two things, however, do emerge clearly: his resolute determination with regard to composing, and his warmth and insight shared with his many friends and pupils.

A fine example of Fitzgerald's approach to the music is his commentary on the sixth sonata for violin and piano, op 173, written in 2004 or 2005, and thus one of the composer's final works. Fitzgerald characterises the work as being “Rhapsodic in its approach to form and lyrically restrained in approach”: this summarising characterisation of the work is informed by a clear understanding of the most important processses that shape the music. Wilson was a pivotal figure in the evolution of Irish music from the latter decades of the twentieth century into the beginning of the twenty-first, and Mark Fitzgerald has contributed a balanced, detailed, informative and discriminating account of a full life and equally full output.


Martin O'Leary is a committee member of the Association of Irish Composers and teaches composition in NUI Maynooth.

The Life and Music of James Wilson is available from Cork University Press.

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