Tag Archives: Augusta Holmes

A Long Forgotten Art

I noticed on RTE today a piece about a little-known American music composer Amy Beach who wrote a composition that was nicknamed the “Gaelic symphony” in 1894. Such features about “long forgotten artists” can be fascinating. It is often said that if arts or artists have been forgotten, this is inevitably for a good reason. Similarly, if only one of a circle of a dozen writers is remembered a century later “there is a [justifiable] reason” for this. Or so it is said. One has to wonder sometimes, however. Niamh O’Sullivan’s rediscovery of the works of Aloysius O’Kelly seems a notable example of an Irish artist of yesteryear who “fell through the cracks”, or did not get noticed “at home”, by virtue of the fact that they spent most of their time abroad. They were artists that existed between two societies rather than being fully at home in either one.

Amy Beach does not appear to have had any Irish connections, while in her day (and frequently since) the use of the word “Gaelic” had no greater connotations in the USA than to refer to vague folk customs of the British Isles or the believed origins of the genuinely American folk music that is bluegrass. She is remembered now for being one of the first American “women composers” of classical music. A contemporary woman composer was Augusta Holmes of Paris. Her father was from Youghal, Co. Cork, and she composed various pieces on Irish themes. I remember noticing negative press reviews of her work when it was given a seemingly once-off performance in Dublin c.1900, along the lines that she was no Charles Villiers Stanford. Having heard some of Stanford’s music performed in his stomping ground of Cambridge university once upon a time, I am inclined to speculate that it is a good thing that she was not. But it is fascinating that she composed works on Irish themes that have long since been forgotten. These were written and performed in Paris, which also served as the home of an Irish-American composer Swan Hennessy.

I was fascinated to read a newspaper report recently dating from 1922, which stated that Arthur Darley introduced Hennessy to Eamon DeValera and others at the Parisian World Conference of the Irish Race (January 1922). Thereafter, as part of a Parisian festival of Irish music, drama and visual arts, there was a premiere performance of a string quartet that was composed by Hennessy in memory of Terence MacSwiney. Where is this music now? Was it ever performed again? I honestly do not know. Neither will you find mention of artists like Holmes, Hennessy or Darley in any standard Irish cultural histories. However, if one doubts the value of internet sites such as Wikipedia or YouTube for scholarly or other purposes then consider how remarkable it is that Wikipedia entries exist for these long forgotten artists that one might never find in scholarly compendiums, published in book format, with only one or possibly two authors or editors.

I notice from Wikipedia that Holmes had children by Catulle Mendes who, somewhat bizarrely, seemed to appeal to (semi-fenian) writers in Ireland at the time. In addition to being commissioned to write a piece marking the centenary of the French Revolution (she was a prominent socialite in Parisian musical circles, according to the research of Brian Rees), she wrote at least four compositions on Irish themes. Amazingly, some of these are on youtube. This includes her (self-evidently patriotic) symphonic poem Irlande; a musical form that was popular at the time and essentially inspired the later development of film music.

Remarkably, the research of Alex Klein indicates that Holmes decided in 1897 that all financial proceeds from any future performance of her symphonic poem Irlande should be given to the Gaelic League in Ireland; a probable indication that she followed Irish developments throughout her life, as well as the likely explanation why this piece of programme music (a rare thing, in Irish musical circles, up until, including and after the days of Sean O Riada’s film scores) was evidently performed in Dublin c.1900 with the patronage of the Feis Ceoil. Also on youtube, there are performances of two of her vocal pieces, including an “Irish Christmas” ode Noel d’Irlande (1896) and the rather prosaically titled Chansons des gars d’Irlande (1891), which literally means “the song of the Irish guys”, which sounds almost soldier-like. I’ve yet to discover the existence of a performance or recording of her “L’Aubepine de Saint Patrick” (1892), which literally means St. Patrick’s Rabbit, but…who knows…it may well pop up on the net someday.

There are probably a thousand and one long forgotten composers, painters, writers and various forms of artists from yesteryear that may have been forgotten primarily because they never gained admittance into some scholarly compendium of “important artists”, for one reason or another. But, in time, perhaps it will be the case that many of these artists will find a home on the internet so long as someone, somewhere, either knows about them already or else “rediscovers” them. I think that to get a sense of a historic time and place, it is often advisable to see not only the good and the bad but also all points in between to get a complete sense of the time. It remains to be seen whether or not the Internet will serve to either “democratise” the history of art or else simply greatly expand the parameters of the history of art. Personally, I think the second development would be welcome as well as a probable result, “in the fullness of time”, of the existence of the open forum that is the Internet. In addition, provided that there are authors with a fully informed imagination there is no doubt ample scope for expanding the parameters of many existing Irish cultural histories. In terms of music, a positive example of this trend can be found in the work of Alex Klein, Ann Heymann, Barnaby Brown and many others.