Tag Archives: Music

Playing A Different Tune

It was interesting this week to hear that the National Folklore Collection, with whom I worked once on a voluntary basis as an archivist, and the Uileann Pipes have received recognition as being culturally significant as part of UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register”. The Uileann Pipes are a more sophisticated instrument, in terms of musical range, than the bagpipes that can be found in many cultures, while the Irish traditional style of utilising grace notes (a feature not common to African and most European musics, outside of some Slavic, Scandinavian or Russian musics) is a distinctive technique that later reputedly influenced the development of most melodies in the USA, including African-American ones. Like all instruments with chanters, however, they do require that a player pay particular attention to the bass note and, indeed, as in all musics, the difference between tunes can generally be located at that starting point. In music, as in most things in life, one’s starting point generally determines everything that occurs afterwards so if one does not have, or start from, the right base, everything else one does will be out of sync and downright unsuccessful.

Does this have anything to do with the study of history? Perhaps it does. Different interpretations of history are rather like than different performances of a tune, though some historians may be more sensitive to such tuning issues than others. An economist and historian of Anglo-Japanese relations, Ayako Hotta-Lister, has identified the sonorities of the koto as a key aspect of all Japanese culture in much the same way that the Historical Harp Society Of Ireland has identified the sonorities of the wire-strung harp as a key to Irish culture, although appreciation for either historic art form is not particularly strong in either culture. In the past week, at a time when the Irish government was criticised frequently across the Irish Sea for being “out of tune” with the Anglophone world, an anniversary of Irish-Japanese relations was commemorated with a book that, in common with past studies of Ireland’s role in the United Nations no doubt highlights how the 1950s was an era of great expansion in the international profile and international relations of the Irish state. I would be inclined to judge that, potentially, this meant that Ireland’s international profile was no longer to be shaped primarily by Reuters, as had essentially been the case when Ireland was still a member of either the British Commonwealth or empire, although appreciation for this fact was evidently quite limited in the Ireland of the day. For instance, the RTE documentary Seven Ages (2000) essentially portrayed Ireland in the 1950s in an entirely negative light, as the common labour market that still existed between the UK and Ireland was effectively serving only the economic interests of the former. Therefore, it is not surprising if Irish diplomacy of the day did not win many accolades or, indeed, if such a trend in public opinion became a common occurrence. The trend for “either” insular “or” Anglophone schools of writings on Irish history, rather than an internationalist sense of Irish history, is but an echo of this same economic dynamic.

Being a historian and music lover, it often seems to me that the history of thought and of culture is frequently reflected in its truest form via music, which may even explain the growing popularity, or interest in, different folk musics around the world (“world music”) in the same age as people talk of “globalisation”. This is reflected in the studies of music academies far more so than it is in the commercial entertainment world. If we can read the humanity of a people through its music as much as its words then the possibility of identifying parallels between cultures and peoples in all different parts of the world in the same economic age is perhaps all the greater. Not surprisingly, however, connecting music and international relations is hardly a common occurrence. To do so, for instance, would not fit with the conceptual models underpinning international relations theory, which, if the pages of the International Organisation journal are to believed, are developing in a very different, as well as purely theoretical, direction compared to the enthusiastic cultural humanism that underpinned the initial idealism of the United Nations that was witnessed in that journal (and organisation) during its first twenty years of existence. Be that as it may, a good ear for music may still be helpful in ascertaining whether or not one is in, or out, of tune in developing a good historical understanding of both individual societies, as well as the common human nature one can find in each part of the globe. If one is out of tune with human nature, one will surely be out of tune with history as well. So there may be words of wisdom in that old adage that one should be alive to the fact that sometimes there is a need to start playing, or hearing, a different tune if whatever tune one is hearing, or is being fed, does not harmonise with a greater understanding. Choosing your base notes carefully is essential to being in tune. Whether or not one has the opportunity to play in harmony with others, however, is a question that always remains in the lap of the gods.

The “Pan Celtic Bug”

(written July 2016)

Who and what are “the Celts”? This is an old question, or debate. A common view in the humanities is that the idea of “Celts” is a cultural construct referring to a primitive pagan and rural people that have not made any contribution to the world. This perspective was rooted in the medieval Italian proverb that “civilisation is inseparable from the city”. It has been reflected in Bill McCormack’s judgement that the invention of an academic discipline called “Celtic Archaeology” is a nonsense because whoever the Celts were, they did not have “the logical or mathematical brains” necessary to construct architectural icons of civilisation such as the classical columns of Greece and Rome (‘the eternal city’). It has also been reflected in the judgement of Sean Connolly of Belfast that Gaelic society in Ulster and Scotland was “barbaric” because it was “Celtic” and rural, not urban.

“Pan Celticism” was an idea that developed in the 1880s in response to the idea that a “Celtic fringe” existed within the United Kingdom: that “fringe” being Scotland, Wales and Ireland. As an example, the English poet Matthew Arnold decided around this time that he was really a “Celt” because, being a poet, he was more interested in nature and rural life than maths or cities. For a time, I grew curious about the writings of a Cork journalist turned mawkish (sentimental) poet named Eugene Davis. He was an only child of a second marriage in an old Catholic family tied in with the local landed gentry and, to this day, I am not entirely sure if it was he, or Michael Davitt, who acted as an intermediary with the Irish College in Rome in Irish politics during the mid-1880s (a curious development, albeit a separate issue to the theme of this “blog”). I remember spotting, however, that Davis wrote in 1877 that he believed that the fact that he had a Welsh surname, like Thomas Davis, was a reason why he identified particularly with Irish sensibilities because he had a natural cultural affinity with “the purely Celtic Cymric [Welsh] race”. Some literary scholars love this type of talk. Historians are more inclined to view it as the type of irrational nonsense that only poets could speak.

Historically, there certainly was a cultural tendency to view the divide between urban and rural as one between the literate and the “not-so-literate” for without the possibility of leisure time that develops from urban dwellers liberation from the 24-7 challenge of subsistence living off the land, nobody would have the time to think about books, let alone read them. What the poets seemed to highlight, by contrast, was the issue (if there indeed is an “issue”) is not one of levels of literacy but one of a preoccupation with “nature” (including sensuality) or “maths” (a non-sensual matter). This philosophy (if it can indeed be called a “philosophy”) was, I think, central to muse of W.B. Yeats, who liked nothing better in his later years than attempt to sum up life in a few lines. His definition of the relevance of Statistics to modern life, for instance, was
‘Those Platonists are a curse’, he said,
‘God’s fire upon the wane,
A diagram hung there instead,
More women born than men.’

In other words, abstract logic (including philosophy) means nothing in the face of the reality that life exists in the realm of the senses more than it does in the realm of maths, and such are the simple truths of life that poets like, even if it causes them to go (according to conventional logic) just a little mad (or even ‘pagan’).

Yeats was led to pursue this type of sensual reasoning not least from his involvement with theosophy, which was the 1880s equivalent in Europe of the 1960s hippie new age/yoga movement in the USA. Eastern mysticism was seen to be at the roots not only of “classical” civilisation but of human civilisation as a whole, and that included, last but certainly not least, “the Celts”. Hence, the druids of poetry were now offering an alternative world vision to that of the priests of Rome (if not, perhaps, to that of the orthodox priests of Byzantium, although somehow I doubt that western European theosophists knew all that much about “that” world, which considered everything west of Constantinople, including the Protestant religious tradition of England, as an outgrowth of Rome).

From the mid-1920s onwards Yeats adopted a public profile of being critical of the Irish state, which has led many a historian to typify him as an antithesis to ‘official Ireland’ but his attitude towards Irish culture was actually very similar to Sean O’Riada, author of Our Musical Heritage and the composer of an anthem of official Ireland (‘Mise Eire’) not too long after Yeats’ death. This was that Irish culture, as reflected in its traditional music, was more ‘Oriental’ than ‘European’ in nature because unlike the European classical music tradition it was not written in the language of maths. Instead, it is “a voice of nature” in the same way as music is considered in the Far East. Was O’Riada, the composer of that old Irish Catholic Hymn ‘Ag Criost an Siol’ (Jesus Christ, The Seed), really a ‘decadent’ sensualist like Yeats? Or was he, quite simply, just an intelligent guy? Let the world decide.

And what has all this to do with the world of history? Should historians, those paragons of logical social science, allow themselves to become infected with the “pan-Celtic bug”? I think not. I think the conclusion that can be drawn from this broad perspective is that the history of humanity and the history of culture is actually quite a different thing from the history of politics, which is based on all those forms of logic that are rooted only in maths (be it architecture, construction, economics and all things monetary, including government). The more historians can perceive that issue of the two separate fields of human endeavour, the better for each, and yet all balanced minds should be able to understand the logic behind each. If there is a “great divide” in life, it is not between nations, or between male and female, or between logic and illogic. It is between the urban and the rural; the commercial and the natural. All students of the arts, no matter how that noun ‘art’ is defined or perceived, perhaps need to perceive this reality, which means an equal reliance upon instinctual as much as abstract reasoning; to be “at home” in the reality of the country as much as in the reality of the city. In truth, this may not be so difficult a challenge.

Whole World In His Hands

Music addicts like me can be particularly prone to having a long-forgotten tune resurfacing in their minds any given day for no apparent reason. An old song, which I remember was used for group-singing in primary school, suddenly jumped into my mind this morning. Where did it come from? Wikipedia explains that it is an American spiritual dating from 1927 and you can ever hear the melody here: He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands. It is a simple little tune with an evidently big idea behind it, so big that its title may even seem to have unpleasant connotations to some. How on earth can anyone have “the whole world in their hands”?

Well, it seems some people do by one special means: the use of statistics. Witness the World Trade Organisation’s internet site, which impressively hosts a “trade and tariff map” of the globe: World Trade Organisation. What a wonderful reference this map is for any of us who may have an idea of wanting to know “what is going on in the world” in terms of politics. Click on any country or region on this map and one can see a statistical breakdown of that state’s performance.

The creation of such information maps is nothing new. Some of the best historians have done so for many a year. A brief look at this map reminds me of a point that a great old Irish economic historian, Louis Cullen, made in print a decade or two ago: that the worlds of banking and commerce began to change beyond all recognition in the 1950s. Reduced to essentials, in history, every country judged its effectiveness on its ability to maintain a positive balance of trade, with more exports than imports. Striving for this goal, or maintaining this standard, was the essence of what governments did or “do”. But if one clicks on any of the regions on this map, one can see that states have become more concerned with maintaining a positive balance in the export or import of “commercial services” than they are with merchandise or goods. In fact, many have a negative trading balance in terms of goods, including the United States. Indeed, the alpha and omega of the politics of the current American president may lie in that statistic. A desire to create, or maintain, a positive balance of trade is neither an isolationist nor a (inherently) protectionist policy: in history, it has traditionally been seen as an essential component of good government. This is reasonable.

So what can a map such like that of the World Trade Organisation tells us “today”? Well, reduced to essentials, it indicates that the international economic order has been governed by financial services industries for quite some time far more so than it has been by regular trade. This may be nothing “new”. Whether or not it interests us, we have probably all been aware of this, more or less, for many a year, just from “hearing the tone of the news”. Is this changing? And what do the historians have to say about all this? The short answer, I am inclined to think, is “not a lot”. And why? Because it is not an easy historical trend to understand. It is too recent or too “new”. One is more likely to find reflections on these trends in broader studies, such as works on international relations theory. But, even there, one will find that these theorists evidently do not have any greater inkling of how to describe evident trends than the use of a litany of banal adjectives such as “globalisation” or “liberalism” (particularly, “Anglo-American liberalism”, if such a thing can be said to exist) that are likely to leave one with a blank perception by virtue of their blanket application.

So, one does not need individuals like me to point out that if, or when, one comes across theorists or even historians who write or speak as if they, or even evident “world leaders” in politics or business, have “the whole world in their hands”, they are telling you little more, or possibly even far less, than what can be heard in that simple little tune referenced at the beginning of this blog. This is not an act of reticence or deception. It is a reality because the truth is economic history can only provide indicators rather than a complete picture. Having said that, I guess this is all the more reason for enjoying the completeness of a well-formed melody and to be “content with that”, which returns my mind to an original idea…

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 Stein 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.