John Ireland by Ian Lace

John Ireland photographed by Alvin Langdon Coburn London 20th March 1916

John Ireland photographed by Alvin Langdon Coburn London 20th March 1916

Amberley, Ashington, Shipley, Steyning and Washington are all places associated with John Ireland. Ireland loved the South Downs; they were a deep source of inspiration to him. His Piano Concerto, for instance, was inspired by the countryside and its antiquity around Chanctonbury Ring. He first came to Sussex in the early 1920s when he was in his early 40s. He took rooms in Ashington overlooking Chanctonbury Ring. He would make notes on walks and use them to work on compositions in his Chelsea studio.

Until the early 1980s, there was a John Ireland memorial museum in Steyning looked after by Mrs Norah Kirby Ireland’s devoted companion of his latter years. She related how she had first met Dr Ireland:

“One evening, during the war, I switched on the wireless and heard what I thought was the most beautiful music I had ever heard. It was a Phantasy Trio but all I knew at the time was that the announcer had said that Ralph Hill had been reviewing new records; I had no idea of the composer’s name nor the number of the record so I wrote to Ralph Hill and posted it during the Blitz addressed care of Broadcasting House. About a fortnight later, a smiling lady came towards me as I was going out of my gate and said, “Oh my husband was so pleased to have your letter this morning and he wants you to come to dinner tonight so he can play all the record. I said, ‘Well… I don’t know your husband…” “I am Mrs Ralph Hill,” she reassured me. “We live just round the comer and if you come tonight he will play all the record and give you the number.” So I went and he asked me if I would like to meet Dr Ireland and naturally I said that I would. A few Sundays after that, we went to the Wigmore Hall together to hear Dr Ireland playing his 2nd Violin Sonata with Frederick Grinke and I was introduced to him and from that time onwards we became very close friends.

“As his eyesight was failing and he was on the edge of a nervous breakdown through overwork it seemed very dangerous for him to be living in a four storeyed house with unsatisfactory housekeepers who, in his own words, turned his home into a prison. All of us who were his friends were very worried about him and the obvious solution seemed to be, as I was free, for us to share the house, each having our own quarters so that we did not interfere with one another at all but there would be someone in the house in case of accident or illness.”

Ireland, at length, settled in a picturesque converted windmill at Washington half way between Storrington and Steyning, in the shadow of Chanctonbury Ring. Here he spent the last decade of his life. Norah Kilby remembered: “He’d known Rock Mill, by sight, for nearly thirty years and coveted it; he really wanted to live there. One day, about the time of the Coronation, when he was staying in Ashington, I came down to visit him and we went for a drive into Steyning to visit his favourite antique showrooms. On the way back, he noticed a board up at the end of the drive to Rock Mill. We went to the agents straight away and met the lady owning the property and from then on things moved very quickly and the Mill became his.

At one time fire threatened the mill. “It was terrible,” confirmed Norah Kirby. “It was the very hot summer of 1959. The bracken was so dry anything could have caused it to blaze. Someone at the end of the drive had brewed themselves a cup of tea on a spirit stove and apparently the police found the stove overturned afterwards. Dr Ireland was upstairs at the back of the house. If the Mill had caught fire nothing could have saved him.”

Many of John Ireland’s works have strong Sussex connections: The Downland Suite, Equinox, Amberley Wild Brooks, the Cello Sonata inspired by a place on the Downs known as the Devil’s Jumps and, perhaps, most colourfully, Legend for Piano and Orchestra.

Harrow Hill is located high up on the Downs above and well to the south of Storrington. Access to Harrow Hill is by footpath – there is no public road. You are walking into a remote and mysterious region which one feels time has passed by. It was here that Ireland found the inspiration for Legend for Piano and Orchestra. It is based on two stories that were related by Norah Kirby : –

‘In the far distant past there had been a leper colony in a remote part of the Downs and there had been a steep path leading up to what was known as Friday’s Church because the clergyman attended it on Fridays for a service for the benefit of the lepers who were allowed to participate through a squint so that they shouldn’t contaminate the congregation. On one occasion John Ireland arose early, cut some sandwiches and chose Harrow Hill as the place for his picnic. Just as he was about to start eating, he noticed some children dancing around him in archaic clothing -very quiet, very silent, He was a little put out about having his peace invaded by children; he looked away for a moment, when he looked back they had disappeared. The incident made such an impression on him that he wrote about his experience to Arnold Machen whose books had greatly influenced much of his music. The reply he received was a postcard with the laconic message “So, you’ve seen them too!” ( See also Colin Scott Sutherland’s article John Ireland and Arthue Machen BMS News September 1995)

Eric Parkin has recorded many of John Ireland’s works. He recalled how he was first attracted to the music:-

“I remember playing a piece called February’s Child by John Ireland for a diploma when I was in my teens and I immediately fell in love with it and, of course, I tried to find as much of his music as I could. It’s difficult to say what I felt about the writing, I just loved the feel of it at the keyboard. I later discovered that I had a similar north country temperament, background and upbringing to Ireland himself so this may have had something to do with it.

‘My colleagues have said to me that Ireland seems to write an awful lot of notes. I don’t have large hands but I must say that occasionally his chord clusters have caught me out but they are all necessary as I discovered when I used to go and play to Ireland. If I was a little apprehensive about one or two passages he would try to alter them for me but I can’t remember one single occasion when he was able to do much about it. He had thought out the music most carefully before he put it down on paper and that had to be that. But, in fact, I worked hard at it and I can honestly say that it was never my intention to leave any notes out; I always tried to play them all. I like that sort of piano writing but, as I said, many of my colleagues didn’t which was very nice for me because they weren’t competing with me.

Ireland had very decided views about how his music should sound. Within general confines, as it were, he knew exactly what he wanted and I learnt a great deal about the process of interpretation and building-up. I suppose the more I saw of him, the more I could anticipate what he would want me to do until I did it instinctively and it seemed to work.

“There were certain things that he was absolutely in no doubt about: he never liked his music to be hurried, he wanted it to go at such a pace that every chord could be heard – he was very sensitive to chordal movement – he hated rushing. He once said to me: “Oh, I had Miss So-and-So in the other day; she came to play me my Cello and Piano Sonata.” “How did it go?”

“Oh, it was dreadful; she won’t take a bit of notice of me when she goes away. I don’t think I can bear to listen to the broadcast.” Of course what I expect happened at rehearsal was that he was brief and gentlemanly and they went quite happily on their way but those of us who knew John Ireland very well, realised that it was a touchstone of what he felt about you if he spent hours with you – if he felt you had something there, he battered away at it. If he felt he couldn’t do anything with you, you were in and out within an hour.

“I think it was Trevor Harvey, in the Gramophone, who declared that Ireland’s Piano Concerto was like no other that he knew; I would say the same thing. It is a unique piece, it’s beautifully written for the piano and what is more it seems to me to be a perfect partnership between soloist and orchestra. Ireland did not fall into the trap that so many Twentieth Century concerto composers have fallen into, he balanced perfectly the one set of ten fingers and the hundred men in the orchestra. It is a work I have a special affection for; it did put me on the map and it gave me my first Prom performance. I loved it then and I loved it just as much when I recorded it twenty years later with Sir Adrian Boult. The orchestra always enjoy it too. I remember Paul Beard coming up to me and being very complimentary – “You know, we’ve had lots of trouble with that concerto in the past but tonight it seemed to be splendid”. And that bucked me up immensely. Gina Bachauer was once engaged to perform the Piano Concerto and someone threatened to shoot her if she played it. I thought at first it was a publicity stunt and then I realised John Ireland would never give his name to such shenanigans. I think the BBC thought they were doing Ireland a favour, which of course they were, by engaging an international artist to play it. It certainly gave Ireland some publicity but he was genuinely scared at the time – he really thought that something was going to happen but we never got to the bottom of it and so somebody was probably having everybody on the end of a stick.”

Eric Parkin was asked what his favourite Ireland work was. “…April: it seems to me to be one of the most perfect pieces for the piano written by anybody. I love it for its sound, its sheer beauty; it’s quite difficult but it’s well worth working at. I’ve played it so many times and I know I’d never tire of it, but if you would allow me a second choice I would have to pick the Concerto – they’re both glorious.”

Late in his life, like Elgar, John Ireland considered his music to be out of joint with the times. It is richly romantic, mystical even and it shows certain affinities with the impressionists particularly Ravel. He was frequently inspired by antiquity – people and places of a dim and distant past whether these were associated with the Channel Islands, Dorset or Sussex. Everybody spoke about his gentleness, kindness and his sense of humour. He loved fast cars, motor cycles, antiques and cats.

For the original radio programmes, Sir Adrian Boult kindly gave permission to quote from the speech he had made to the John Ireland Society at the Memorial Concert in October 1962 (Ireland had died on June 13th that year.): –

“..Everything he has done is equal to his best. I have never heard anyone say that this is one of his weak works because he trained himself all his life to criticise his output quite ruthlessly and as one of his pupils has well said, ‘He has given us not his experiments but his achievements.”‘

Sir Adrian then went on to quote from Harold Rutland then President of the John Ireland Society

– “‘Ireland is that rare type of artist – a romantic whose strong feelings are disciplined by an equally strong sense of structural values. He had marked individuality, a subtle harmonic sense, skill in planning large works and musical qualities of imagination. He was a most fastidious craftsman. An expert pianist himself, he has made an outstanding contribution to the literature of the piano.

John Ireland rests in the tiny village of Shipley which has a windmill that was mentioned in the writings of Hilaire Belloc. The church where he is buried, has a marvellous and uninterrupted view across to what used to be, before the terrible storm of 1987, the splendour of Chanctonbury Ring and the Downs which had inspired so much of his music.

© Ian Lace 1981, 1995, 1997 (from an original broadcast)