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The National Archive of Irish Composers: creating a digital collection of music from the National Library of Ireland.

A collection of historic music connected to Ireland and Irish musical culture was assembled on a new website in November 2010 as the first step towards the establishment of The National Archive of Irish Composers. (2) In terms of provision of access to Ireland's music this is an important step forward and one which can hopefully be built upon in the future. The primary aspiration was to provide a prototype which may ultimately be developed into a comprehensive collection of music from The National Library of Ireland (NLI) and other institutions, to be made freely available on the internet. The project is a collaborative venture between The National Library of Ireland, Dublin Institute of Technology, and Heritage Music Productions Ltd.

The notion of a 'National Music Collection' in Ireland is not new. The Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) and the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) have already assembled extensive databases, collections, and sound recordings of contemporary and traditional music. However, support for the music of historic composers has been sporadic at best and there are few agencies in Ireland willing to support projects in this area. So, this initiative is singularly unique and welcome.

The music of Irish composers, particularly historic Irish composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is almost entirely unknown. Irish composers are no longer recognised, even in Ireland itself. For instance, music lovers would be hard pressed to come up with even a handful of names from this era. The best known pianist-composer, John Field, is known primarily as the inventor of the 'Nocturne', a form subsequently admired and used by Chopin. While Field's nocturnes are perhaps familiar and receive occasional performances, the larger part of his output still remains unknown to the general public and is rarely presented to audiences. Even the perceived singularity of John Field serves to illustrate a common belief which many Irish people have grown up with - that here in Ireland there were virtually no historic composers. This misunderstanding grew from a distinct lack of information, and more significantly, the absence of sustainable access to the music.

Located in a central location in Kildare Street, Dublin, the National Library of Ireland holds a unique collection of early printed music in its Joly and Additional Music collections. These collections came about through a number of personal bequests which include the Banks, Omeath, Hamilton, and Plunkett gifts and the substantial library of Dr Jasper Robert Joly. (3) Between them, these form the nucleus of the early printed music holdings in the library. Although the music is not all Irish in origin, or indeed unique to the National Library, collectively it provides a microcosm of musical life in Ireland in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By demonstrating what was popular at the time, the collection illustrates and outlines its social context as well as providing examples of music by composers long forgotten. It is indeed fortunate that Dr Joly in particular had such a keen interest in Irish published sheet music, as a number of items are not to be found in The British Library or elsewhere and might otherwise have been lost. The National Library of Ireland is interested in increasing access to its collections generally, but up to now this has been limited in the case of music, as information was primarily available through a card catalogue created some decades ago.

However, Ireland's National Library is now well placed to further develop its resources into a comprehensive online collection of music by historic Irish composers. This can be furthered through collaboration with other libraries and organisations from both within Ireland and abroad. Building a comprehensive collection such as this, particularly through internet access, would be of immense value to performers and researchers alike and would facilitate performances and recordings of music which is, at present, unknown.

In recent years there has been a great upsurge of interest in Irish musicology and musical history. The forthcoming publication of The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland is eagerly awaited as it will gather together for the first time all the information and research expertise currently available on the subject. (4) However, the recent increase in handling of the National Library's music holdings is a cause of some concern and has provided another pressing reason for the creation of the digital library. The National Archive of Irish Composers fulfils a desire to preserve the precious and delicate sheet music holdings while providing wide access to this little-known aspect of Ireland's cultural history.

The website initiative was made possible with a Cultural Technology Grant from the Irish government through the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport (An Roinn Turasoireachta, Cultuir agus Spoirt). With a set-up period of only six weeks, it was difficult to decide what to use as a flagship collection to launch the new website. However, a catalogue of piano music using Irish airs was available to use as a starting point to identify items within the Library's collections. Currently, fifty-three pieces of historic piano music using Irish airs may be downloaded from the site. The majority of these works were composed by Irish composers or composers visiting Ireland (see Illustration 1).

The National Archive of Irish Composers is an excellent example of collaboration achieving tangible results in a very short space of time. The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) provided a pivotal part of this initiative through its Digital Media Centre (DMC) which assembled and designed the new website. Making culture and heritage more accessible through digital technology is one of the core research themes of DMC. At present the centre is working to establish the National Audio Visual Repository where collections such as the National Library's archive may be hosted and preserved for the future. The fit with DIT was further enhanced through the participation of its Conservatory of Music and Drama in the project.

One of the primary visions for the archive was the provision of multi-media functions on the website. A personal belief is that the music deserves to be played and heard as well as preserved, and the World Wide Web is an extraordinarily powerful tool in providing access to music through many different media. In the future it is hoped to provide audio and/or video files for a large portion of the music digitally displayed on the website. But, for now, audio files of four pieces accompany sheet music by John Field, Thomas Cooke, Charlotte Maria Despard, and William Vincent Wallace while video files are provided of 14 individual performances from the launch concert (see Illustration 2). All the performers (apart from Una Hunt) are staff members or students of DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama and have agreed to make their performances available gratis on the website.


The collection of piano music based on Irish airs displayed on the website illustrates a rich seam of indigenous repertoire that has been largely ignored for well over a century. How this repertoire exists and why it has fallen out of favour are two interesting questions. Certainly, social and historical factors played a part in the rise and fall of the popularity of Irish airs as used in instrumental music. In the nineteenth century it was fashionable for ladies in the drawing room to play rondos, variations, and fantasias based on popular themes, ranging from operatic excerpts to national airs. Visiting virtuosos to Ireland also extemporised on Irish melodies and the results were often enthusiastically received by their audiences. Among these were some of the most highly-regarded pianist-composers of the era, including Frederic Kalkbrenner, Ignaz Moscheles and, later still, Henri Herz, Franz Liszt, and Sigismund Thalberg. Having heard and played the airs in Ireland, these virtuosi brought them back to Europe and disseminated them through publication, and public and private performances. (5)


Ireland's ancient airs had long been admired and were collected from travelling harpers, itinerant performers of the wire-strung Irish harp. (6) Coincidentally, as the art of the harpers was dying out in Ireland, publications of their airs increased dramatically, particularly in the final years of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. The prominence of the harpers' music was further enhanced abroad through the popularity of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, the songs themselves largely based on the harpers' airs. As a result, the poet created an even more widespread interest in Irish music in continental Europe. Instrumental music based on Irish melodies also proliferated, such as Johann Bernhard Logier's Strains of Other Days, a selection of favourite Irish airs published in Dublin ca. 1810 and dedicated 'to the Irish harp societies' (see Illustration 3). Piano works using Irish melodies remained in vogue through the mid-nineteenth century, before dwindling rapidly. This decline paralleled the diminishing popularity of the instrumental fantasia in favour of original works. It may also have mirrored the suspicion and rejection in which Moore was held by later generations of his countrymen.


Among the pieces to be found on the website is the little-known rondo, Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself attributed to John Field (see Illustration 4). The air itself appears to have been very popular in the last years of the eighteenth century, for other works based on this Irish tune were composed by Osmond Saffery, Thomas Haigh, T. Latour, Karl Kambra, and Joseph Dale between ca. 1796 and 1800. (7) An audio recording of Field's work, performed by Barbara Dagg on a square piano of the period, accompanies the digitised sheet music.

Several of the works displayed on the website are intended for performance on either the pianoforte or concert harp, and two may be heard performed by Cliona Doris on the latter instrument. They are variations on Gramachree Molly by Miss Charlotte Maria Despard and another work, based on the air St. Patrick's Day, by Thomas Cooke. Cooke had a similar background to John Field, being also a child prodigy and a pupil of Giordani. His early life as a violinist soon gave way to a very successful career as a singer, particularly after he moved to London. Charlotte Maria Despard is, on the other hand, something of an enigma. Her compositions were published some years before the birth of her celebrated namesake Charlotte Despard (nee French, 1844-1939), the suffragette, novelist, and Sinn Fein activist. However, the unusual name does suggest a connection, particularly as Charlotte Maria Despard's music has not been identified outside Ireland. (8)


Also worthy of mention is a fantasia on two favourite Irish melodies: The Harp that Once through Tara's Halls and Fly Not Yet, written by William Vincent Wallace. The work may be heard on the audio clip performed on a modern grand piano. The Waterford-born Wallace was best known as the composer of the opera Maritana, but he also traversed the globe performing as a virtuoso on both the piano and violin. Both airs used by Wallace pay homage to titles from Moore's Irish Melodies in this melodramatic crowd-pleaser. (9)

As already mentioned, the website was launched with a concert which took place at the Gleeson Theatre, DIT, Kevin Street, Dublin on Friday, 26 November 2010. Featuring instrumental and vocal treasures from The National Library of Ireland, there were several modern world premieres to be heard at this unique concert. Unlike the digital library, which showcases only solo keyboard music, the concert programme featured other instruments and vocalists although the inspiration for most of the works still came from Irish airs. In keeping with the 'culture meets technology' theme of the project, this concert was streamed live on the web.

The piano used for several performances is an original square piano, a popular domestic instrument of the period, built by Clementi and Co., and dating from ca. 1809. Despite its name, the piano is not square but rectangular, with a key span of five-and-a-half octaves. It was fully restored to playing condition by David Hunt of Cambridge in 2001-2002 and was kindly loaned for the launch concert by The Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin. The proprietor of the piano-manufacturing business that built the square piano was Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), a good businessman as well as a famous performer, teacher, and composer. This instrument is particularly appropriate for performances of the works of John Field, Ireland's best-known pianist and composer, as Clementi was Field's teacher and mentor.

The National Archive of Irish Composers provides the starting point for a much larger project which could potentially provide not only improved but also comprehensive access to historic Irish composers' music online. The future holds the potential to cast a wide net involving other significant collections and expertise, and centrally pooling data and information to complete the archive for future generations. At present, the website links directly to NLI's online catalogue for each of the 53 pieces represented, but in the future links to other related websites could facilitate more efficient access to information and research. Research interest in this area already exists and future plans for the online archive will integrate scholarship as a key element in its development. The knock-on effect will be huge, by enabling more performances and recordings to be made, and awakening interest in what is virtually an untouched treasure trove of Irish musical and cultural identity.

Una Hunt (1)

(1.) Una Hunt is one of Ireland's leading pianists and a champion of Irish composers and Irish music. Alongside her worldwide career as a performer, she has led the establishment of the National Archive of Irish Composers at the National Library of Ireland.

(2.) <>.

(3.) Una Hunt, 'The Music Collection at the National Library of Ireland', Brio 39/2 (2002), 3-10, p. 3.

(4.) The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland, ed. Barra Boydell and Harry White (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, forthcoming).

(5.) Una Hunt, 'The Harpers' Legacy: Irish National Airs and Pianoforte Composers', Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland, 6 (2010-11), 3-53, p. 3.

(6.) For an introduction to the Irish harp and harpers in Ireland, see Joan Rimmer, The Irish Harp Cork: Mercier Press, 1969, 2nd. edition 1977.

(7.) Hunt, 'The Harpers' Legacy', p. 8.

(8.) Hunt, 'The Harpers' Legacy', p. 11. See also the programme notes at : <>.

(9.) Hunt, 'The Harpers' Legacy', p. 18. This article also includes further information on the music featured on the website, along with a catalogue of over 500 works. It is available online at < /jsmi/index.php/jsmi/article/view/75>.
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Author:Hunt, Una
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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