As 1894 drew to a close, the prominent publisher Boosey & Hawkes prepared to issue a volume of songs with the title, Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore the original airs restored & arranged for the voice with pianoforte accompaniment by Charles Villiers Stanford. Dublin-born Stanford’s intentions are made plain in its preface, where the composer identified this as
an opportunity … of laying before the musical public an edition of the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore, in which the airs could be given in an accurate form as noted by such excellent antiquarians as [Edward] Bunting and [George] Petrie.
Stanford’s “Notes to the Airs,” which offers comments on individual songs, evidence his careful research in the collections of Bunting and Petrie as well as those of Smollett Holden and the venerable harper Turlough O’Carolan. Stanford compared variants of the tunes for which Moore had written original lyrics and then set the version he deemed the most authentic or superior. These “Notes” are critical in the full sense of the word, as Moore’s presentation of these Irish tunes is variously deemed ‘wrong’ or ‘mistaken’; he also stands accused of ‘spoiling’ or ‘destroying’ the original character of the airs — either by altering the time or tempo, or by raising the (characteristically Irish) flattened seventh degree of the melodic scale.
Included here is a recording of “The harp that once in Tara’s Halls” (Irish Melodies first number) one of the rare tunes about which Stanford makes no comment in his “Notes”. We can infer from this silence that he accepted Moore’s treatment of the tune. His approach to the accompaniment, however, is notably different to Sir John Stevenson’s: rather than repeating the same accompaniment for each verse, Stanford writes a through-composed piece. A simple chorale-style accompaniment supports the elegiac tone of Moore’s first verse, where the harp is described as “mute”, or “asleep”. In the second verse, as the harp “swells” to tell a “tale of ruin” the accompaniment is accordingly more rhythmically active, with the voice of the harp suggested by strummed chords of considerable textural weight.
Rachel McClelland (soprano) and Brian Connor perform C.V. Stanford’s “The Harp that once”.
Stanford came to his Moore project with prior experience in setting the lyrics of an Irish poet to Irish tunes: in 1883 Boosey & Hawkes published his setting of some fifty of Alfred Perceval Graves’s lyrics as Songs of old Ireland. A 1931 obituary for Graves suggested that it was he, rather than Moore, who demonstrated
a careful regard for the true antique form of the music.
While Moore was a modernist who sought to popularise the music of Ireland, Graves and Stanford, and indeed all the collectors on whom they and Moore depended, were attempting to preserve it. But Stanford (Preface) at least recognised that the act of writing an accompaniment to this melodic music was a significant intervention, admitting that it was necessary in this to be
frankly modern … the better [to bring the] force of the melodies home to the listener.
And while he has little patience with Moore’s approach to rendering Irish tunes, he lauded his predecessor for creating
masterpieces of lyrical writing … [and] the first popular presentation of the Folk-songs of Ireland.
Stanford’s ambivalent attitude towards Moore was entirely characteristic of his time, and was arguably part of a changing sensibility within Ireland about how culture could and should be harnessed to articulate national identity. On 6 February 1895, shortly after his Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore was published, Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal named Stanford as a supporter of a new development, an annual festival of national music that was to become the Feis Ceoil. The Feis Ceoil, founded in 1897, is a significant cultural institution that still thrives today, in 2018.
Obituary. “Mr A.P. Graves.” The Times (London), 28 December 1931. The Times Digital Archives. Artemis Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 20/07/2018.
“The Revival of Irish Music.” Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), 6 February 1895. British Library Newspapers. Artemis Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 20/07/2018.
Stanford, C.V. “Notes to the Airs.” Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore the original airs restored & arranged for the voice with pianoforte accompaniment by Charles Villiers Stanford. London: Boosey & Hawkes, .
Stanford, C.V. Preface. Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore.