1917 - 2017

Brian Boydell: A Centenary Display

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Brian Boydell, Professor of Music at Trinity College Dublin 1962-1982, was one of Ireland’s leading composers, as well as an influential musicologist, performer, broadcaster, arts campaigner and organiser. This display reflects many facets of the life and career of a major figure in the cultural life of Ireland in the 20th century.

Born on 17th March 1917, Brian Boydell became one of the most influential figures in Irish cultural life from the 1940s until his death on 8th November 2000. After studies at Heidelberg, Cambridge, and London, Boydell embarked on a multi-faceted career as composer, conductor, singer, teacher, broadcaster, academic researcher and writer. For many years he represented the interests of creative artists on the Arts Council. He was appointed Professor of Music at the University of Dublin (Trinity College) in 1962, and developed the School of Music to the point that it became a fully-fledged academic department in 1974.

Boydell was deeply moved by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948. Like Gandhi, he held strongly pacifist views, later becoming involved in the Irish Pacifist Movement and Amnesty International. He immediately began work on an orchestral piece in honour of Gandhi, conducting its first performance on 20 July 1948.

'In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi' became one of Boydell’s most popular works: the title page of the score records eight performances in Ireland and abroad between 1948 and 1955.

'The sleeping leprechaun', taken from the 'Naughty children suite' of 1945, was published by Ricordi in 1959 in their new ‘Modern Festival Series’, aimed at the “teaching and recreational needs of piano students in the 10-16 age groups”. Boydell received royalties for 226 copies sold in the first year.

The Dowland Consort was a semi-professional vocal ensemble specialising in Renaissance vocal music, founded and directed by Boydell. He explained that the group “attempted to create the relaxed and intimate atmosphere of domestic music making by sitting informally around a semi-circular table”.

As a performer and broadcaster, Boydell was keen to develop the audience for music in Ireland. Between 1958 and 1969 The Dowland Consort performed throughout the country, and occasionally in the UK as well.

In its decade of activity the Dowland Consort developed a repertoire of over 300 works, broadcast on RTE and the BBC, issued an LP recording, and in 1964 received a Harriet Cohen International Music Award. This programme from its farewell recital on 8th November 1969 was signed by each member of the group.

Boydell’s status as one of the leading composers of his generation was acknowledged when he received a state commission for a work to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. 'A terrible beauty is born', a cantata for soloists, narrator, chorus and orchestra, received its first performance at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in April 1966. The text was compiled by Tomás Ó Súilleabháin from poems by Yeats, Ledwidge, MacDonagh and others.

Appointed Professor of Music at Trinity College Dublin in 1962, Boydell became fully engaged in collegiate life. In the role of Steward (1973-79) one of his responsibilities was the organisation of Scholars’ and Commencement dinners. His 'College graces', originally written in 1967 for baritone solo with mixed chorus and later arranged in this version for male voices, sets the traditional texts for grace before and after Commons – the evening meal held each day in the College Dining Hall.

Boydell composed four works for string quartet: three numbered quartets, and an 'Adagio and scherzo, op. 89'. He valued these works highly, stating that they are “the works I would save if everything else was lost”. The third quartet, op. 65, was written in 1969 for the RTE String Quartet, and received its first performance at the National Gallery on 20 September 1970. Interviewed at the time of its composition, Boydell described this single-movement work as “an avowal of my musical beliefs … I feel it is terribly honest music, and it’s what I believe to be beautiful”.

Boydell retired as Professor of Music in 1982 in order to devote more time to composition, musicological research, and his many other interests. His contributions to Irish cultural life were recognised through various awards, including Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana (1983), membership of Aosdána (1984), and an honorary fellowship of the Royal Irish Academy of Music (1990). Celebrations of his 80th birthday in 1997 included a reception at Dublin Castle addressed by President Mary Robinson, and a documentary 'All my enthusiasms' by Anne Makower, shown on RTE television.

Boydell exerted a strong influence in music and arts administration. He was a founding member of the Music Association of Ireland in 1948, and served on the Arts Council of Ireland from 1961 to 1983. In 1981 the Arts Council established Aosdána “to honour artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland”, and Boydell chaired the interim Board which selected the initial membership. Boydell’s 'Toccata and Chorale for a State Occasion' for brass ensemble was commissioned for the inaugural meeting of Aosdána in April 1983, and he was subsequently elected a member in 1984.

Commissioned to write a piece for organ, harp and percussion for the Dublin International Organ Festival, Boydell conceived a confrontation between diverse musical sounds emerging from different parts of a reverberant cathedral, moving towards eventual peaceful resolution. A lifelong pacifist, he imagined that within the walls of a cathedral this work might symbolise the reconciliation of conflicting entrenched beliefs through a spirit of understanding. 'Confrontations in a cathedral' had its first performance in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in June 1986.

Boydell’s musicological research focused on musical life in Dublin in the eighteenth century, culminating in two seminal books: 'A Dublin musical calendar 1700-1760' (1988), and 'Rotunda music in eighteenth-century Dublin' (1992). As both a foundation and by-product of this research Boydell assembled a great corpus of information on the Dublin music trade in all its aspects, and this now forms the basis of a free online database at www.dublinmusictrade.ie. Boydell’s hand-coloured map highlights the principal sites of musical activity in the city towards the close of the eighteenth century.

Commissioned by the University of Dublin Choral Society to celebrate its 150th anniversary, 'Under no circumstances: an historical entertainment', a cantata for tenor and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra, depicts some episodes from the early history of the Society, using excerpts from the Society’s minutes and contemporary press reports. The composer wrote: “In making fun of the pioneers who established the Society, we recognise at the same time the inestimable value of what their efforts did for choral music in Ireland.” Boydell acted as narrator for the first performance in 1988.

An excerpt from 'Under no circumstances', performed by Eugene O'Hagan (tenor), Philip O'Reilly (baritone), Barra Boydell (speaker), University of Dublin Choral Society and Dublin Sinfonia, conducted by Bernie Sherlock.

Boydell had many interests beyond music, amongst which were fishing, gardening, and the natural world. This fishing register notes the environmental damage caused to the river Boyne by drainage works in 1971.

Boydell’s long-held concerns about human destruction of the natural environment find expression in his last orchestral work, 'Masai Mara, op. 87', composed in 1988. The piece was inspired by a visit to the Kenyan game reserve, where the composer was struck by the unspoilt beauty of the landscape. The work opens with bird-calls evoking “a timeless and mysteriously peaceful world, as it was before human beings began to disturb its natural beauty”. At the end of the piece, a motif from Boydell’s first string quartet (composed forty years earlier) is used as the basis for “a passionate prayer for a positive resolution of the struggle against destructive forces”.

Roy Stanley
Credits: Story

Curation: Roy Stanley, Music Librarian, the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Technical assistance: Greg Sheaf, Digital Systems and Services, the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Imaging: Gill Whelan, Digital Resources and Imaging Services, the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

With thanks to Ellen O’Flaherty (Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, the Library of Trinity College Dublin) and Clodagh Nelligan (Preservation and Conservation Department, the Library of Trinity College Dublin) for their help with the physical exhibition.

Credits: All media
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