THE 150th anniversary of the birth of Irish-American composer and pianist Swan Hennessy falls on November 24 but it is an event that is unlikely to be heralded by big celebrations.
When he died in Paris in October 1929, French media hailed him as the “bard of Ireland” who had “saved the ancient Celtic melody” but he has largely been forgotten in musical circles.
Hennessy was born in Illinois, the son of a Cork man who emigrated to the United States as a teenager and made a fortune.
Hennessy studied piano and composition in the German city of Stuttgart and also lived for a few years in England and Italy. He settled in Paris around 1903 where he lived until his death. Hennessy’s work, mainly piano and chamber music and some songs, was influenced by the French impressionists, but he was largely known for his pieces using elements of Irish traditional music.
His work is notable in a Cork context due to the dedication of his String Quartet No 2 in C minor to former Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney who died on hunger strike in October 1920. It was first performed in Paris at the ‘Irish Race Congress’ in January 1922, in the presence of Éamon de Valera, Constance Markievicz and Mary MacSwiney.
It is believed the quartet was last performed in Ireland in Derry in 1939. It will have its first performance in Cork at the Triskel Arts Centre on November 5, at which Hennessy’s granddaughter Brigitte will be present.
German musicologist Axel Klein, who will give a talk before the performance, is hoping to raise awareness of Hennessy’s contribution and has already unearthed some previously unknown information on the composer in preliminary research.
“I was approached about eight years ago by [Professor] Barra Boydell, who plays the viola in a string quartet. They had played the first quartet by Hennessy and he asked me whether I knew anything about him. At that time, I hadn’t heard his name, he was totally new to me. I started to do a little bit of research but there was nothing available on the internet, except for one or two entries in a university library catalogue.
“I was too busy to pursue the matter further because I was writing another book. Once that was finished two years ago, I had time to go into it more.”
Klein had friends in Paris who photographed Hennessy’s grave in Montparnasse and from this information, Klein was able to make contact with Hennessy’s descendants, including his 77-year-old granddaughter Brigitte.
“Swan Hennessy died ten years before she was born so she never met him. He is a kind of ghost because they know he was a composer but he was never played or recorded. He is an enigmatic person, a complete riddle to his own family.”
However, Brigitte did tell Klein that MacSwiney was godfather to Hennessy’s son Patrice.“I have no reason not to believe it. This is totally unknown; it is not information I have ever come across or that was in any MacSwiney biography.”
While Hennessy’s link to MacSwiney is still unclear, Klein hopes further research will shed more light on the subject.
“I am trying to find out in what church the baptism of Patrice took place because if we find that document, there must be a MacSwiney signature on it,” he says.
Klein says the quartet dedicated to MacSwiney is significant in a musical and historical context. “There are hardly any direct responses by any Irish composer of the time to either the Easter Rising, MacSwiney’s death, the Civil War, or the founding of the Free State.
“There is some contemporary debate about the potential consequences, ranging from hope to frustration. But a musical composition, written as a direct result of any of these events, does not exist. Arnold Bax, the Englishman, wrote ‘In memoriam’ (1916) for orchestra after the execution of Pearse et al. And then there is this quartet by Hennessy. There is nothing else.”
- The RTÉ Contempo Quartet performs Swan Hennessy’s Quartet No 2; Bartok Project No 1 and Enda Bates’ Quartet No 1 with electronics at the Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, next Saturday