Art song occupies a hallowed place in classical music. The combination of poetry and music, singer and pianist striving to enhance the poet’s text is considered by many the pinnacle of musical endeavours.
The 19th German composers had a penchant for writing evocative piano accompaniments to their friends’ poems. So much so that with thousands of songs by Schubert and his contemporaries in the repertoire, ‘lied’, the German word for song has long being synonymous with the term ‘art song’.
Although the folk song tradition in Ireland is rich, the canon of Irish language art song is meagre but is set for a rapid expansion next week when the Irish Language Art Song Project, a new digital arts project goes live.
Fifty new art songs have been recorded by a panel of well-known singers that include, Gavan Ring, Robin Tritschler, and Anna Devin. In tandem with the recordings, scores, comprehension and pronunciation guides will be uploaded to a dedicated website and available free of charge to a global audience.
Director of the project, Dáirine Ní Mheadhra conceived the idea, commissioned the songs and is busy bringing the idea to fruition. A former cellist with the RTE NSO Ní Mheadhra has returned to live in Ireland with a distinguished career in the Canadian operatic community behind her and a wealth of experience in contemporary music. Growing up in an Irish-speaking household in Beaumont in Cork gave her a knowledge of the language.
The seeds for the project were sown with some chance remarks by Ní Mheadhra’s husband. When John Hess went searching for art songs for a piano course he was presenting at a Canadian University, he found the cupboard at Dublin’s Contemporary Music Centre somewhat bare.
“John came home and mentioned by the way that he had found just 17 texts in the Irish language’. I thought I will have to do something about that. It’s such a beautiful language, incredibly musical and singable.”
Reflecting on the paucity of material, Ní Mheadhra offers some context on classical music in post- colonial Ireland.
When the Free State was founded what was promoted was Irish traditional music and the GAA. Classical music was associated with an affluent. mostly Dublin-based minority.
Ní Mheadra began sounding out her contacts and found there was an appetite for the challenge. She also had encouragement from her Canadian base. “I had commissioned a song from a Quebec-based composer, Ana Sokolovic, on a text by Michael Hartnett. It became popular and singers used to phone me for tips on pronunciation. I realised that if there were an expanded canon of Irish language art songs that these singers would sing them.”
When the Arts Council came on board with funding, Ní Mheadhra began coordinating the project which involved 12 Irish composers and five international composers representing a wide range of ages and styles.
John Kinsella is the most senior figure and there is a good representation of young composers such as Linda Buckley, Garrett Shouldice and Jennifer Walshe. The project team included Alan Titley, Professor Emeritus of Irish at UCC who selected the range of texts, from medieval to modern.
“My goal for this project is that it will be world-wide. Singers sing songs in Catalan and Slovenian. There is no reason why singers shouldn’t sing an Irish language art song if all the resources are there.”
To emphasise the point, a French speaking singer Magali Simard-Galdes is included in the panel. As the seanfhocal goes, ‘Beatha teanga í a labhairt’ — It is the life of a language to speak it, or indeed sing it.