As Mise Éire features in the opening concert of the Cork International Choral Festival, Jo Kerrigan talks to Seán Ó Riada’s son Peadar about its creation
ANYONE who was around in the 1960s will remember vividly the impact of Seán Ó Riada’s Mise Éire, the music he composed especially for George Morrison’s film of the same name.
When the score was released on record, sales exploded, but uniquely, not just among the cogniscenti, the first-nighters, but right through the ranks from elderly patriots to university students. Everybody loved it, everybody could hum the tunes, it was heard as often at teenage parties as in select concerts. Those haunting melodies were as familiar – if not more so – than the national anthem.
Which makes it superbly appropriate that in 2016, the Mise Éire suite has been chosen as the first piece of the opening gala concert in the Cork International Choral Festival on Wednesday. Accompanied by that original film, it will bring back many memories for the older among us, and perhaps introduce the master’s music to a whole new generation as well as the thousands of visitors from other lands.
In its power and emotion, it ranks right up there with pieces like Sibelius’ Finlandia or Karelia, both banned by Russia as being far too fiery and unsettling to allow the captive nation to hear.
“It seemed the ideal opportunity to feature this iconic and hugely important piece of music by an Irish composer who revolutionized our awareness and perception of Irish music in a classical sense,” says festival director, John Fitzpatrick. “And yes, we were very pleased to be able to incorporate the original film into the performance. To see that grainy black-and-white footage again, accompanied by the power of the CSM Symphony Orchestra, will be an experience few will forget.”
The original recording brought Ó Riada national acclaim and allowed him to start a series of programmes on Irish radio called Our Musical Heritage, as well as founding Ceoltóirí Chualann where the traditional music he loved so well was for the first time heard in full orchestral style by Irish listeners.
Ó Riada’s son, Peadar, who has followed in those musical footsteps remembers quite well the composing of the legendary work.
“He’d go mad at the noise we were all making around the house, and we’d be packed off to the grandparents in Cork so he could get on with writing the score in peace,” recalls Peadar.
He reveals a moving family story. “The first showing of that film was actually at the 1959 Cork Film Festival. He got tickets for his parents, but they were afraid to go down, unsure whether or not their son had stuck his neck out too far. They were sitting above in the house in Glasheen, just wondering and waiting, and then Gran couldn’t stand it any more.
“She got her hat, stick and gloves and caught the No 11 bus to Pana where it was being shown at the Savoy. As she got off the bus, she heard the Echo boys whistling the main theme. When she heard that, she just got the next bus home, walked in, and said ‘The boy’s done well.’”
That tale records something incredible. Victorian producers of huge London shows would pray to hear the Cockney errand boys whistling a new tune from one of their musicals. It meant that they were on to a winner. Something simple enough to remember, easy enough to whistle.
Simple enough to remember – yet incredibly powerful. Remember those opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th, utilised by Churchill in WWII as the V for Victory sign?
Well, Mise Éire opens with four simple notes as well, used to devastating effect. It takes genius to create something like that.
Incidentally, Ó Riada the Younger once had the experience of conducting his father’s score with a full orchestra, and admits that it gave him a tremendous rush of energy and feeling.
“It wasn’t an intellectual exercise for him, it was an emotional one. Clever motifs and mechanisms, intellectual prowess, all that sort of stuff — it doesn’t do it for me, and it didn’t do it for him.
“I hear it in my head, and down it goes and that’s it. If somebody wants me to write a tune for them, I sit down and do it there and then. My father was the same. It came from inside his head, not a pile of paper.”
In such a year of commemorations, the audience at Cork City Hall on Wednesday will no doubt feel the power of the music that poured from Ó Riada’s head, and his heart.
CORK CHORAL FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS
Chamber Choir Ireland at St Fin Barre’s, Fri Apr 29: Under conductor Paul Hillier, the Festival’s choir-in-residence will perform a full programme including the premieres of a newly- commissioned piece from composer Stephen McNeff, and the winning composition from the 2016 Séan Ó Riada Competition for Irish composers, Amanda Feery, pictuerd.
Fringe Concerts: Oh so many delectable events from which to choose! Choirs at Christchurch, an organ recital at St Fin Barre’s; White Raven at St James’ Church and the Gallarus Oratory; the absolute must-be-there Shandon Sunrise, at 6am on May Day; and The Clerks Choral of St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal, singing The Office Of Compline in plainsong also at Shandon, later the same day. You could run all over the city and countryside from one to another.
Closing Gala, Sun May 1: Bookending the other end of the festival, this is where the visiting international choirs display their musical and ethnic backgrounds in a a joyful and colourful celebration of song — usually with a few surprises! Always a wonderful end to a wonderful event.
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