"John Ireland as Teacher"
This article by Moeran, published in 1931,
whilst ostensibly about John Ireland, Moeran's composition tutor
in the early 1920's at the Royal College of Music, also offers a
rare and fascinating insight to Moeran's own ideas and attitudes
lived and worked for a time in a Kentish village. One day I was
feeling very pleased with myself, having composed a pianoforte piece
that I liked. I was playing it over when my landlord, the village
grocer, looked in on me.
"You made that all up yourself, did you?" he asked,
and added rather sorrowfully, "Ah, I wish I could do that; but you
see, I never had the education."
I should mention that my good friend's knowledge of
music amounted to precisely NIL. He was one of those who even had
to be told when the National Anthem was being played.
It is undoubtedly a fact that there are some people
who imagine that musical composition can be taught, even in the
same way that a knowledge of languages, chemistry, mathematics,
hairdressing, home-coping and countless other subjects can hammered
into the receptive brain of any willing pupil by a skilled teacher.
Also there are many who believe that given enthusiasm and a first-rate
professor of composition, any intelligent musician may become a
composer if he works sufficiently hard. Hence, unfortunately, the
existence of so much of that type of music which is known as 'Capellmeister'
In this sense, John Ireland, in spite of the title
of this essay, is not a teacher of composition. This is one of his
virtues. He is a very wise adviser and an acute critic, both of
his own work and of that of others, and he succeeds in instilling
into his pupils that blessed principal of self-criticism. Moreover,
he possesses an uncanny knack of immediately and accurately probing
the aesthetic content of what is put before him, thus arriving at
the state of mind which gave it birth, and understanding its underlying
mood and aims. It is here that his sympathy is aroused, for he has
the faculty of understanding the music from the pupil's point of
view, and his wide experience then steps in to suggest the solution
of difficulties, and not only the technical ones.
These are not the qualities of an academic teacher
of composition, who is accustomed to dole out weekly lessons of
forty minutes' duration to all sorts and conditions of students.
Ireland is not a mere machine whose brains may be purchased at so
much an hour. I recollect one session - this is a better word that
'lesson' in his case - which lasted for about an hour, then continued
for another half-hour after tea. At this point Ireland advised me
to go home and work at the problem concerned with while our discussion
was still fresh in my mind, and to bring it back to him later in
the evening for a final talk.
Ireland and Moeran, 1922
Ireland does not believe that any standardised technique
can be taught. "Every composer must make his own technique," is
his dictum. At the same time he is a firm believer in the strict
study of counterpoint, and, much to my surprise and sorrow, I found
myself expected to spend many weary hours, struggling with cantus
firmus, and its embellishments in all the species. I state emphatically
that I am glad of all this today, for I have come to realise that
only by this means can a subconscious sense of harmony, melody,
and rhythm be acquired.
Genuine harmony arises out of counterpoint, for it
implies contrary motion among the parts; otherwise it is no longer
harmony, but faux-bourdon. Moreover there can be no rhythm without
melody, otherwise it descends to mere metre, which is not music.
On the other hand melody, divorced from harmony and rhythm, descends
into a meandering succession of fragmentary ideas, bearing little
relation one to another, and totally lacking organic unity. Thus
it is that the greatest music, from Palestrina and Vittoria down
through Beethoven and Wagner and the present day, has been polyphonic.
For without polyphony nothing can be complete, and any attempt to
break away from it has invariably ended in a blind alley.
I mentioned just now that first of all I was surprised
at Ireland's insistence on counterpoint, but I hope I have grown
a little wiser than I was just over eleven years ago when I commenced
work with him, and I feel unbounded gratitude for having been encouraged
to do the drudgery. I deliberately use the word encouraged, for
Ireland has no interest in work done which is not worth while, and
it is by the lucidity of his argument that he expounds to his pupils
the logic of doing something that hitherto may have seemed futile,
and the task, distasteful as it may appear at the time, is undertaken
with the sure sense that there is a real reason for doing it, and
doing it to the best of one's ability. Personally, I have always
been so lazy that it would have been nearly impossible to induce
me to go to the trouble of working a single counterpoint exercise,
had I not been encouraged to believe in some very definite value
in so doing.
Ireland's remarkable individuality in his own work
does not hinder him from observing and fostering unity of style
in the work of his pupils, even though it may be very different
from his own. He will not tolerate the slightest falling off or
failing in continuity. He has no use for padding in any form, and
he does not consider a piece of work done with until the minutest
detail has been scrutinised again, down to the last semiquaver rest
and the smallest mark of phrasing and dynamics. "What about that
sforzando?" he will ask. "Have you thought carefully about it?"
His own mastery of form has been evolved in the wake
of some hard thinking and deep experience the results of which,
apart from his creative work, bear fruit in the guidance which he
is able to give to those who study with him. For him, form does
not necessarily imply a dry-as-dust formula of first and second
subjects, double bars and so on. He enjoins his pupils to look ahead
I took him one day the exposition of a movement in
sonata form. "This is most exciting," he said. "But the question
is, will you be able to go one better before the end? Otherwise
you will have an anticlimax."
Here again, Ireland is emphasizing one of the raisons
d'etre of the heritage which has come down to us from the old masters.
All the music which has escaped consignment to the shelf has been
inherently logical. Music, without logical continuity and shape,
is lifeless from its inception.
As for instrumentation, Ireland holds that the true
principles thereof are not necessarily to be found in text-books,
but they eventually come about in relation to the music ("Every
composer must make his own technique"). It is essential, however,
to understand the true nature and character of each individual instrument,
apart from its compass and technical resources. This is only knowledge
that can be gained by listening to concerted music, but it is when
the beginner sets forth on his own first full score that the experienced
adventurer is able to guide his faltering steps. It is here that
Ireland's psychological sense, in getting to the rock-bottom in
what the pupil is making for, enables to put his finger on the weaknesses
and, by means of his considered suggestion, to point out the right
road to take to over-come them.
I have tried here to show that John Ireland is an
exceptional counsellor for those fortunate enough to work under
his teaching. When all is said and done, it is the fact that he
is the very antithesis of the so-called teacher of composition that
is the secret of his success. He gives unstintingly of his very
best to those who come under him, and behind that keen intelligence
that brings to bear on their work and its many aspects and problems
his pupils soon discover a very human personality and a very warm
E J Moeran
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