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The Opera Quarterly 21.1 (2005) 27-67

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Stage-Irish, or the National in Irish Opera, 1780–1925


The fact that music as a performing art involves two kinds of public existence, namely the printed score and the actual performance, should be clear in our minds when turning our attention to an unexplored territory such as opera in Ireland. There is scarcely any nation in the world whose music has been so little discovered, documented, or analyzed, to say nothing of performances or recordings, as the proverbial "Land of Song." As a consequence, Irish classical music—and with it Irish national opera—has not quite become a self-evident part of Irish culture; its presence is not generally noted. By comparison with other art forms, including painting, sculpture, fiction, and other verbal arts, music poses difficulties of interpretation made even more difficult by the lack of proper publishing or recording of music. In Ireland, notably, the preeminence of verbal art forms stands in dramatic contrast to the reduced understanding of music, not as a folk art but unquestionably in terms of classical traditions or forms. As a result, musical nationalism is a concept invariably provoking dissent from one side or the other. What remains is the sad fact that Ireland is possibly one of the very few countries in which the people are deprived of their own classical musical heritage. To put it more plainly, whereas virtually every other Western country can listen to its own musical past, Ireland—apart from its ethnic traditions—cannot.

Some latter-day commentators seem all too happy in the belief that disregard in the past is reason enough for disregard today, as in the case of the Italian-Irish composer Michele Esposito (1882–1929), whose importance could be measured by the fact that "history has passed them by."1 People who think so would quickly extend that dismissive judgment to most Irish composers of the past, because history—or let us better say today's appreciation—has indeed passed by the great majority of Irish composers. To be able to judge a composer's achievements with fairness, one must [End Page 27] possess a knowledge of the work from both score and performance. Only repeated listening can contribute to the development of public opinion.

In making this rather general introduction my point is the following: None of the works introduced in this article are available on commercial recordings, nor have they ever been.2 None of the works have had performances for many, many years. Even the most recent opera has not been played for at least three generations. A printed score or a contemporaneous review does not constitute a healthy musical life.

Despite all this, judgments, of the sort mentioned above abound—that is, that those works forgotten by history are surely unimportant. Judgments of a different yet equally negative kind deliberately omit works from critical scrutiny that one might just as well have included. For instance, in a book with the title Opera in Dublin, 1705–1797: The Social Scene one would surely expect to find information about Irish works and Irish composers.3 I did read through the book, but I found nearly nothing. Indeed, I found in almost all sources on opera in Ireland that the perception was truly of opera in Ireland rather than of opera from Ireland.4 As far as I can determine, the musicological documentation of the history of Irish opera has, with only few and partial exceptions, been the history of foreign opera performances and of the various theaters and singers involved in that history. It has been a perception that indulges in the cultof the performer, with very little regard for native creative accomplishments.

Another reason for our prevailing ignorance is that musicologists have had little incentive to turn their attention to opera in Ireland and as a consequence have not discovered anything of interest. Thus, even acknowledged authorities in nineteenth-century British opera such as Nicholas Temperley could be challenged for stating that Julius Benedict's (1804–1885) The...


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