Friday, December 5, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (IV)

Frederick May: String Quartet in C Minor (Claddagh Records, 1974)
(Author's note: There’s very little information on Frederick May available on the internet, and acknowledgement is due to David Wright's invaluable article here.)
There were only three people present when Frederick May was lowered into his grave in 1985, one for every decade since he had written any music. May hadn't enjoyed an easy life. An embittered alcoholic afflicted by a dreadful hearing disorder and a victim of his nerves, he came across as an often truculent and difficult man, suffering the indignity of having his inheritance spoon-fed to him by a solicitor, as if he were a child, to prevent him frittering it away on strong liquor. His lonely death in a psychiatric hospital in Portrane was a melancholy end to a career which began with so much promise decades previously, in the 1930s. A talented student of music from Dublin, he travelled to London to study with Vaughan Williams before winning a scholarship to continue his studies in Vienna with the great Alban Berg (who, tragically, died of blood poisoning on Christmas Eve of 1935, before May could meet him) and Egon Wellesz. On his return from that troubled city, at a time when Europe was in a state of heightened dread and anticipation over the ambitions of Der Führer, he wrote his 'String Quartet in C Minor', a radically advanced piece for an Irish composer which was described by James Plunkett in his liner notes as "superb music; fluent, authoritative, and immediate" and by Brian Boydell as "[May's] finest work".
I found this LP, like so many in my collection, in a jumble sale on a spot of waste ground outside Wexford, mixed in with the usual dreck that one unearths at such affairs. I had never heard of Frederick May, but I was intrigued to discover an Irish composer of undoubted ability and intelligence whose work was utterly unknown to me. I didn't realise at the time that this was one of the only recordings, not just of this particular piece, but of any composition at all by this unjustly neglected composer (it is, thankfully, available on CD now, on the Naxos label). Not that May was a prolific writer; his hearing problems, combined with his increasing frustration and alcoholism, not least inspired by an ambivalent (to put it mildly) attitude to his country of origin, means that his collected works could probably fit in a single box set. However, it does seem a shame that, regardless of his personal foibles, one of the few Irish pioneers of what he called "art music" (to distinguish it from the traditional forms of music in which Ireland excels) is so little known, and entirely unrepresented in publication outside of sheet music. But, in a country where art, sport and tourism are covered by the same ministry, as if they were of equal standing (and no prizes for guessing which one matters more to most Fianna Failers), and where the connection hasn't been officially made between the arts, heritage, and the Irish language (all portioned out in separate ministries), it's not overly surprising that a man who tried to bridge the gap between Ireland and Europe as regards music ("It is doubtful if any nation with such a wonderful storehouse of traditional music has made such a negligible contribution to art music as we have, and it is high time we set about redressing the balance") should have been overlooked in this fashion, especially in Ireland of the rare ould times. Whether the neglect led to the personality, or vice versa, is another question, but one has to hope, in our more enlightened times, that a generous soul would commission a recording of his complete works for posterity. After all, if they're erecting statues of Joe Dolan (a figure of utter insignificance as regards culture) surely someone could fund a retrospective of Fred May's major works? (I must point out that I'm uncomfortable with May's differentiation between "traditional" and "art" music, which suggests that the former is somehow not "art", but it's a problem of labelling rather than anything else.)
But what of the music itself? To be honest, it's not entirely my cup of tea, as I like my classical music considerably more abrasive and experimental, but it's fine work nonetheless, with many beautiful passages. Part of the problem for me with this music is that I'm simply not familiar enough with May and his contemporaries (such as Vaughan Williams) to be able to comment authoritatively on its strengths and weaknesses - after listening to this I put on a Pierre Boulez CD and immediately felt on more recognisable terrain - but let's allow Raymond Deane to do the talking here: "[T]he Frederick May [String Quartet], while in some ways it's fairly traditional, in other ways represents an amazingly individual approach to the kind of things that were in the air at his time, the mid-1930s - the twelve-note system and so on - and blending that with tonality. It's an amazing piece." (New Music News, September 2002; full interview here.) Or James Plunkett, from the LP's liner notes: "[In this piece] there are darker elements present to torment a natural innocence and lyricism, which he constantly struggles to contain. If he surmounts them, it is not by exorcism but by acceptance - the conscious act of resignation. The Quartet in C Minor, completed ... at a time when the first hints of the affliction of deafness were beginning to threaten him, exemplifies this struggle and gains enormously in power ... because of it." That says it all, really, except that I'm delighted to have it in my collection and hope that further jumble-sale investigation will uncover more of his legacy.

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