The site’s searchable database has been created to make this music widely available while preserving the National Library’s precious and delicate collections. Currently, fifty three pieces of historic piano music using Irish airs may be downloaded from the site. The majority of these works were composed by Irish composers or visiting composers to Ireland. Audio files of four of the works in the digital library are appended to the sheet music. They are:
John Field (atrib): Go to the devil and shake yourself, performed by Barbara Dagg, square piano
Charlotte Maria Despard: Gramachree Molly; performed by Cliona Doris, concert harp
Thomas Cooke: St Patrick’s day; performed by Cliona Doris, concert harp
William Vincent Wallace: The harp that once through Tara’s halls and Fly not yet; performed by Una Hunt, piano.
The National Archive of Irish Composers website is the result of a collaborative project, directed by Dr. Úna Hunt, between the National Library and Dublin Institute of Technology’s Digital Media Centre.
The project was made possible by a Cultural Technology Grant from the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport, An Roinn Turasóireachta, Cultúir agus Spóirt.
The collection of historic piano music on this site illustrates a rich seam of indigenous repertoire that has been largely ignored for well over a century. How this repertoire exists and why it has fallen out of favour are two interesting questions. Certainly, social and historical factors played a part in the rise and fall of the popularity of Irish airs as used in instrumental music.
In the nineteenth century it was fashionable for ladies in the drawing room to play rondos, variations and fantasias based on popular themes, ranging from operatic excerpts to national airs. Visiting virtuosi to Ireland also extemporised on Irish melodies and the results were enthusiastically received by their audiences. Among these were some of the most highly-regarded pianist-composers of the era, including Frédéric Kalkbrenner, Ignaz Moscheles and, later still, Henri Herz, Franz Liszt, and Sigismund Thalberg. Having heard and played the airs in Ireland, these virtuosi brought them back to Europe and disseminated them through the publication of their music, and public and private performances.
Ireland’s airs had long been admired and were collected from travelling harpers, a practice that dramatically increased in the final years of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. The prominence of the harpers’ music was further enhanced abroad through the popularity of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, the songs themselves largely based on the harpers’ airs. As a result, the poet created a farther-reaching interest in Irish music in continental Europe. Piano works using Irish melodies remained in vogue through the mid-nineteenth century, before dwindling rapidly. This decline paralleled the diminishing popularity of the instrumental fantasia in favour of original works. It may also have mirrored the suspicion and rejection in which Moore was held by later generations of his countrymen.
Further information on this very fascinating subject may be found in: Una Hunt, ‘The Harpers’ Legacy: Irish National Airs and Pianoforte Composers’. The article, along with a catalogue of over 500 works is due for publication in vol. 6 of the Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland: http://www.music.ucc.ie/jsmi/index.php/jsmi/article/view/75