Classical Ireland

Bruno Breathnach enthuses about the works of Michael McGlynn

Reprinted by kind permission of Bruno Breathnach and  Classical Ireland [Issue 2, 1999]


For many people, music lovers included, listening to contemporary classical music is a rather alienating experience. Often the compositions are inaccessible and incomprehensible by virtue of their lack of apparent melody. The choices that the composer makes are so self-limiting in that they convey either unspecified angst or great excitement to the detriment of the other colours in the paint-box. I once heard the experience of listening to modern music per se being described as feeling like falling down the stairs in the dark! The analogy holds when you consider that you would not, therefore, normally volunteer for such an assault. 

Nor would you pay good money for it. However, not all contemporary music is like that. In fact, the most popular composers are those who do not alienate the listener but who draw them into their particular world. One thinks of Pärt, Tavener and Gorecki in this context.

Judging by record sales and packed concerts there is little doubt that Michael McGlynn is one of Ireland’s most popular and successful composers. By creating the choral group Anúna in the early eighties he also gave himself a vehicle for his own compositions. These concerts have been a powerful opportunity to entice a new audience towards new Irish composition. It is no accident that a new listener will go to an Anúna concert or buy a CD because of something Celtic and commercial that they may have heard on the radio and then also find Early choral music like Hildegard of Bingen, arrangements of Medieval and Irish melodies, as well as McGlynn’s own compositions. 

It is to these compositions that I refer when I speak about Michael McGlynn as a composer and not necessarily the Anúna-esque works, which are to be found alongside them although they are beautiful, especially the much-feted Wind On Sea.

If I can emphasise two things in this profile I will be happy. First, Michael McGlynn, like all the other Irish composers who do not write atonal music, deserves recognition and encouragement. Second, there are miniature gems of his true compositional style to be found scattered throughout his numerous CDs.

Michael was born in 1964 and trained initially as a singer and pianist. He later studied Music and English at U.C.D. All the while he was emerging as a composer showing lots of potential and winning awards. As time went on, and his choir gained in reputation, he started to combine in his approach to programming an eclectic mixture of musics: Early Music, Traditional Irish, Clannad and Dan Ar Braz songs and of course McGlynn pieces. As he says himself "Music is music. It is not relevant what format it’s in. It’s all very exciting". With popularity and success came CD releases and performances abroad which has all led to his recent recording deal with Gimell. 

I often think that Michael is so immersed in the organisation and promotion of his group that even he does not fully appreciate his own compositions. In fact, I would go so far as to say that beneath that strong driven personality there is a struggling composer who would benefit enormously from going into hiding away from Anúna, maybe even away from Ireland altogether, and writing some larger works. As well as great choral works one feels instinctively that Michael will also compose well for full orchestra. Concertii or perhaps pieces for solo instruments might also be worth exploring given the opportunity.

Certainly, his many recorded works show great potential for the future. And in their own right they stand as exquisitely crafted, even inspired compositions among his peers.

Take, for example, the Sanctus from the first CD Anúna [Danú 001]. Here is a short simple work, which is extremely effective, especially if you are lucky enough to be at a live performance where it is not only sung, but also staged. This added dimension of sound in motion around the audience is not unique but it is keeping alive a much older tradition of performance as ritual, which might otherwise be lost. 

Similarly, Quis est Deus on the second disc Invocation [Danú 002] is simple yet direct and because of its multi-layered effects is evocative of Hildegard where the voices almost seem to be stretching up to God asking the question "Who are you?".

The original edition of Omnis [Danú 005] is a real storehouse of his maturing style. Agnus Dei is arrestingly performed and the composition of Tenebræ I and II is stunning. These two works mark a development in style, which seems to be as much about compositional courage as anything else. By that, I mean to imply how McGlynn is testing the water to see if the choir’s audience is willing to accept fully-fledged contemporary writing. The answer is, of course, in the affirmative provided the music does not go to extremes without returning to some kind of home ground. This music skillfully crosses back and forth between the realms of dissonance and contemplative melody; clashes of tones appear to be suspended in mid-air until they can be appreciated as something of beauty in their own right before they are resolved. O Viridissima is a direct response to the music of Hildegard for female voices. Once again the sound swirls around the listener in layers of what can only be described as ecstatic unsynchronised unison: marvellous! Although quite different in style, Dúlamán for male voices is a rousing exhortation in Gaelic that makes you proud to be Irish even if you’re not.

This brings me to Michael McGlynn’s choice of texts to set. Whilst it is true to say that they are usually of Irish or Religious origin the reason they are chosen is because of their evocative nature. They make you feel connected to the past in some way or maybe they point to spiritual aspects of oneself or the natural world. This is where Michael’s approach to music as a whole begins to fall into place. Evocation is about remembering or imagining and feeling something as a result. Granted, these works reward after study but their initial impact cannot be underestimated. In that regard, I find this music refreshing since it is about the listener and not all to do with the composer. Michael himself put it best when he said recently "Simplicity and directness are very important. Self-indulgence is not".

On the album Deep Dead Blue [Danú 007] there are further gems to behold. Kyrie creates a curious atmosphere introducing to the mixing bowl the feeling of choral jazz accompaniment to gently support the overall structure. This is also true of The Sea which, along with some superb solo flute passages, stylistically paves the way for the string writing on the latest CD.

Behind the Closed Eye [Danú 009] is a mature work, which has been likened to a secular oratorio or fantasia with extended instrumental and orchestral passages. The text is the poetry of Francis Ledwidge who wrote up to the time of his death in the First World War. This album combines the forces of Anúna with the saxophonist Kenneth Edge and the Ulster Orchestra. There would seem to be less of the earlier Anúna-esque writing and more of Michael’s own personal style. Special mention goes to Aisling, Annaghdown, Behind the Closed Eye and From Nowhere to Nowhere an intoxicating piece for solo saxophone. Ave Maria is a definite highlight, which uses the extraordinary mezzo voice of Miriam Blennerhassett to full effect. But it is the closing sequence of the disc, which is the most poignant The Coming of Winter, Where All Roses Go which is sung by the composer himself and 1901. The last movement serves as an epilogue using some of the album’s main themes but ending with as much isolation as a melody can carry. The passages for orchestral strings are very fine indeed and they call to mind the kind of harmonic progression that Poulenc used in his choral work Bois Meurtri. Now there’s an idea for the concert programmers at the National Concert Hall being that this year is a special anniversary for Poulenc and Behind the Closed Eye is overdue its premiere performance in the Republic.

Composers of the calibre and originality of Michael McGlynn should not have to wait until their mid-thirties for an orchestral commission in their own country. It is truly amazing that such a composer could have emerged almost independently of the music establishment in Ireland. On a more constructive level, it behoves me to say that it is even more amazing that Michael has developed his own personal style of writing by distilling and learning, as he claims, from Ligeti, Lutoslawski and Berg as much as from Debussy, Early Music and Traditional Song.

It has long since been time to publicly acknowledge the role that Anúna has played in training and employing singers as well as crossing non-existent barriers of music style and thus developing the classical marketplace of the future. I sincerely hope that institutions and education programmes will continue to grow and change in order to accommodate and encourage new music like Michael McGlynn’s. In the meantime it is well worth the journey for all music-lovers to look again at his music especially the compositions that have been mentioned here.