- 1 November, 2013
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As principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, Northern Ireland since 2011, JoAnn Falletta has experienced at first-hand the charms of the country, its history and its people. The British composer E. J. Moeran went through a similar experience in the Republic of Ireland, specifically in County Kerry on the west coast of the country during the latter part of his life. He died there in 1950 and is buried in the town of Kenmare.
Following the release of her recording of Moeran’s Cello Concerto (Naxos 8.573034) with the Ulster Orchestra earlier this year, Falletta was invited to share with us the related questions she would like to have asked the composer, had they ever met.
Her first question: “Although you grew up in Norfolk, England, in the later part of your life you claimed that you could only write music in Ireland. What was it about that unique landscape that inspired you?”
It’s true that, although Moeran’s small gravestone is sadly underwhelming and overgrown, the panoramic view from his resting place, down to an expanse of water and across to rolling hills, is enchanting. He certainly loved this area; his headstone bears the inscription ‘He rests in the mountain country which he loved so well.’ But one wonders whether he was attracted in equal measure by nature and noggins of the local brew.
Moeran had long been an avid collector of folk songs, frequenting bars in Norfolk where locals would have ditties on tap for him to set down. His research continued in the pubs of County Kerry, exacerbating his alcohol addiction which served as an intermittent anchor on his creativity during his later life. Indeed, a hotel bar in Kenmare, where he lived, was named after him. Some fifty years after his death, ‘Moeran’s Bar’ was quietly dropped as a feature of the establishment.
A sad parallel springs to mind with the English composer Malcolm Arnold, who moved to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland in 1972, aged 51; during his six years there, alcoholism, attempted suicide and divorce from his second wife effectively brought down the curtain on his composing career.
Arnold had moved to Ireland from Cornwall, which provides a link to Falletta’s second question for Moeran: “You composed one of your greatest works, the Cello Concerto, for Peers Coetmore, the woman who was about to become your wife. What are the special challenges and and joys of writing an important work for a deeply beloved friend?”
Moeran married Coetmore in 1945; she was clearly the inspiration for the Cello Concerto (1945), also the Cello Sonata (1947) and the Prelude for cello and piano (1943). Yet the marriage soon proved itself to be not the happiest. Falletta’s question, therefore, might beg another: “To what extent is the expression of joy more tellingly and enduringly achieved through art than physicality?”
That link between Ireland and Cornwall reminds us how those locations formed the geographical spine for one of the greatest love stories that has ever been recorded in sound – Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
Wagner’s creativity was influenced by three women. He was bound to two of them by marriage: Minna was his first wife, from 1836-66; Cosima filled the vacancy in 1870. But it was Wagner’s presumed affair with Mathilde Wesendonck in the 1850s that inspired some of his greatest expressions of passion – the Wesendonck Lieder and Tristan and Isolde. One is tempted to wonder, therefore, whether or not the Moeran-Coetmore partnership might have similarly produced even more inspired works had the two not actually tied the knot.