Richard B. Evans, an American-born composer and musician, has been immersed in Irish music and culture for decades, and his exploration of the events leading to 1916 is about to come to American audiences in a live, full-length musical production commemorating the Centennial.
Ireland’s Poet-Patriots is a full evening’s concert marking the centennial of the Easter Rising and illuminating 113 years of turbulent Irish history through the words of Ireland’s own poets and patriots. The music marries original crossover classical music with Irish traditional music. The poignant poems, speeches, eulogies, essays, and lyrics of those poets and patriots express “art as politics,” dissent through humor, outrage through irony, and mystical poetry as reconciliation between and among people and their history.
It features a variety of musical forces: a concert orchestra, mixed choir, and “classical” vocal soloists, as well as Irish “trad” singers and an ensemble of uilleann pipes, pennywhistles, fiddle, and bodhrán. The musical styles range widely – contemporary, folk, liturgical, pub songs, art songs, and operatic arias – yet they’re a cohesive expression of historic events and the struggle of the Irish nation for its independence.
I talked to the composer about what he describes as “my attempt to grasp the historic context of 1916 through the poetic impulse that is so profoundly rooted in the Irish soul.”
What inspired you, as an American, to write a musical tribute to the Irish centenary?
I started traveling to Ireland in the 1960s, in my mid-20s, well before I knew about any Irish heritage of mine. I immediately connected with the place, the people, and the culture, and it became a love affair with Ireland that has never wavered.
Then I started studying the poems of Yeats, which led me to Maud Gonne, the English-born Irish revolutionary, a most fascinating character. And we can’t talk about Maud Gonne without talking about her politics, which led me to her amazing article addressing Queen Victoria as “the Famine Queen.” From there I got some huge books of Irish poetry and discovered there were several impressive poets who all died in 1916 – and that led me to the incredible history of the Easter Rising.
I was inspired by the fact that 1916 wasn’t a military coup; quite the contrary, it was led by artists and poets whose personal sacrifices for their cause spoke to me, as an artist myself.
You’ve said that the goal of the concert is to illuminate history, not to re-fight it. What are you hoping people will take from it?
I think it’s important that Americans, not just Irish-Americans, know that 1916 wasn’t an anomaly, that it was the culmination of many events of the previous century. From Robert Emmet [who led a failed rebellion in 1803] to the Great Hunger (not a Famine, since there was plenty of food in Ireland), and then the Gaelic Revival (the Irish literary renaissance), Queen Victoria’s visit, and so on. Each of the 16 sections of the concert represents a movement or event in Irish history that leads cumulatively to 1916.
So I find that pulling that thread through those 113 years puts 1916 in a context that I rarely hear about. This is the history of a people who suffered long and struggled hard to gain their independence from tyranny. For Americans who too often think the 17th of March is about green beer and silly hats, that’s certainly worth knowing. So much of Ireland’s culture, politics, and arts are woven into the fabric of the U.S. that we rarely think of what’s “Irish” about America.
For example, we certainly can’t talk of popular American music without a deep nod to Ireland. Irish roots are so thoroughly integrated into American music that we rarely notice it, yet when you turn on the radio, there’s Irish culture.
I also think about the Irish people having brought to America such a standard of hard work and devotion to public service – firemen, policemen, nurses, politicians. That’s born of their history and thus it’s been integral to ours from our earliest days.
It’s important to know that the American Revolution was an inspiration for 1916 and that 1916 resonates deeply in America’s history as well. Both grew from the same human need for justice and self-determination.
Tell me about this interesting marriage of musical styles.
European classical music depends on the composers’ written scores, while Irish “trad” music is aural, transmitted from player to player by ear. A trad musician would say, “Read the notes? What do you mean, ‘read the notes?’ I want a tune!” A friend of mine who plays trad was asked, “Do you read music?” And he famously answered, “Not enough to get in my way.”
Irish culture contains both streams of music – European classical and Irish traditional – sometimes they conflict and sometimes they complement. My musical hero, Seán Ó’Riada, took on this challenge. He was part of the huge revival of Irish trad music, but he was also trained in Euro styles and he brought them together in his music. In Ireland’s Poet-Patriots, I’ve made a conscious decision to bring together the classical – an orchestra, choir, and three classically trained vocal soloists – along with an Irish trad ensemble and two sean-nós [old-style] singers. So weaving together both streams of music in this production really reflects the culture of Irish music more broadly and works together to tell this inspiring story.
Who are some of the poets you chose to feature in the performance?
The ten poets/writers I’ve chosen include some of the obvious ones, like W.B. Yeats, James Connolly, and Maud Gonne, but two in particular would be less known in America. One of these is Ella Young, who was a member of the women’s auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers, the Cumann na mBan – women who actually took up guns in 1916 – that was pretty unusual. The poem of hers I include isn’t directly about Irish nationalism, but relates to it. Written in 1906, it’s called “A Voyage” – interestingly, she took her own voyage in 1925, when she immigrated to the United States, settling near San Francisco.
Another poet much less known in America is George William Russell, who signed his poems “Æ.” His poem “Immortality,” written in 1913, performed here by the chorus and the entire ensemble as the closing number, is perfect to reflect upon 1916 in a healing sort of way.
The ending of the concert isn’t triumphalism and it’s not tragedy. Æ’s moving poem “Immortality” reflects upon the larger picture of life and will act as a benediction to the evening’s experience.
What performances do you have lined up?
We’re lining up performances in Washington, D.C. and hopefully Chicago, too, in the fall. What we’re excited about right now is our upcoming world premiere in San Francisco on April 22nd.
In partnership with the Consulate General of Ireland for the West Coast, it will be presented in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, a beautiful, gothic space with wonderful murals and teeming with history. The concert will benefit the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center, and will be performed the same weekend as the actual 100th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic! It’s so exciting to see these concerts coming together for this most important centenary.
I’m reminded of the opening line of that George Russell poem, “Immortality.” It reads, “We must pass like smoke, or live within the spirit’s fire.” ♦