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Saving Frederick May

Frederick May (second from left) with Ina Boyle and Aloys Fleischmann, 1938.The reputation of composer Frederick May (shown here, second left) has just received a major boost. A key piece of his work, the long-lost Symphonic ballad, has been unearthed from the archives in Trinity College Library by Dr Mark Fitzgerald. It received the full National Concert Hall treatment this September.  A public lecture about his research will be given by Dr Fitzgerald in Trinity on Monday at 18.30. The story of Frederick May’s life, as a musician and an outsider – being  gay, Protestant, and Republican – casts new light on narratives of Irishness and modernity in Irish culture.

 Composer Frederick May (1911-1985), who was a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, has long been seen as the most important figure in Irish composition from the first half of the twentieth century. This assessment is based primarily on his String Quartet of 1936. However, for too long discussions about May have focused primarily on what he did not do rather than on what he did actually achieve. This is because from 1938 onwards May suffered from severe mental illness and otosclerosis which caused deafness and tinnitus; as a result the composer effectively abandoned working in the early 1940s. His compositional output is therefore very small but the String Quartet has always been seen as one of the seminal compositions in Ireland due to its modernity relative to other pieces composed in Ireland at this time.

A fuller assessment of May’s place in the canon has been delayed because an important piece of work, his Symphonic Ballad had been effectively lost. This piece was composed for the Belfast Wireless Symphony Orchestra (later the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra) and the premiere was conducted by E. Godfrey Brown on 30 August 1937. It was also broadcast on Radio Éireann in September 1941. At some unknown point after this the score was mislaid. Thus, seventy five years after it was last performed, there was no known surviving score. However May’s archives had been presented to the Library in Trinity College by Brian Boydell (1917-2000) the professor of music at Trinity and, through a careful examination of the remaining orchestral parts, Mark Fitzgerald was able to bring the music back to the concert stage. A full description of this painstaking process is available in the AIC New Music Journal. Mark, who is a Visiting Fellow at Trinity’s Long Room Hub is giving a public lecture on his research in the Hub on Monday 10 October at 18.30.This talk will illustrate how utilisation of the manuscript collection at TCD can illuminate the development of May as a composer, while his outsider status as a gay, Protestant, Republican, anti-fascist composer in the 1930s and 1940s casts new light on narratives of Irishness and modernity in Irish culture.

Musicologist Dr Mark Fitzgerald lectures at the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatoire of Music and Drama. His research focuses on music of the twentieth century, particularly music in Ireland, and he has published a monograph on composer James Wilson. Mark’s reconstructed edition of May’s Symphonic Ballad was performed at the National Concert Hall on 9 September as part of the ‘Composing the Island’ festival. Dr Fitzgerald believes this performance will play an important role in the reassessment of May’s career. He further says: ‘The Symphonic Ballad is a more cogently argued composition than either Spring Nocturne or Sunlight and Shadow which to date have been seen as Frederick May’s most important purely orchestral compositions’.  The release of a CD of May’s songs by DIT on 8 September 2016 will also help to illuminate the development of May’s musical voice.

Jane Maxwell