reachWhen I was having piano lessons while a young boy I remember having to tackle John Ireland’s The Holy Boy. Unlikely as it seems, this was my first real introduction to extended harmony. At first I found the (very mild) clashes puzzling and ugly, but soon I became acclimatized. Now I find Ireland’s impressionist harmony strikes just the level of ambiguity to be intriguing. I love, for instance, the piano accompaniment, especially the introduction, to his setting of A E Houseman’s “The Lent Lily” (from the cycle The Land of Lost Content).

Another example is “Chelsea Reach” from the Three London Pieces, a gentle ramble in lilting six eight time that moves mostly in rich block chords. The level of dissonance ebbs and flows in a carefully controlled way: for instance the first three bars have no accidentals, but they are introduced in the next three bars and intensify in the following three. The intensity peaks at bar nine (where the melody also reaches its highest point) and from there it returns to straightforward harmony and a return to the home key of Ab (at bar 10). The rhythm is equally controlled, mostly sticking to regular quavers, but breaking out just occasionally into more dance-like dotted rhythms.

Ireland loved London. “Chelsea Reach” (the title refers to the Thames embankment near Battersea Bridge and Cheyne Walk, well known for its colourful houseboats) was written at his studio in 14 Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where he lived from 1915 until the traffic noise finally drove him out in 1953. Ireland himself played the first public performance at the Aeolean Hall in London on 7 June, 1918.

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