Topicality in the Piano Music of John ireland
A Performer's Perspective
Leonard Ratner’s pioneering work on topic theory in his 1980 book Classic Music: Expression, Form and Style presented topics as 18th-century meaning-bearing aspects of musical compositions, embracing types such as dances and marches, and styles such as hunt and pastoral. Amongst other authors, Robert Hatten (1994, 2004), Raymond Monelle (2000, 2006) and Kofi Agawu (2009) have subsequently developed the concept and taken it well outside the confines of the 18th century. Despite this expansion into the 19th- and, to a lesser extent, 20th-century music, the focus of topic theory has tended to stay within the Classical period, and its interaction with performance has remained under-investigated.
This article thus addresses the subject of topics in 20th-century piano music and assesses their significance for the performer. Solo piano pieces by the English composer John Ireland (1879–1962) are used as case-studies, and a variety of topics, including pictorial ones, are discovered in his music, most of them not named in a title (such as ‘Minuet in G’). Thus pastoral music is found in parts of the Rhapsody and a twentieth-century equivalent of Empfindsamkeit in ‘In A May Morning’ from Sarnia. Placing these works and others in the context of Ireland’s biography adds extra richness to the investigation. New topics are suggested for the works under consideration, one of which relates to idiomatic piano writing as a generative principle. At the heart of the article is an exploration of topicality in Ireland’s music as an aid to a pianist’s interpretative decision-making, a process which engages with the composer’s perceived codes of meaning and expression, and seeks for ways in which to project these to the listener. The essay is illustrated by video extracts featuring the author’s live and studio performances.
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