Although the name Seóirse Bodley (b. 1933) is likely unknown to most, he is considered one the most important Irish composers of the older generation and was, in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the most modern musical voices in Ireland. I prefer his more traditional music, such as these symphonies.
From three visits to the famous summer courses of new music at Darmstadt (1963-65), Seóirse Bodley returned to Ireland with an awareness of modern continental trends in music which resulted in many pieces of great complexity. From 1972 he combined these modern influences with elements from Irish traditional music. His works from the early 1980s returns to a more simple language. The overriding aesthetic issue in Bodley's work as a composer has been the question of how to reconcile Irish traditional music with the European art-music heritage. Bodley often sets Irish texts to music (ranging from the 11th century to Yeats and beyond, with a special emphasis on the poetry of Brendan Kennelly and Micheal O'Siadhail), he helped to found the Folk Music Society of Ireland in 1970, and he has a serious scholarly interest in sean nós singing. Bodley's music certainly has it's critics, and one quote from a nasty review that has stuck in my mind was by
the critic Douglas Sealy who said Bodley's music was "a mixture of Hindemith and The Chieftains, a marriage never made in heaven". Also critical of Bodley’s use of Irish traditional elements in his works included a few fellow composers such as Frank Corcoran who said Bodley was "trying too hard, too self-consciously, to be Irish". On the other hand of course were his supporters, such as the Dublin music critic Charles Acton who urged Bodley from the beginning to become "Ireland's equivalent of Sibelius or Bartók" and advised him to "make a detailed study of the recordings of Irish traditional music and to learn the unique grammar of our folk music." Why some critics have been so negative I don't understand. Is there something threatening, is it shameful when national and cultural pride is a driving motivational force to create art? Critics are a necessary evil, but in some cases those who frown..seem to do so just because they can. To me those who take issue with Bodley's use of elements from traditional Irish tunes, their complaints are just silly.
In common with many other composers of his generation, Bodley was profoundly affected (for better or for worse, depending on one's view of post-serial music) by the Darmstadt aesthetic. There was little in Bodley’s early training to prepare him for a confrontation with the post-war avant garde. In his youth, piano studies at the Royal Irish Academy of Music were supplemented by private composition lessons (generously given for free) with the Dublin-based German choral conductor Hans Waldemar Rosen. Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra concerts introduced him to the standard orchestral repertoire, with occasional forays into more adventurous works (e.g., music of the Second Viennese School conducted by the Schoenberg pupil Winfried Zillig). Studies in music at University College Dublin under John Larchet resulted in a first-class honors BMus degree in 1955. A characteristic composition from this early period in Bodley’s life is "Music for Strings" (1952), which many consider to be his first significant work. Two years of music study in Stuttgart (1957–59), including composition lessons with the Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk David, enhanced Bodley's traditional craft (David stressed Mozart and Bach as models), but also exposed him for the first time to the music of Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono.
Bodley's real immersion in the Darmstadt aesthetic did not take place until the early 1960s, when he spent three summers at the Ferienkurse and heard many works by the leading avant-garde composers of the day, as well as lectures by Stockhausen and Ligeti, among others. It was then the spirit of Darmstadt that inspired him rather than any specific composer or musical idiom. It was the attempt to integrate an international avant-garde idiom with elements of traditional Irish music which led to the harsh criticisms, as noted above. Bodley himself has compared this balancing act to the image of a tightrope walker, constantly in danger of falling off on one side (the avant garde) or the other (folk music cliches).
Having swung over to the avant-garde side in the 1960s and 1970s, Bodley the tightrope walker leaned to the other side in the 1980s, evidently taking to heart the observation attributed to Schoenberg that there is still much good music to be written in C major. Several works from this time include much music literally in the key of C major, including large sections of Symphony No. 3 (Ceol) of 1981, in which Bodley intends that C major should "symbolize the inner core of music itself." The embrace of tonality corresponded with an attempt at a more accessible and audience-friendly idiom, a move that some critics found as difficult to accept as they had found Bodley's avant-garde works from the 1960s and 1970s. The composer's Gebrauchsmusik aesthetic led him to write music for films, music for amateur performers, and music for the church (including three settings of the Mass). With "Mass of Peace" (1976), Bodley reached his largest live audience; parts of the work were performed during the Papal Mass celebrated by John Paul II in Phoenix Park in 1979, with over one million people in attendance.
In the 4th and 5th symphonies fairly heavy influence of the great symphonist of the early 20th century Sibelius can indeed be heard, but then a feel for the darker colours of orchestration is apparent throughout these two works as well.
Both of these symphonies date from 1991(!) but the language of the writing is of a more mid-century accent, and despite the musical swings over the decades Bodley has made a point of keeping much of his symphonic writing accessible. In these two works Bodley was making his first large scale references to classical forms for some years. The 4th Symphony (commissioned by the Orcestra Sinfonica dell'Emilia Romagna "Arturo Toscanini" and premiered in the Teatro Farnese in Parma) is perhaps the more 'immediately' appealing of the two, although I now prefer the Symphony No. 5. In it's 27 minutes duration the 4th makes a jaunty impact with bright orchestration and colourful harmony. Although the composer makes reference to the use of elements of Irish music in the symphony, this is only obviously apparent in a typically Irish sounding flute solo in the final movement.
The 5th Symphony (written for the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the Siege of Limerick) is on a rather larger scale, being cast in five movements and lasting for 45 minutes. The faster movements do come off better than the two slow movements, both of which somewhat lack architectural clarity-if one is paying close attention. These slow movements build organically, but only to a degree. No matter, it's very good listening to me!