Ina Boyle a 'Noteworthy Woman of Irish music'

"Ina Boyle is a noteworthy woman of Irish music, so why haven't we heard of her?" - so asks the Irish Examiner's Cathy Desmond

INA BOYLE is something of an enigma. Her name is unfamiliar to most music lovers, yet she was one of the most prolific and lauded of Ireland’s 20th century composers. A protegé of Ralph Vaughan Williams, she was the only female composer to have work published by the Carnegie UK Trust, a fact which made the London newspaper headlines in 1920.

She was the first Irishwoman to write a symphony, a concerto and a ballet. Great strides have been made in recent years bringing her music to wider attention. Music scholars have transcribed and edited her unpublished manuscripts. Her work was a highlight of Composing the Island, the retrospective project looking back at a century of Irish music held at the National Concert Hall in 2016. Now a recording dedicated to her work and a study on her life and music from Cork University Press is shedding light on this neglected composer and prompting a revival of interest in her work.

In Ina Boyle — A Composer’s Life, musicologist Ita Beausang, gives a fascinating account of an elusive and intriguing figure in Irish cultural life. A picture emerges of a gentle somewhat eccentric woman who took an unconventional path in music-a sort of musical counterpart of Molly Keane. While shy and self-effacing, Boyle was nevertheless driven and resolute in efforts to hone her craft and promote her work. Born during the Victorian era and growing up in a remote Wicklow rectory, she composed steadfastly from childhood to old age through two world wars, the 1916 Rebellion and founding of the Irish Free State amassing a large body of work, much of it never performed.

Beausang writes in the preface: “Ina Boyle’s sheltered background in Eniskerry seems an unlikely environment for a composer. Her early musical influences came from a violin-making father and lessons with governesses.”

Among her first mentors, Boyle had a cousin who was married to the Armagh born composer Charles Wood and he took an interest in her early work tutoring her by correspondence.

Her first real success came when she entered Sligo Feis Ceoil in 1913. She entered two works and won first and second prize. The first prize was for the piece, Elegy for Cello and Orchestra. A century after it was written, a young Swiss cellist was sifting through the archives of music for cello written during the lifetime of Walton and Elgar, searching for a short piece to add to a recording of their concertos.

“When I finally came across Ina Boyle’s work, I felt immediately attracted to it. I was fascinated by her story,” says Beausang.

Having gained some recognition at home and in the UK, in 1922 Boyle wrote to Ralph Vaughan Williams and asked for lessons. For 16 years until the outbreak of World War, Boyle made the journey by steam ship regularly from Eniskerry to London to work on her compositions with the eminent British composer. Their correspondence detailed in the chapter ‘Lessons in London’ indicate a warm friendship between the Irish woman and RV Williams and his wife.

As well as coaching her in composition, Williams gave her advice on dealing with publishers and navigating the British music world. While she had some success, the bright future predicted for her never happened.

In 1936, Wlliams wrote to Boyle: “I think it is most courageous of you to go on with so little recognition. The only thing to say is that sometimes it does come finally.”

Back in Ireland, she had influential friends and supporters among the Irish scene including Brian Boydell and Aloys Fleischmann who included her work in their programmes for concerts and broadcasts on Radio Éireann. After 1950 there were few performances of her work until the BBC Ulster Orchestra programmed a couple of performances of her work with Cork violinist Catherine Leonard performing her violin concerto in 2010.

Beausang suggests that one of the main reasons why her work remains in obscurity is because so little of her work was published. “Existing only in manuscript form, it wasn’t easily accessible to performers and conductors.”

In this digital age, it is hard to put ourselves back in an era when manuscripts had to be painstakingly copied and imagine the effort and expense of delivering manuscripts into the hands of the right people. The book refers to many instances of Boyle sending manuscripts to conductors, and performers only to have them returned.”

Beausang details a particularly painful rejection. For her third symphony she set poems by Edith Sitwell. Unfortunately, permission was refused by the poet and the manuscript was returned unopened. It must have been infuriating for Boyle when Benjamin Britten went on to set one of Sitwell’s poems, with the poet attending the premiere.

The Second World War interrupted her career. It put an end to to Boyle’s travels to London. “When the war was over she was older and the demand for her music seems to have diminished,” says Beausang.

Her gender was definitely a factor. Publishers like Boosey and Hawkes were unlikely to consider publishing orchestral work by “a young lady, perhaps a few songs”, suggests Beausang. “Perhaps her themes were too sombre for a changing world in search of distraction.”

After the London years, she retreated to Bushy Park, the family home in Wicklow where she led a reclusive life, managing the homestead and caring dutifully for her father. Composer Nicola Lefanu often visited with her mother Elizabeth Maconchy, a close friend of Boyle’s. “We loved visiting Bushy Park. I remember staying there in the late 1950s and seeing the calendar on the wall was from 1933 because nothing changed in that house. It just gently subsided,” said Lefanu.

Undaunted by the lack of recognition, she never stopped composing. In February 1967 weeks before she died, she wrote to her friend Elizabeth Maconchy about her excitement in setting a “most striking old ballad”.

Is it time to rescue her music from oblivion? Beausang reminds us that her substantial archive awaits rediscovery and performance. An essay in the book by Seamus de Barra offers detailed analysis of the music. Perhaps Vaughan Williams’ prediction will prove to be accurate and her time finally will come.

Meticulously researched, this attractive volume is a fascinating account of an extraordinary life and will be a valuable resource for any performers undertaking a revival of the work of Ina Boyle.

Ina Boyle 1989-1967 A Composer’s Life, Ita Beausang and Seamus de Barra is published by Cork University Press.

Ina Boyle’s choral work, ‘The Transfiguration’ (1922), will be performed at the Three Choirs Festival, Hereford on August 1st and will be broadcast live by BBC Radio 3.