Review of Ita Beausang and Séamas de Barra, Ina Boyle: 1889–1967

Ita Beausang and Séamas de Barra, Ina Boyle: 1889–1967: A Composer’s Life (Cork: Cork University Press, 2018), 192 pages, hardback, €29.00

 ina boyle image

Reviewed by Anja Bunzel

Women composers were overlooked by historians, musicologists, and performers for a long time. Contrary to many of her female contemporaries and predecessors, Selina [Ina] Adelaide Philippa Boyle (1889–1967) composed a number of large-scale works including three symphonies and a violin concerto, and her music was published and performed during her lifetime, albeit not without hurdles. Nevertheless she is largely unknown today. This lacuna might reflect Ireland’s quite neglectful treatment of its art music over the past century or so, although the series Irish Musical Studies (1990–) and TheEncyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (2013) are significant cornerstones within the contexts of Ireland-based musicology and Irish music. Further important contributions to the study of Irish female composers have been made in different fields and formats by Edgar Grunewald, Karol Mullaney-Dignam, Jennifer O’Connor, and Laura Watson.Ita Beausang and Séamas de Barra’s book, Ina Boyle: 1889–1967,ties in with current trends of acknowledging women’s professional achievements, and it displays a striking awareness  of Irish musical culture and socio-politics during the early twentieth century. The stucture of the book is threefold. Ita Beausang’s music-biographical essay on Ina Boyle is followed by Séamas de Barra’s analytical sketch of some of Boyle’s works. The third part includes a genealogical overview of Boyle’s background, a compilation of print and digital sources, a list of compositions, an outline of performances of Boyle’s works during her lifetime (1915–67), a well-edited notes section, as well as a discography, bibliography, and an index.

Ina Boyle was born in Bushey Park, Enniskerry, where she spent most of her life. In order to enhance her musical profile she travelled to London a few times during the 1920s and early 1930s. Beausang’s essay is divided into five sub-chapters and refers to a multitude of sources including Boyle’s autobiographical documents and musical manuscripts, contemporary reviews of Boyle’s works, and written and oral accounts by her contemporaries (for instance Elizabeth Maconchy, Seóirse Bodley, Nicola LeFanu, and Anna Dunlop). The first four sections concentrate on Boyle’s life and centre on the chronology of her compositions. Here, the reader learns that Boyle received music lessons from her father as well as from Samuel Spencer Myerscough, Charles Wood, Percy Buck, Charles H. Kitson, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the latter of whom she met for her first lesson in London in February 1923, shortly before her thirty-fourth birthday. Boyle participated in many compositional competitions, an activity through which she achieved her major breakthrough in 1921: her rhapsody for orchestra, The Magic Harp, was accepted for publication by Stainer & Bell. The work was performed in Dublin by the Dublin Philharmonic Society in 1929.

Besides Boyle’s musical achievements, Beausang illuminates aspects of public musical life in twentieth-century Dublin. Not only does she refer to visits of such international orchestras as the London Symphony Orchestra (Woodbrook, 1913) and the Hallé Orchestra (during the 1920s), but she also introduces musical initiatives which originated in Dublin and London. Occasionally Beausang offers insight into Boyle’s non-musical life, for instance her gardening attempts (p. 56). The fifth part of Beausang’s essay includes an overview of relevant sources and archives and a conclusion assessing Boyle’s ambitious personality. By prioritising primary sources (sections 1–4) over the perspective of the musical historiographer (section 5), and by shaping the biographical narrative around Boyle’s compositional output, Beausang subtly fulfills Boyle’s wish to be remembered first and foremost as a composer (p. 58).

The book’s second part, de Barra’s essay entitled ‘The Music of Ina Boyle’, reveals that Boyle’s compositions were largely inspired by literature and current political affairs. De Barra examines a number of compositional-aesthetic features, which are illustrated by way of elaborate music examples: for instance Boyle’s use of modal idioms (p.69) and the unusual structure of her first symphony, Glencree (in the Wicklow Hills). Additionally, he discusses the following compositions: the anthem The Transfiguration (1921); Gaelic Hymns (1923–24, 1929); the short ballets Virgilian Suite (1930–31),  The Dance of Death (1935–36), and The Vision of Er (1938–39); the Violin Concerto (1932­–33, revised 1935), the small orchestra piece Wildgeese (1942); the String Quartet (1942); the chamber worksStill falls the rain (1948) and Thinke then, my soule (1938); the third symphony From the Darkness (1946–51); and the chamber opera Maudlin of Paplewick (1956?­–­64). Considering the stunning list of compositions included in the appendix, it will be understood by every reader that a single book cannot analyse all of Boyle’s works at appropriate detail, especially as de Barra also addresses the cultural significance of Boyle’s compositions. For example, he explains that Boyle’s musical portrayal of a specific landscape – the Wicklow mountains in her first symphony – is unusual among Irish composers, and among Boyle’s oeuvre more particularly (p. 73). By way of conclusion, de Barra posits that, perhaps partly due to her Protestant Anglo-Irish background, Boyle did not aspire to create a distinctly Irish art music, which distinguishes her from some of her Irish contemporaries. Thus, ‘Boyle’s exact place in the history of Irish music remains unclear’ (p. 126). However, Boyle’s style is unique in its own right, and the fact that Boyle lived in Ireland all her life warrants a consideration of her music within the context of twentieth-century Irish culture. After all, it could be argued that the Protestant Anglo-Irish community formed an inherent part of Ireland’s culture during the first half of the twentieth century.

On account of both the impressive aesthetic scope of Boyle’s oeuvre and her interesting biography, I join Beausang and de Barra in encouraging cultural historians, musicologists and performers to familiarise themselves with Ina Boyle and her music. This is much easier now, as a comprehensive websitedevoted to Boyle was set up by the Contemporary Music Centreand is now maintained by Emma O’Keeffe, and a CD including Boyle’s Violin Concertoand her first symphony has recently been released (BBC/Dutton Epoch CDLX 7352, 2018). Often times the perception of a composer’s historical significance is shaped posthumously. Granting Ina Boyle a place in current music-cultural and historical dialogues might initiate a reconsideration of her cultural impact both during her own time and today. Ita Beausang and Séamas de Barra lay the foundation for such dialogues, and I warmly recommend their book to everyone with an interest in Irish musical history and/or female composers.

ANJA BUNZEL gained a PhD in Musicology from Maynooth University in 2017. Her research interests include female composers, nineteenth-century salon culture, and music as cultural practice.