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2004-06-08 Cathedral singing beats today's rush

On January 25th 1912, Constance Markievicz appeared in the leading role of Catherine Devlin in a new play called Grangecolman at the Abbey Theatre, directed by her husband Casimir.

 

It was an aptly cast role, as Constance portrayed the new Irish woman, who although born into gentry, struggled to establish herself as a champion of womens rights. The new play was written by Edward Martyn, a wealthy Galway landowner, born at Tulira near Loughrea in 1859. Martyn was educated at Belvedere College in Dublin, later at Christ Church Oxford, and became heavily involved in the establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre and The Abbey alongside Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats.

 

But Martyn and Yeats had a troubled relationship, constantly disagreeing about the direction of Irish theatre. Yeats was an advocate of Irish peasant and mythological dramas, whereas Martyns storylines were often inspired by his gentry background. Yeats undying opposition to Martyns ideas caused him to exclude the performance of any of Martyns works after the playrights death, a ban which has somehow managed to remain in existence to this day.

It was while travelling in Europe in the late 19th century that Martyn found himself deeply affected by sacred music in the cathedrals of Köln and St.Gervais. This deep love of liturgical music followed him home and became the main driving force in his life. Martyn was further moved by a performance of Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina (arguably the father of liturgical music) in Clarendon Street Church, performed by a male choir. Together with the choirs director, Vincent OBrien, Edward Martyn set up an all-boy choir in 1900. Three years later that choir was firmly established in Dublins Pro Cathedral. In 1904, a young Athlone tenor and ex-Summerhill College boy called John McCormack joined the choirs tenor line. Other ex-choristers who have moved on to pursue a full-time career in singing include Emmanuel Lawler, Martin Higgins and Andrew Murphy.

A century on, when church attendance seems to be on a downward spiral, the 11 oclock sung Mass at Dublins Pro Cathedral remains packed to the rafters. In the endless rush of 21st Century living, the eternal appeal and timeless quality of polyphony, chant and fine choral singing still attracts huge numbers. The Cathedral also receives hundreds of applications for chorister positions. When the choir was founded, it was clearly stated by its sexist founders that it was to be an all-male choir. However, no-one said anything about its conductors, and in its 100 years, three of the seven choir directors have been women.

Ite ODonovan transported the choir to a whole new level, and now the talented Blánaid Murphy continues to maintain those high standards. Blánaid graduated in music and organ from Selwyn College Cambridge, furthering her studies in Stuttgart, Bayreuth and Salzburg. Born in London of Irish parentage, Blánaid somehow never really felt English. Since her move to Dublin, she has conducted many of the countrys leading choral societies, as well as being choral director on the chart-topping Faith of our Fathers and Irelands Voices for Peace. Like Edward Martyn, Blánaid is proud and passionate about her Palestrina Choir, in particular as she watches her young 8 year-old probationer boys progressing to senior level. When the young voices break, some later return to the fold as tenors and basses,or sometimes in other Cathedral posts.The choir perform across the globe, and have several recordings to their name, as well as a few in the pipeline. Blánaids long-term goal is to establish the Palestrina Choir as one of Europes premier choral groups.


 

On June 12th, before they head off on an Austrian and Slovakian tour, the Palestrina Choir will give a recital in the Great Hall of Tulira Castle, the home of its founder, at the invitation of its new owners - the Dutch couple Ruud and Femmy Bolmeijer. A newly commissioned work by Michael McGlynn will be premiered on the evening, and a bust of Martyn by John Coll will be unveiled.

But W.B would not have approved. Maud Gonne publicly acnowledged Martyns huge contribution to choral music in Ireland. Maybe Yeats was bitter about the Ł10,000 endowment given by Martyn to the Choir (around ¬1 million in todays money), instead of helping to build a National Theatre? But by contributing to Irelands musical heritage in such a significant way, Edward Martyn was every inch as good an Irishman.