From the Celtic to the Abstract: Shifting Perspectives in the Music of John Buckley

By Dwyer, Benjamin | Musical Times, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

From the Celtic to the Abstract: Shifting Perspectives in the Music of John Buckley


Dwyer, Benjamin, Musical Times


Born on 19 December 1951, John Buckley is regarded as one of the finest Irish composers of his generation. Alongside Gerald Barry (1952), Jerome de Bromhead (1945), Frank Corcoran (1944), Raymond Deane (1953), Roger Doyle (1949) and Jane O'Leary (1946) among others, he emerged in the late 1960s as part of a new flowering in Irish composition. This phenomenon was not marked by homogeneity or bound by a unifying aesthetic but rather comprised a disparate body of composers who struggled to find their individual voices within a broader European context. It further paralleled the economic and social shifts of modern Ireland, which included the embracing of many European political and economic ideals (it joined the European Economic Community in 1973).1 As a hitherto unacknowledged part of this Zeitgeist, the young Irish composers appearing in the late 1960s and early 1970s engaged in this exciting pan-European commerce of musical ideologies and developments. Indeed, just as throughout the western world social change undermined the old order, across the island of Ireland there was a surge of political, social, and revolutionary reformism that bad permanent and far reaching consequences.2

Extraordinarily, Buckley rose to prominence in Irish contemporary music despite the fact that he came from a relatively poor rural background in the southwest of Ireland. Even in Ireland today, government commitment to classical music in relation to education, infrastructure, radio and television broadcasting, professional development initiatives and so on leaves much to be desired in comparison with broader European contexts. Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, when Buckley was growing up in County Limerick, was even more underdeveloped in all these areas. Furthermore, the period was dominated politically by Éamon de Valera,3 whose essentialist vision of the slowly developing Republic was tinged with romantic views of a selfsufficient Catholic Ireland that celebrated the more traditional aspects of Irish culture.4 Classical music, which in Ireland was historically (though not exclusively) practised and enjoyed by the previously ruling Protestant class, was hardly an aspect of Irish culture likely to be afforded any great support from the government of this time.

Buckley's emergence as a leading figure in contemporary classical music is fascinating in light of the socio-economic and socio-political conditions he faced. He tackled the problem of working as a composer of contemporary art music in a relatively unsupportive environment by conducting a parallel professional life as an educationalist. Thus, he veered towards initial studies in education rather than pure music composition, and he worked as a school teacher throughout the 1970s. His financial concerns were alleviated to some extent in 1984 when he was elected to Aosdána.5 Even when he decided on a freelance career as a composer in 1982, teaching remained central to his ethos, and his involvement with music education cannot be separated from any thorough study of his work as a composer. Indeed, Buckley's contribution to music education in Ireland has exerted a remarkable influence over the past 30 years and continues to do so: he is presently Lecturer in Music at St Patrick's College, Dublin.

In the 1990s, Buckley came to the forefront of Irish music, composing a prodigious number of important large-scale compositions, many of which came about as commissions from major institutions in Ireland and abroad - the National Concert Hall (Dublin), St Patrick's College, Maynooth (now the National University of Ireland, Maynooth) and the University of Limerick - marking him as the preferred composer for celebrations of a national dimension. From this period onwards his music developed a more refined character and his penchant for French sonority came to the fore. This new timbrai sheen, allied to a technique displaying a firm control of the materials and further enhanced by a growing interest in the virtuosic aspects of performance, characterises Buckley's impressive contribution to the concerto genre. …

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