Brian Boydell (1917-2000) was born in Dublin and received his early education there and in England, attending Rugby School from 1930-1935. After a short period in Heidelberg studying organ at the Evangelisches Kirchenmusikalisches Institut, he entered Clare College Cambridge where he graduated in Natural Sciences in 1938. In that same year he began studying composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Patrick Hadley and Herbert Howells and taking voice and piano lessons privately. He returned to Dublin at the outbreak of World War II and continued his composition studies with John Larchet at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.
Boydell was a man of wide-ranging interests and abilities who painted, wrote plays, and even formed a commercial company to fuel cars with charcoal. However he soon directed his energies solely to music as a singer, pianist and oboist, took a Mus.B at Trinity College Dublin, and taught singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music from 1944-1952. A Mus.D degree from TCD followed in 1959 and he subsequently held the chair as Professor of Music there from 1962-1982 teaching and publishing extensively on music in eighteenth-century Dublin. Boydell was also very active as a music administrator, conductor, adjudicator, and regular broadcaster, and his enormous contribution to music and music education in Ireland and his standing as a composer was recognized with many national and international awards during his lifetime.
As one of the most important Irish composers of the twentieth century, Boydell wrote significant orchestral works such as In memoriam Mahatma Gandhi op. 30 (1948), Violin Concerto op. 36 (1953-4), Megalithic Ritual Dances op. 39 (1956), and Masai Mara op. 87 (1988). Commissioned by the State to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, Boydell wrote A Terrible Beauty is Born op. 59 in 1965 setting texts by Irish poets as he also did for many other vocal works. However, Boydell was proudest of his string quartets stating in 1992 that they were the works that he would save if everything else was lost. In these quartets particularly, he developed his personal musical language by combining octatonic elements (scales or material using alternating tones and semitones) freely with diatonic and quartal techniques within neo-classical structures. Always insistent that he could not be confined by strict compositional methodologies or by a fruitless search for originality at any cost, Boydell succeeded in establishing a comprehensible, coherent, and eminently accessible style.
String Quartet no. 1, op. 31 (1949)
Boydell recalled that the composers who influenced his music most in the 1940s included Berg, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Mahler and Bartók. But it was towards the end of the decade in his first String Quartet (dated ‘Dublin June/July 1949’) that he began to establish his individual compositional style by blending these varied influences from his own angle. The main idea for all three movements is derived from the opening notes in the cello (C-C#-D#) at the beginning of the Larghetto. This idea is developed and expanded in the second movement, a wild Allegro Selvaggio where a contrasting fugue also appears, and again in the final Allegro (Adagio) which includes a second theme displaying what Boydell noted as Gregorian characteristics. Each movement ends on C and the final movement confirms this with a strong fff C major chord after a maestoso statement of an octatonic scale in unison. Boydell was awarded the Radio Éireann Chamber Music Prize in 1949 for this quartet and it was first performed in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin in February 1952 by the Cirulli String Quartet.
String Quartet no. 2, op. 44 (1957)
This two-movement quartet was first performed in 1959 by the Benthien String Quartet to whom the quartet is dedicated. The first movement is most lyrical revealing some very pastoral overtones. It is generally slow (but includes some more animated passages) and opens with a short motif on the viola, an idea which is developed throughout the movement. The medieval flavour of the opening harmonies with their bare fourths and fifths was acknowledged by Boydell himself, however he was less keen to ascribe any conscious intention to the very definite ‘Irish’ feel to certain melodic contours and ornamentation. The opening material is further expanded, this time on muted strings, and the movement ends very softly on a sustained open G. In contrast to the predominantly melodic nature of the first movement, the second, Allegro (Presto), places the emphasis firmly on rhythmic features (particularly changing time signatures and repetitive and syncopated elements) reflecting Boydell’s great admiration for the Bartók quartets. Although the middle section drops somewhat in tempo it never loses the underlying excitement and energy which impels it forcibly back to the Allegro-Presto.
String Quartet no. 3, op. 65 (1969)
Boydell described his third Quartet as being an avowal of his musical beliefs. It is in many ways the most substantial of his quartets displaying a sophisticated consolidation of his musical language over the previous twenty years. Although the quartet is in one continuous movement, it can be divided into three sections. The first, marked minim = 60+, opens with trills before the viola presents a four-note idea which is developed motivically throughout the whole piece. The middle Adagio ranks amongst the most intensely personal movements that Boydell ever wrote with long sustained passages using trills, harmonics, and playing on the bridge and with mutes. Trills on the lower strings lead into the final section, an exciting Allegro ritmico which gradually builds up and breaks into a chromatic fugue. A quiet episode based on passages earlier in the quartet is interpolated before the fugue picks up again with an accented augmented entry in the cello. Again material from the opening is recalled briefly before the quartet ends on hammered unison C#s. It was first performed in September 1970 in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin by the RTÉ String Quartet to whom the quartet is dedicated.
Adagio and Scherzo for String Quartet, op. 89 (1991)
These two movements were written at the request of Professor Hormoz Farhat for the Quartercentenary celebrations in 1992 of Trinity College Dublin where Boydell had held the Chair of Music for so many years. He dedicated the piece to Alan Smale and the Degani String Quartet in recognition of their services to contemporary Irish music. The material of the Adagio is mostly based on an opening motif in the viola, an idea which also ends this movement on muted strings. The Scherzo is a sprightly vivace displaying syncopated and imitative features with a contrasting tranquil section serving as a Trio. After a repeat of the Scherzo, six bars of the tranquillo section are recalled before the movement ends with a short fortissimo burst of the original material in scales.
Notes: Gareth Cox