March 16, 2020. Composer Ina Boyle (1889-1967) lived all of her 78 years in one idyllic place—her family home, Bushey Park, in Enniskerry, a village at the foot of the Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains. While a mere 25 miles to Dublin, it was dramatically disconnected to the capital city’s social and cultural life.
Ina’s circle remained small throughout her childhood, having been home-schooled and having undertaken musical studies by correspondence with a family member based in England. By today’s standards, this would seem to have been a painfully slow, incremental way to learn how to compose, but she persisted for at least two years.
Instead of continuing her studies by enrolling in a university (which was only just becoming a viable option for women around that time), she instead pursued private studies with two Dublin academics, Percy Buck and Charles Kitson. By this time, Boyle had moved beyond small-scale works and was composing for full orchestra, and she was busy entering her work into competitions, up against established composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Her teacher, Kitson, appears to have been a less than enthusiastic advocate, having dismissed her orchestral piece, The Magic Harp, as “dull”, though it later went on to be lauded by competition judges, saying it was “imaginative ... full of refined and poetic color, skillfully orchestrated and effective throughout." As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
With this win and a boost to her confidence, Boyle had the wind in her sail. She penned a letter to Vaughan Williams in London asking him to take her on as a student. He agreed and she began making trips by sea to have lessons in person, which continued for years. It was during this time that she composed Psalm, a ballet Virgilian Suite and many other large-scale works. She thrived under the benevolent and productive tutelage of Vaughan Williams, who became a trusted friend. However, disappointments plagued her back in Ireland, where she struggled to find favor with conductors and get her works performed during the 1920s.
This persisted throughout her career, with few performances at home and abroad. How does a composer continue year after year having almost never heard their pieces played? It must have been a vexing experience. Her teacher was keenly aware of how tough it is to carry on without artistic validation. In 1937, near the end of her studies with him, Vaughan Williams wrote to her: “I think it is most courageous of you to go on with so little recognition. The only thing to say is that it sometimes does come finally.”
Given how engaged a friend and professional ally he was, it was tragic that she should have to end her trips to London on account of World War II in the late '30s. The war presented other challenges, particularly for getting published, including an inability to mail scores back and forth to England and paper shortages.
Clearly, being a woman at that time was the primary barrier to success, but also, for these wartime setbacks to have happened during a key stage of Boyle’s mature years must have contributed to her having fallen into near obscurity by the turn of the century.
Perhaps the one bright light during that war period was a special concert by the Radio Éireann Orchestra in 1944, dedicated to her work, including The Magic Harp, Colin Clout, Wildgeese and part of the Glencree symphony—the last three being ones you can hear this week on WRTI as we celebrate Boyle with our Album of the Week.
Across all of these pieces, you will hear an introspective, very personal and often plaintive musical language that is truly Boyle’s.
Listen to cellist Nadège Rochat and conductor Ronald Corp discuss performing and recording Ina Boyle’s Psalm for the first time since it was composed in 1927, along with comments from Boyle’s biographer Ita Beausang:
More about Ina Boyle can be found in this 2018 biography by Ita Beausang and Séamas de Barra and this 2010 audio documentary, a Rockfinch production for RTÉ lyric fm.