John Ireland: Greater Love

Ireland’s life was plagued by melancholy, insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. Born in Cheshire in 1879, he was left spiritually homeless by the early death of his parents and he entered the RCM at the age of 14 to study organ and piano. When the opportunity arose to become a pupil of the revered Stanford in 1897, he switched to composition. Ireland’s living was initially made as an organist and choirmaster, first at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, and later at St Luke’s Chelsea. In 1923 he became a teacher of composition at the RCM. Amongst his pupils was Benjamin Britten, who gave up on Ireland after a year, branding him as “drunk, absent or hung-over” during tutorials.

A man of introspection, few friendships, and a disastrous, and eventually annulled, marriage, he did collect a degree from Durham, an FRCO, an honorary doctorate (also from Durham) and honorary degrees from the RAM and the RCM. In 1940 his retirement to Guernsey was disrupted by German occupation, and he died in West Sussex in 1962. His output is small (Ireland destroyed almost all of his early works and student compositions, deeming them not good enough) but endearing. Nonetheless it covers a period of more than 50 years, and includes solo song, church music, chamber music, orchestral music, a piano concerto, and a colourful film score for The Overlanders. His style has been likened to a form of British Impressionism, based on the French and Russian models of Debussy, Ravel and early Stravinsky, rather than the folk-song-based, more nationalistic style of his British contemporaries. Greater Love was written in 1912, for choir and organ. Ireland orchestrated it in 1924. The words are biblical and are taken from the Song of Solomon, the Gospel of John and various letters of Peter and Paul.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.

Love is strong as death; greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Who, his own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins should live unto righteousness. Ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus. Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, that ye should shew forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness, into His marvellous light.

I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

The piece has a well-defined structure, passing through a variety of keys, moods, and tempi. This, and the strong melodic writing, are clear influences from the extended canticle settings of Stanford. In the middle section there are short solos for soprano and baritone.

Notes by Peter Parfitt
©2011 Aberdeen Bach Choir