The Genius of Composer Brian Boydell


Book title:
Creative Impulses, Cultural Accents: Brian Boydell’s Music, Advocacy, Painting, and Legacy


Edited by Barbara Dignam and Barra Boydell

UCD Press

Guide price:

Brian Boydell (1917-2000) was one of Ireland’s most distinguished and persuasive composers and music activists. He has previously been commemorated in The Life and Music of Brian Boydell (2004) and his own memoir, Rebellious Ferment (2018). We now have the proceedings of a centenary conference in 15 chapters dealing with his compositions and his contributions to cultural life.

As professor of music at TCD from 1962 to 1982, Boydell completely revamped the faculty, making it modern and outward-looking. He was one of the founders of the Music Association of Ireland in 1948 and a member of the Arts Council for many years. His broadcasts, both on radio and television, familiarized listeners – especially the younger generation – with the classical genre, traditionally considered the purlieu of Ancestry, a class to which Boydell himself belonged.

This book features almost no biographical study other than Philip Graydon’s discussion of Boydell’s membership in the White Stag group of painters, who were primarily pacifists, surrealist-inclined, and part of Dublin life during the Emergency. Instead, he concentrates on aspects of his compositions that are usually overlooked, such as his works for concert and Irish harps (excellent essays by Cliona Doris and Mary-Louise O’Donnell) and his film music (by Laura Anderson). Other aspects of his work – his compositions for symphony orchestra or his superb musicological talents – have been mentioned elsewhere.

Offbeat humor

I would have much preferred contributions on Boydell’s quirky humour, his love of the West of Ireland (especially Achill) and his membership in the Arts Council, where he was influential not only in music policy but in his perception of culture in general.

If I have a major problem, it’s with Peter Murray’s essay on Boydell as a painter. If he is authoritative, in particular on his participation in “Baggotonia”, he does not show us a single image of Boydell’s brush, like his cubist Atlas Approached (1943), presented at Imma in 2005.

As a composer, Boydell ranks with Frederick May as one of the most important creative intelligences in twentieth-century Irish music. While aspects of this achievement were discussed in the 2004 volume by Gareth Cox, Axel Klein and Barra Boydell, Boydell’s contribution to the intellectual and artistic dynamism of this period has yet to find its champion performer.


Comments are closed.