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Not by choice, of course, but for much of the century since the 1916 Easter Rising set in motion the creation of an independent Irish state, the country’s composers tended to languish in the longer shadows cast by its lauded playwrights, poets and novelists. The struggle by Ireland’s composers to assert a shared primacy with their creative siblings against a tide of indifference lends the title of this substantial compendium of essays a pained aptness. Edited by Irish Times critic Michael Dervan, The Invisible Art offers a sweeping if too often passive portrait of the development of classical music in modern Ireland.

As much as anything, it’s a celebration of dogged determination. In a country struggling to assert its own nascent identity, classical music was tainted by its wider associations with Europe and rendered suspicious by its even closer proximity to British mores. Cabined and confounded by a state-sponsored notion of Irishness that stressed traditional music and the word, the position of classical music was, Dervan pithily observes, ‘Cinderella-like’.

In recent years, a new generation of composers has imposed itself on Ireland’s cultural life with an immediacy its predecessors could only have dreamed of. The multi-accented endeavours together with the opening of Dublin’s National Concert Hall (albeit belatedly in 1981) and the tireless advocacy of the Contemporary Music Centre (founded in 1985) have all served to argue the case for contemporary classical music and raise its profile.

If contributions here are uneven – the non-interviews with composers Seóirse Bodley and John Kinsella especially disappointing for their lack of insight – the breadth of perspectives on offer is wide-ranging and all share a conviction about the centrality of Irish composers to the country’s cultural life. Several of the best essays are by composers – Jennifer Walshe’s ‘Notes on Being an Irish Composer’ especially revealing – although Joseph Ryan’s introduction offers a solid (if downcast) introduction, while David Byers and Hilary Bracefield provide informative asides.

Attempting admirable inclusivity, there are recurring discussions on the role of women in Irish music, of stylistic influences from elsewhere, electronic music and much else, but the over-riding impression is one of missed opportunities, the general narrative tone surprisingly defined by a lack of inquisitiveness and critical interrogation.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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