Doc: The Banshee and the Tiger


RTé Lyric fm (Ireland): a documentary on composer Henry Cowell’s Irish roots. Broadcast date: January 21, 2018.

The American composer Henry Cowell was one of the most inventive composers of the early 20th century. His life and his music career were eventful and, at times, controversial, and he had strong connections with Ireland and Irish music.

Pianist Guy Livingston is a regular performer of Cowell’s piano works, and in this Lyric Feature he brings us the story of Henry Cowell’s life and music.

‘The Banshee and The Tiger’ tells the story of the life and work of the ground-breaking American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965), who produced dozens of compositions influenced by his Irish heritage and by Irish music and folklore.

As well as leading the way in composition, Cowell was also an ardent support of ‘world music’, long before that term was ever used, and he travelled the globe collecting music. The programme includes rare recordings, never, so far as we are aware, previously broadcast in Ireland, which Cowell made with singers who appeared in the 1934 landmark documentary ‘Man of Aran’.

HOW TO LISTEN

The programme will be available for streaming after broadcast. Click, then look for the purple LISTEN button in the lower left corner of the page. You may need the Flash plug-in for this to work properly on the RTé website.

Details

This programme is presented by Guy Livingston, an experienced radio presenter and musician who has performed Cowell’s piano works internationally. Other contributors are musicians as well, and experts on aspects of Henry Cowell’s life  and speak entertainingly and with authority on their subject.

Biographer Joel Sachs tells us that in addition to his parents, another strong Irish influence on the young Henry was the Irish poet John Varian, the leader of a theosophist community in Halcyon, California. The Theosophical Society had been founded in the 1870s and was a spiritual movement rooted in the ancient world and non-Western cultures.

Henry Cowell as a young bohemian

Cowell composed wildly and feverishly in his early teen years and was only 15 years old when John Varian invited him to write music for a musical play. He had come up with a plan to write musical plays based on Irish legends, including one called ‘The Building of Banba’. Henry wrote the music, but the only part that survives is the prelude, called ‘The Tides of Manaunaun’. It was to become one of his best-known pieces and the one which introduced the world to his ‘tone clusters’.

Throughout his career, Cowell continued to be influenced by Irish tunes. Then in 1955, Henry and his wife Sidney went to Europe to collect more recordings of folk music, while Henry had a series of performances. But first, they headed to Ireland and to the Aran Islands for a holiday.

a still from the film “Man of Aran”

We are lucky to have as an interviewee Deirdre Ní Chonghaile, Irish ethnomusicologist and recent Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. As she explains, Sidney and Henry stayed with her grandparents, who at the time ran a guest house on the Aran Islands. Henry was delighted to be re-acquainted with Maggie Dirrane, who he had first met and recorded in New York in 1934 on the publicity tour for ‘Man of Aran’.

Sidney’s first efforts to record overseas were in Ireland. In the summers of 1955 and 1956, she created up to 11 hours of recordings, extensive notes and photographs in the west of Ireland, specifically in the Aran Islands and in Connemara. According to Ní Chonghaile, her Irish work forms a significant part of Mrs. Cowell’s field recordings and writings.

the impressive landscape of the Aran Islands

 

Why did Sidney go to Ireland? In 1955, she and her husband wanted to reconnect with Maggie Dirrane, the star of the movie “Man of Aran,” whom Henry had met in New York in 1934 during the Broadway premiere of the film. The Cowells arrived in the largest island of Inis Mór and stayed in the guesthouse of Ní Chonghaile’s grandparents. They soon discovered that Dirrane’s son, John, and others had never been recorded. Within a week, Cowell had borrowed an EMI tape recorder from the BBC. Over 12 days, Sidney recorded 16 single-track tapes in Inishmore—around 70 songs, mostly in Irish and a few English ones. And in 1956, when she was granted funding by the Rockefeller Foundation to spend seven months studying music in the Orient, Sidney began that trip by returning to Ireland and recording 16 five-inch double-track tapes in Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Carna on the mainland.

This 57-minute documentary puts Henry’s Irish music into historical context, and describes its evolution, as he was influenced by his family, by Varian, and then by Sidney’s ethnomusicological research. The Cowells’ major impact on American music and ethnomusicological studies will be highlighted, as will Henry’s substantial contribution to contemporary music, in America, and abroad.

Contributor Links

 

Credits

The presenter was Guy Livingston and the contributors were biographer Joel Sachs, pianist Sarah Cahill, researcher and historian Deirdre Ní Conghaile and singer Aylish Kerrigan.

Archive recordings were used courtesy of The David and Sylvia Teitelbaum Fund, Inc.; the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (Music Division); and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.

The programme was produced by Claire Cunningham and Guy Livingston and sound supervision was by Tinpot Productions. This is a Rockfinch production for RTÉ lyric FM.

The Banshee and the Tiger was funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the television licence fee.

Playlist

Title Performer Composer Label Release
CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA 1 POLYHARMONY STEFAN LITWIN PIANO/MICHAEL STERN COND/RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA SAARBRUCKEN HENRY COWELL SAARLAENDISCHER RUNDFUNK WWE 1CD 20064
OLD AMERICAN COUNTRY SET BLARNEYING LILT MANHATTAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA/COND RICHARD AULDON CLARK HENRY COWELL KOCH INTERNATIONAL Koch 3-7220-2 HI
ONGAKU LOUISVILLE ORCHESTRA/COND ROBERT WHITNEY HENRY COWELL FIRST EDITION First Edition FECD-0003
SAXOPHONE QUARTET INTERSAX HENRY COWELL MODE MODE 293
FOUR IRISH TALES 1 THE TIDES OF MANAUNAN STEFAN LITWIN PIANO/MICHAEL STERN COND/RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA SAARBRUCKEN HENRY COWELL SAARLAENDISCHER RUNDFUNK WWE 1CD 20064
FOUR IRISH TALES II EXULTATION STEFAN LITWIN PIANO/MICHAEL STERN COND/RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA SAARBRUCKEN HENRY COWELL SAARLAENDISCHER RUNDFUNK WWE 1CD 20064
FAIRY ANSWER CONTINUUM ENSEMBLE HENRY COWELL NAXOS 8.559192
MAN OF ARAN SOUNDTRACK COND LOUIS LEVY JOHN GREENWOOD GAINSBOROUGH PICTURES DISTRIBUTED BY GAUMONT BRITISH DISTRIBUTORS 078002480X
JIG STEFAN LITWIN, PIANIST HENRY COWELL SAARLAENDISCHER RUNDFUNK WWE 1CD 20064
LULLABY MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD UNPUBLISHED
KEENING MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD UNPUBLISHED
THE BANSHEE HENRY COWELL HENRY COWELL SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION SF 40801
IRISH SUITE FOR STRING PIANO AND SMALL ORCHESTRA THE BANSHEE CONTINUUM ENSEMBLE HENRY COWELL NAXOS 8.559192
TIGER JOEL SACHS HENRY COWELL NAXOS 8.559192
SYMPHONIC SET OP 17 II LARGHETTO INTERLUDE NURNBERG SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/COND STEPHEN SOMARY HENRY COWELL CLAVES CD 9806
OSTINATO PIANISSIMO NEW JERSEY PERCUSSION ENSEMBLE HENRY COWELL ELEKTRA 9 79150-2
SET OF TWO MOVEMENTS II HIGH COLOR SARAH CAHILL HENRY COWELL NEW ALBION RECORDS NA 103 CD
OAY LALAY OHE ANIS CHANT MALGACHE MADAGASCAR GIRLS’ CHORUS TRAD FOLKWAYS FW04504
VIOLIN SONATA 1945 SARAH CAHILL/KATE STENBERG HENRY COWELL UNPUBLISHED
AN TUIRNIN LIN SEAN DIRRANE TRAD SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS FW04002
KEENING MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD UNPUBLISHED
KEENING MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS FW04002
KEENING MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD UNPUBLISHED
I HEARD IN THE NIGHT AYLISH KERRIGAN/WILLIAM DOWDALL HENRY COWELL METIER DUE FOR PUBLICATION IN 2018
THE PASTURE ROBERT OSBORNE/JEANNE GOLAN HENRY COWELL ALBANY ALBANY TROY 240
BO NA LEATH HADHAIRCE MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD UNPUBLISHED
SIUIL A GHRA MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD UNPUBLISHED
SIUIL A GHRA MAGGIE DIRRANE TRAD UNPUBLISHED
CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA II TONE CLUSTER STEFAN LITWIN PIANO/MICHAEL STERN COND/RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA SAARBRUCKEN HENRY COWELL SAARLAENDISCHER RUNDFUNK WWE 1CD 20064
AMERICAN MELTING POT SQUARE DANCE MANHATTAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA/COND RICHARD AULDON CLARK HENRY COWELL KOCH INTERNATIONAL Koch 3-7220-2 HI

Unpublished works courtesy of the Estate of Henry Cowell; the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; and the American Folklife Center, The Library of Congress.

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