The Birth of Modern Music

Music For Galway midwinter festival

Lenneke Ruiten.

Lenneke Ruiten.

MUSIC FOR Galway marks its 10th midwinter festival with a bold and exciting programme - The Birth of Modern Music - put together by its new artistic director, Irish pianist Finghin Collins.

Come to the Town Hall Theatre from Friday January 17 to Sunday 19 and immerse yourself in the fin-de-siècle decadence of the salons and concert halls of Paris and Berlin. Re-live the ground-breaking new sound-worlds of Debussy, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, alongside contemporary ‘old-style’ masterworks by Brahms, Fauré, and Vaughan Williams.

Seventeen outstanding Irish and international musicians converge on Galway to perform original chamber works and arrangements of seminal orchestral works that changed the course of classical (and other ) composition forever.

Three days of music

Over the three days each concert focuses on a particular year or short period of years, and juxtaposes more conventional Romantic works with the new ground-breaking ‘modern’ works to demonstrate just how fresh and shocking they must have sounded on first hearing.

The Friday programme looks at 1894 and opens with one of Brahms’ wonderful late clarinet sonatas, while the evening will finish with a piece that has been said to signal ‘the birth of modern music’, hence giving the festival its name, Debussy’s sensuous and fluid Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, arranged for chamber ensemble by Benno Sachs.

Saturday embraces 1901-1912 and will hear Rückert poems set to music by late-Romantic composer Mahler and the Brahms-influenced Vaughan Williams’ Piano Quintet contrasting with Schoenberg’s pioneering melodrama Pierrot Lunaire.

The works featured in the closing concert were all written between 1912 and 1913. Debussy’s short and beautiful syrinx for solo flute opens the Sunday afternoon concert. Alban Berg’s Five Pieces for clarinet and piano will precede the differing sound worlds of Russian composers Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, whose piano duo version of The Rite of Spring is sure to bring the festival to a climactic end.

Over an afternoon coffee, Finghin Collins discussed the festival programme.

“That particular period of musical history is very interesting,” he says. “The 20 years from 1890 onwards was a really new and fresh time when people were thinking outside the box. I’ve always had this thing about Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Pierre Boulez said it heralds the birth of modern music and I think that’s very true. When that flute starts off at the beginning of the piece it could go anywhere, you don’t know where you are or what key you’re in or what’s happening; it’s so fresh and different when you think about the music that was being written at the time elsewhere.

“So I had this idea to present these new pieces alongside the more traditional repertoire just to show how fresh they must have sounded in their day. That’s why alongside the Debussy I’ve chosen works like the Brahms Clarinet Sonata and Faure’s La Bonne Chanson which were written in the same year but were by older composers.

“Brahms was very traditional, very German, very solid, very romantic. It’s stunningly beautiful music. It’s incredible to hear that and then to hear the Debussy Prelude side by side because you would never think they were from the same year.”

Collins next discusses the Schoenberg work for the Saturday night. “Composed in 1912, it was a groundbreaking work in the sense it includes spoken word and this very erotic and modern text over instrumental music which is so other-worldly and esoteric,” he says. “The clarinet and flute, piano, and string instruments provide a really interesting sound-world and then this voice reciting over it is mesmeric and, again, it must have sounded very strange to its listeners in its day.

“I thought it would be interesting to put together with that work two pieces more traditional in their approach - Vaughan Williams’ piano quintet and Mahler’s Rucketlieder. Williams’ piece is rarely performed, but it’s a beautiful English pastoral work. The first half will be Mahler and Vaughan Williams so when you get to Schoenberg it will sound incredibly fresh.”

Collins declares The Rite of Spring to be “a hugely important work in the history of music” which will be performed on the Sunday as a piano duet version.

“It provoked riots in the street and booing and hissing from the audience who thought it was far too modern,” says Collins. “This the first time people had dared to go away from tonality, from writing in a key or structure. There were two or three hundred years where you had Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, who by and large went by the rules. Then all of a sudden people threw out those rulebooks and started asking ‘Why should I abide by these, I want to create my own soundscapes’ which is why this period is so interesting.”

The performers

Collins has been very careful in selecting the artists for this eclectic programme. Galway audiences will be delighted to welcome back Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten, feted not only for her wide range of volume but also for her gift in conveying the widest range of emotions.

With her partner pianist Thom Janssen, Ruiten will concentrate on the romantic repertoire of songs by Mahler, Strauss, and Rachmaninov, as well as Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson.

British pianists, Rolf Hind and Richard Uttley [see this week’s Proust Questionnaire], both passionate exponents of 20th century and contemporary music, will perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as well as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. For the latter they will be joined by British mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg, a specialist in this repertoire. Also joining them will be members of the Cassiopeia Wind Quintet, an Irish chamber ensemble whose performances are marked by vivacity, panache, and a dedication to the exploration of new sound-worlds.

No less important to the weekend’s proceedings will be the contributions of the newly-appointed RTÉ ConTempo Quartet, Galway’s Ensemble in Residence, who will be involved in many of the various chamber pieces as well as performing Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet on Sunday. Completing the cast are the RTÉ’s National Symphony Orchestra assistant principal double bass player Mark Jenkins and Cork-born percussionist Caitríona Frost.

“Once I put the programme together I started looking for the artists to perform the pieces,” Collins tells me. “Hind and Uttley are familiar with that repertoire and have done the Stravinsky before, it’s a demanding arrangement. Hind has played the Schoenberg before and I wanted artists who were at home in that repertoire.

“The song repertoire is much more traditional; Rachmaninov, Fauré, and Mahler. Lenneke Ruiten is an old friend of mine, she has been to Galway many times and I thought she would be perfect for that. It’s a matter of fixing people to certain repertoires. Laura Lixenberg will do the spoken part in the Schoenberg, that part is a speciality of hers. The artist line-up is a mixture of old faces and new faces but they are all world class musicians.”

The art exhibition

As well as the music the festival also features a visual art exhibition, as Collins reveals.

“We’ve asked students from GMIT to respond to this important artistic period,” he says. “This was also the era of Impressionism, Monet, Manet, Diaghilev, and the Ballet Russe, you had all these people at the same time mingling together, there was a lot of cross-pollination as you can see from Stravinsky writing pieces like Firebird and Rite of Spring for Russian dancers.

“So we have asked the GMIT students to respond in whatever way they wish to this music and thinking about this period. We’ll select a range of artworks to display, they could be paintings, sculptures, video pieces or installations.”

The exhibition will be on show at the Town Hall Theatre bar. The festival opening and launch of the show will take place on Friday January 17 at 6pm.

Festival tickets including the three concerts are €55/45 concession. Individual concert tickets are €20/16/6. Tickets can be booked from the Town Hall through 091 569777 or The full programme can be seen on



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