It is always good to be in Skibbereen but on Sunday evening there was a spring in our step as we bounded into town for “Encore”, a musical evening by the talented West Cork Choral singers in Abbeystrewry Church.
The West Cork Choral Singers made a welcome return to Abbeystrewry Church to perform works by, among others, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvořák and Karl Jenkins. As always, Diana Llewellyn lead the choir assisted by accompanist Annabel Adams. Justin Grounds, locally-based violinist and composer was the guest soloist on the night.
The singers are a talented crew of expats and locals with in Diana Llewellyn a classically trained musician whose talent and love for music was inoculated in her native Wales where kids learn to sing before they talk! The programme was unusual as the pieces were voted for by the Choir so we were listening to their favourites which made for an evening of passion and emotion, as well as the title of the evening because they were an Encore of pieces they had performed over the years.
Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus written for the feast of Corpus Christi in his last few months of life reflects the poignancy and pain of that time in his short creative life. The extract from Dvořák’s Stabat Mater “Eia, Mater, fons amoris” was also compelling. These are meditations in the Catholic liturgical tradition meant to reflect the pain and grief of Mary standing in front of the Cross as Jesus was crucified. His pain and grief is reflected in the piece as between its composition in 1876 and first performance in 1880 three of his infant children had died.
The next piece by Justin Grounds, a very talented classical and baroque violinist and composer who has performed around the world but who migrated from his hometown of Cambridge to West Cork. His wonderful playing of Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F Major demonstrated why, in the right hands, no instrument can express emotion like the violin. Anton Bruckner’s “Locus Iste” composed for the dedication of the new Linz Cathedral in Austria in 1869 was very personal to the composer. Now a Professor of music in Vienna his first major position had been as organist at the Old Cathedral in Linz. The Johannes Brahms extract from Ein deutsches Requiem “How lovely are the dwellings” like Antonin Dvořák’s Stabat Mater reflects the journey from anxiety and grief to comfort. A German Requiem is sacred but non-liturgical, and unlike a long tradition of the Latin Requiem, A German Requiem, as its title states, is a Requiem in the German language. Brahms’s mother died in February 1865, a loss that caused him much grief and may well have inspired Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms’s lingering feelings over Robert Schumann’s death in July 1856 may also have been a motivation. He himself was never too comfortable with the title, referring to the work as a Human Requiem.
Abbeystrewry Church in Skibbereen of course is heir to a great musical tradition. For many years the Rector was the famous musicologist and Uilleann Pipe player Canon James Goodman. He was posted to the parish of Abbeystrewry in Skibbereen in 1866 as a Canon of Ross, remaining there until his death in 1896. In 1867 he self-financed the rebuilding of the local church which had become dilapidated. A statue to commemorate James, playing his uilleann pipes, was erected in 2006 at the gate to the Abbeystrewery parish church in Skibbereen town.
While still in Ventry he learned to play the flute; in Ardgroom, Béarra, Co. Cork (his second parish) there is a strong local tradition of his skill as a piper. The townlands around his own were well known for music in the 19th century. Around this time Goodman began collecting music. There is evidence in his private manuscripts and in his letters that his song and music collecting had begun during his undergraduate days. His music collection was not published in his lifetime but by May 1861 it consisted of over 700 tunes. Some 150 of the tunes were drawn from Tom Kennedy, a blind piper living on the Dingle Peninsula. In all, his collections numbered over 2000 tunes annotated in both Irish and English. This collection is in manuscript form and now resides in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Of the collection, 150-200 of the melodies are song tunes the words of which were, for many years, believed lost. In 2006, a manuscript with over 80 song-texts was discovered and was donated to Trinity College Library.
Abbeystrewry Church is a distinctive and skilfully executed Church of Ireland church, designed by W.H. Hill at the end of the nineteenth century. Built on a limited budget, the structure cleverly retains an older simpler Board of First Fruits church and incorporates this building as the transepts of the new church. Coherence between the two phases of the building has been maintained through the use of similar stonework and the repetition of decorative motifs and finishes. The attention to detailing and skilled workmanship evident on the exterior continues through to the interior, notably in the carpentry of the roof bracing and carved timber reredos. The collection of related structures on the site, which includes the church, rectory, entrance archway and church hall, form a pleasing and historically interesting grouping in the townscape of Skibbereen.
After the serious grist of the evening the West Cork Choral Singers sent us off into the evening air with a smile on our faces with a rousing arrangement of “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” There was wonderful playing on the violin by Justin Grounds, on the piano by Annabel Adams and musical direction by Diana Llewellyn who proved the point she made during the evening that next to silence music is the best way to express the inexpressible. A lovely evening in the company of performers and an audience whose love of music embraced us all. Thanks to the West Cork Choral Singers Treasurer Theresa King for the invitation to an evening of good music in good company in Sweet Skibbereen.
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