John Nicholson Ireland is an English composer, known for the instrumental work ‘The Holy Boy’, the hymn tune ‘Love Unknown’ and the choral motet ‘Greater Love Hath No Man’. He was born in Bowden, Cheshire on 13th August 1897 to a 70 year old father, Alexander, who was Editor and publisher of the Newspaper the ‘Manchester Examiner and Times’ and a 40 year old mother, who was his second wife and is best known for editing the letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle and writing her biography. He was the youngest of five children and exhibited an early musical talent, which his mother encouraged.
Ireland did not have a happy childhood. His mother suffered from a heart condition and was often confined to bed. It is reputed that Ireland’s siblings punished him for the slightest misdemeanour. At the age of 13 Ireland took himself up to London, telling his mother he was going to the Manchester Motor Show, where he persuaded the Royal College of Music to take him on as a student and where his sister Ethel was already a student. In September, 1893, six weeks before his 14th birthday and shortly before his mother’s death Ireland entered the Royal College of Music.
Ireland studied Piano and Composition and at the age of 16 was awarded a fellowship of the Royal College of Organists, the youngest student ever to do so. Fellow students were Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Not long after the end of the First World War, he joined the staff at the Royal College of Music as Professor of Composition, a position he held for many years, one of his pupils being Benjamin Britten. By 1920 he was regarded as one of the leading composers of his generation having been taught by Sir Charles Villiers Stamford, who had a reputation for teaching by discouragement rather than encouragement. He was strongly influenced by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok and from these influences he developed his own brand of ‘English Impressionism’ related to French and Russian models than to the folk-song style then prevailing in English Music. He began to make a name for himself as a composer of songs and chamber music. His Violin Sonata No. 1 won first prize in an International competition as did his Violin Sonata No. 2, although his Piano Concerto is considered among his best works.
Some of Ireland’s compositions were influenced by landscapes. ‘The Island Spell’ and ‘Sarnia’ were inspired by a visit to Jersey and ‘An Island Sequence ‘ by his visit to Guernsey. His symphonic rhapsody ‘Mai-Dun’ was influenced by historical images of the South Downs and his ‘Cello Sonata in G Minor’ by the countryside of the Sussex Downs. Ireland produced several hymns and church pieces that became well known including ‘Vexilla Regis’ written at the age of 19. The majority of his output consists of piano miniatures and of songs with piano often setting them to the poetry of Thomas Hardy, A.E. Houseman, Christina Rossetti, John Masefield, Rupert Brooke and others.
It has been said that Ireland was a self-critical, introspective man haunted by memories of his sad childhood. In 1953 he retired to Rock in West Sussex where he died of heart failure at the age of 82 on the 12th June, 1962 and buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Shipley, West Sussex.