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John Nicholson Ireland (13 August 1879 – 12 June 1962) was an English composer and teacher of music. The majority of his output consists of piano miniatures and of songs with piano. His best-known works include the short instrumental or orchestral work "The Holy Boy", a setting of the poem "Sea-Fever" by John Masefield, a formerly much-played Piano Concerto, the hymn tune Love Unknown and the choral motet "Greater Love Hath No Man".
John Ireland was born in Bowdon, near Altrincham, Cheshire, into a family of Scottish descent and some cultural distinction. His father, Alexander Ireland, a publisher and newspaper proprietor, was aged 69 at John's birth. John was the youngest of the five children from Alexander's second marriage (his first wife had died). His mother, Annie Elizabeth Nicholson Ireland, was a biographer and 30 years younger than Alexander. She died in October 1893, when John was 14, and Alexander died the following year, when John was 15. John Ireland was described as "a self-critical, introspective man, haunted by memories of a sad childhood".
Ireland began to make his name in the early 1900s as a composer of songs and chamber music. His Violin Sonata No. 1 of 1909 won first prize in an international competition organised by the well-known patron of chamber music W. W. Cobbett. Even more successful was his Violin Sonata No. 2: completed in January 1917, he submitted this to a competition organised to assist musicians in wartime. The jury included the violinist Albert Sammons and the pianist William Murdoch, who together gave the work its first performance at Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street on 6 March that year. As Ireland recalled, "It was probably the first and only occasion when a British composer was lifted from relative obscurity in a single night by a work cast in a chamber-music medium." The work was enthusiastically reviewed, and the publisher Winthrop Rogers offered immediate publication (the first edition was sold out even before it had been processed by the printers). A subsequent performance of the Violin Sonata by Ireland and the violinist Désiré Defauw drew a packed audience to the Wigmore Hall in London.
Ireland frequently visited the Channel Islands and was inspired by the landscape. In 1912 he composed the piano piece The Island Spell (the first of the three pieces in his set Decorations) while staying on Guernsey, and his set of three pieces for piano Sarnia: An Island Sequence was written there in 1940. He was evacuated from the islands just before the German invasion during World War II.
John Ireland was a lifelong bachelor, except for a brief interlude when, in quick succession, he married, separated, and divorced. On 17 December 1926, aged 47, he married a 17-year pupil, Dorothy Phillips. This marriage was dissolved on 18 September 1928, and it is believed not to have been consummated. He took a similar interest in another young student, Helen Perkin (1909-1996), a pianist and composer, to whom he dedicated both the Piano Concerto in E-flat major and the Legend for piano and orchestra (which began life as a second concerto). She gave the premiere performance of both works, but any thoughts he had for a deeper relationship with her came to nothing when she married George Mountford Adie, a disciple of George Gurdjieff, and she later moved with Adie to Australia. Subsequently, Ireland withdrew the dedications. In 1947 Ireland acquired a personal assistant and companion, Mrs Norah Kirkby, who remained with him till his death. Despite these associations with women, it is clear from his private papers that his sexual proclivities lay elsewhere and many commentators support this view.
On 10 September 1949, his 70th birthday was celebrated in a special Prom concert, at which his Piano Concerto was played by Eileen Joyce, who was also the first pianist to record the concerto, in 1942.
Ireland retired in 1953, settling in the hamlet of Rock in Sussex, where he lived in a converted windmill for the rest of his life. It was there he met the young pianist Alan Rowlands who would be Ireland's choice to record his complete piano music.
He died of heart failure aged 82 at Rock Mill in Washington, Sussex, and is buried at St. Mary the Virgin in Shipley, near his home. His epitaph reads "Many waters cannot quench love" and "One of God's noblest works lies here."
From Stanford, Ireland inherited a thorough knowledge of the music of Beethoven, Brahms and other German classical composers, but as a young man he was also strongly influenced by Debussy and Ravel as well as by the earlier works of Stravinsky and Bartók. From these influences, he developed his own brand of "English Impressionism", related more closely to French and Russian models than to the folk-song style then prevailing in English music.
Like most other Impressionist composers, Ireland favoured small forms and wrote neither symphonies nor operas, although his Piano Concerto is considered among his best works. His output includes some chamber music and a substantial body of piano works, including his best-known piece The Holy Boy, known in numerous arrangements. He wrote songs to poems by A. E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, John Masefield, Rupert Brooke and others. Due to his job at St Luke's Church, he also wrote hymns, carols, and other sacred choral music; among choirs he is probably best known for the anthem Greater love hath no man, often sung in services that commemorate the victims of war. The hymn tune Love Unknown is sung in churches throughout the English-speaking world, as is his Communion Service in C major.[failed verification]
His works have been recorded and performed by Choir of Westminster Abbey, The Choir of Wells Cathedral and many others.
Ireland wrote his only film score for the 1946 Australian film The Overlanders, from which an orchestral suite was extracted posthumously by Charles Mackerras. Some of his pieces, such as the popular A Downland Suite and Themes from Julius Caesar, were completed or re-transcribed after his death by his student Geoffrey Bush.