Frank Corcoran

irish composer


Subject: Composer Portrait for Concertzender . FRANK CORCORAN

“It’s a long way to Tipperary ” goes the old song. And it is a long way from Tipperary in southern Ireland where I was born to ( at that time still West ) Berlin where 1980 – 1981 I spent a year as an invited guest of the Berliner Kuenstlerprogramm.

I had had my First Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1980, a work for wind alone. No strings. No percussion.

I began my Second Symphony for Large Orchestra.What was the motor-idea for this large work ; how bend time ? What form or shape ? music cannot exist for me without form. As a young composer I wanted to shape and control my vast colour forces . I had the idea of two contrasting movements , the first ( “Soli” )

concentrating on the individual solo lines of , eg. the trombones, the gongs and deep percussion of the opening, the solo double basses and celli and higher strings,

my music not synchronized metrically – as a contrast then to the second movement , ” Tutti ” , which would use the same material but barred as ” normal”, synchronized music. So two twin movements ; the first a vast movement of smeared chorales and instrumental masses, but with no clearly heard lines and the second then as more “normal” as the lines scurry and hurry towards their end. The opening of this first movement of my Second Symphony does in fact achieve a hieratic ” chaos versus order ” quality, a shifting carpet of kinetic art . : Mahler famously said that a symphony must become itself “a world”, a different world from our everyday world. Here you hear the first movement, “Soli”, my symphonic world which I composed in 1981 in West Berlin.

( Could I re-create this work like that today ? No, impossible ! )

MUSIC 1. Frank Corcoran 2. Symphony. Mov. 1. All. ( RTESO Dublin . Conductor: Colman Pearce . Marco Polo 8.225107 )


1983 I moved to Hamburg to teach composition at the Musikhochschule there . ( Can you in fact teach musical composition ? No ! )

Twelve years later the city-state of Hamburg was celebrating 50th. years since the Liberation of Auschwitz. But how do you ” celebrate” horror ? The Hamburg party-less Minister of Culture at that time , the literary expert Christine Weiss, asked me to compose something to commemorate

the suffering of its Jewish citizens. I protested : ” No ! I am neither German nor Jewish but Irish !” But still I persisted…. )

I decided to use an orchestra of only percussion instruments. How can a snare-drum, gongs and tamtam, paint the awful barracks and its abject prisoners being awakened to another awful day of violence and death ? Can we at all,

after the Shoah, compose music ? How can eg. points of triangle suggest points of human suffering ? And so on.

My TRAUERFELDER, in my native Irish language GOIRT AN BHROIN , in English FIELDS OF SORROW, has five chapters of human suffering from the Book of Pain.

In the first of my five, short TRAUERFELDER bells and vibraphone hammer out the dreadful message of inhuman violence, mistreatment, death ; then the timpani usher in the unspeakable.

MUSIC 2. Frank Corcoran. TRAUERFELDER Mov. 1. ca. 2.50′. CD Composers Art Label FRANK CORCORAN

( ISRC DE – L29 – 04 – 01430 )

Four years after the percussion piece, TRAUERFELDER ,and still in Hamburg, with the giant computers of West German Radio’s

Electronic Studios in Cologne I composed a large piece using my Irish Tipperary childhood memories and my love of mythic Early Ireland . It was my third electronic composition for WDR after the 1995 “JOYCEPEAK MUSIK” which won the Studio Akustische Kunst Prize and the vast ” SWEENEY’S VISION ” which won the 1999 First Prize at Bourges Festival.

I dreamed, composed, imagined, I painted my canvas , my QUASI UNA MISSA , which then won the 2002 Swedish E.M.S. prize for electronic music. ( – I had never wanted to

distinguishc reative work with symphonic or chamber or vocal and choral forces as in any deep way different from my composing with the computer . Computer music, too , if it is not to remain mere technological fetish , is, or has to be music…. )

QUASI UNA MISSA is my celebration of over 2000 years of God-statements on the island of Ireland, its religiosity and its drive towards the mystical. Its 4 movements refer loosely to the movements of the Latin Mass. It is , of course, also a salute to Western vocal polyphony with its use of only language, the fragments of Irish, English, Latin, Greek religious utterances ranging from Aimhirgin ( the Celtic god of mystical poetry ) through Joyce and Beckett and Bishop Berkeley and medieval Irish poets etc.

The fourth, final movement sums it all up, Irish joy and sorrow, extratemporal ” nunc stans” of religious ecstasy,lullaby and dance and the keening women of the Aran Islands, Irish lilting or ” port-a-bheil”. – Quasi an ” Irish Circus” , My Quasi Una Missa.


In my series of “Quasi” works of the nineties, Quasi Un Canto, Quasi Un Lamento, Quasi Una Missa and so on – the “quasi” in my titles betrays my being only too conscious of the fact that a composer nowadays is no longer innocent and knows too much of world-music to be able to remain neutral in the face of all the new styles and fads and fashions and inventions of 20th. century music, none is stranger than my QUASI UNA FUGA for string orchestra from the year 2007.

Is this a neo-baroque fugue ? – Good God, no ! This last century has heard enough of bad neo-Bachian works and post-Hindemithian counterpoint to last us for ever ….

And yet my one movement QUASI UNA FUGA is my salute to counterpoint. It has a theme, the opening ascending 12 tones in the celli. It has a “contrasoggetto” in the best manner of the Baroque era.

It ascends . It descends. Its lines intertwine like the painted snakes on a page of the Book of Kells. But it sounds neither like Bach nor Bartok . Its Corcoran “sound” dares not imitate that of Ligeti ( who had been a colleague of mine in Hamburg ) nor Lutoslawski – to mention two giants of contemporary composition for string orchestra.

Near the end my monument to counterpoint begins to morph into the high, ethereal tones of an Early Celtic chant, ” Ibunt sancti ” which tradition attributes to Saint Brendan and his 12 monks crossing the wild waters of the North Atlantic around the year 550 A.D. and , legend has it, breakfasting on the back of an ( unbaptized ) whale.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra under Anthony Marwood premiered QUASI UNA FUGA in Limerick Cathedral at the 2007 Shannon Festival . In Limerick, or the early Norse version ” Ilimreck ” , the mighty river Shannon of my Tipperary childhood flows into the Atlantic ocean. I felt my life had come a full circle. Quasi.

MUSIC 4. QUASI UNA FUGA . 12.27 ( Irish Radio recording 2007 of Irish Chamber Orchestra / Anthony Marwood )

For the contemporary composer is it still possible to use traditional orchestral forms ? Certainly – but only as ” quasi” , self-consciously …. no cheap imitation or ideological dogma. Form, yes, in the age-old sense that I as a composer must bend and form and forge time in music;

my art demands a strong relationship between the parts of a piece with each other and with the musical whole. I ” com-pose” .

We this year premiered the new Cello Concerto in Dublin. It could not have been written without its predecessor, the Violin Concerto of 2012. My friend, the violinist virtuoso Alan Smale, in discussing the Violin Concerto’s gestation gave to me – a non-violinist – the following advice:

“Sing ! The soloist must sing !” I composed the Concerto for a slightly reduced orchestra in 3 movements – no tuba, yes, harp, light percussion.

The second movement is a slow song. My violin sings and weeps and sobs in its solo flight. Melody in the twenty first century ? Yes. Three times comes this slow , sad song, each time subtly varied . Architecture in music ? Yes ! Its line, of course, echoes all the violin concerti of the past and all the violin lines of the Paganinis and the Brahmses and Beethovens of the past , yet without succumbing to neo-tonal or cheap imitation. The orchestral shouts praise and negate and question.

The third verse of my song then dissolves into last fragments of the solo cadenza.

MUSIC 5. Frank Corcoran VIOLIN CONCERTO Mov. 2. 5.40 . ( I N S O / Colman Pearce. Lyric recording 2012 )

I have composed in almost all musical genres – the near completion in 1987 of the opera ” Gilgamesh ” was interrupted for ever by the violent death of my son in Hamburg – orchestral and vocal and electronic and chamber . A very intense childhood memory is of a traditional Irish ballad-singer trumpeting out his 19th. c. ballads on the main street of my Tipperary village of a farmers fair-day – he had an enormous voice.

Choral music has always interested me, the human voice, the body of articulated sounds of human bodies. My EIGHT HAIKUS for large choir won the 2013 First Prize of the International federation for Choir Music.

A few years before that, a tiny Haiku-like miniature poem in Irish by the poet , Gabriel Rosenstock, drove me to compose the NINE ASPECTS OF AN IRISH POEM. Its 12 syllables and 13 consonants became the building blocks of my nine choral chapters. Its ” A” and “As” and ” tob” and so on become my Urmaterial.

“As tobar duigh speire / Lionann crainn / A ngoib…. ”

“From the inkwell of the sky / Trees fill / Their beaks. ”


Before and between these choral chapters a solo violin sounds. It bows and plucks and gradually becomes part of the choral music – was this the ( unconscious ) beginning of the Violin Concerto which was born several years later ? Perhaps….

MUSIC 6. NINE ASPECTS OF AN IRISH POEM for Solo Violin and Large Choir ( Lyric recording 2004 ) 11.39

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