Carl Hardebeck

A Machine Readable Version

Thomas MacGreevy

Original Source: Father Mathew Record. March 1947. p. 2.

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Full Colophon Information

Carl Hardebeck

By Thomas MacGreevy

Carl Hardebeck died two years ago to-day. He was seventy-five years old and it was nearly fifty-two years since the day in Belfast when, a young man, little more than a boy, from London, the child of a German father and an English mother, he decided to consecrate his life to the study of Irish music, to tracing Irish music back to its own origins, and to re-establishing Irish music in its true setting, that is to say, in its own modes.

You probably know the story of the divorce of our music from its origins, of how Carolan, usually known as the last of the bards, was in reality the first of the moderns, the first Irish composer to cast aside the traditional Irish scales, intervals and harmonies and use the new modes that had spread all over Europe with the principles of the Italian Renaissance. That Italianising movement went on throughout the eighteenth century and culminated in the original instrumental compositions of John Field and the adaptations from Irish melodies made by Thomas Moore. These won international fame for their authors and enduring recognition for Ireland as one of the main well-springs of the world's music. That fame and that recognition were, to my mind, legitimate and well merited.

But they carried a danger with them, the danger that enthusiasm for the new should bring about contempt for the old, the neglect of it and possibly, in the difficult conditions of the Ireland of those days, even its loss and final disappearance. Contempt for the old, in enthusiasm for the new, is well-known in the history of all the arts. You may have heard the story of how Queen Marie Antoinette of France wrote to her mother, describing the coronation of her husband, King Louis XVI, at Rheims Cathedral. Rheims ranks as one of the supreme masterpieces of Gothic architecture, but with the classicists of the 18th-century Gothic was old and out of fashion, and the young queen described how on the day of the coronation the cathedral was hung with wonderful tapestries, so that you could hardly see a single pointed arch. "It was so beautiful," she wrote, "almost as beautiful as the opera. You wouldn't know it was Gothic."

But just as there was a revival of interest in Gothic architecture, so there was a revival of interest in the original sources from which the world-famous. Mr. Moore drew his inspiration. Already, as early as 1792, when Field and Moore were still children, men who were jealous for the glory of our musical heritage had organised the Assembly of Harpers at Belfast. That marked the turn of the tide. As a result of it, Edward Bunting began the great work of noting down and publishing the melodic line at least, of such Irish airs as came to his notice. The work was continued by Petrie in the first half of the 19th-century and later by Joyce.

It was with the Revival, however, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the present century, that the movement took on momentum and became a nation-wide — and more than a nation-wide phenomenon. For if at home Dr. Henebry and other indefatigable scholars and musicians were zealously at work, Mrs. Milligan Fox in London and Chief O'Neill in Chicago were active in research amongst Irish exiles overseas.

In some mysterious way, Carl Hardebeck's name became, in the course of time, a symbol of all that activity. Perhaps it was because his discovery of Irish music and his decision to consecrate himself to it, coincided with the founding of the Gaelic League. Perhaps it was because he was the stranger who came and offered himself to Ireland, offered himself, it was clear, disinterestedly, for his blindness was in the nature of a guarantee that he placed himself unreservedly at Ireland's disposal for the purpose of saving her music. Perhaps it was because he became, with the years, an all-Ireland figure. His first centre was, of course, Belfast. Then for some years Cork became his headquarters. Then Belfast again and finally Dublin. The towering and pathetic figure — for he was of heroic stature — became familiar everywhere. He adjudicated at Feiseanna all over the country, at the same time seeking out traditional singers in the remoter places, listening, taking notes, arranging, publishing.

Hardebeck, it seems to me, worked on a few clearly defined principles — I speak subject to correction for it was only in his last years that I came to know him through the Capuchin Fathers, who had organised a Fund with the object, amongst others, of helping Hardebeck and his good wife to meet the material difficulties of his old age. I think Hardebeck's view was that the music of the Liturgy was the point of departure of all Europe from the time of Gregory the Great; and that secular music was based on that, but modified by the special conditions of each country and more particularly by the peculiarities of each language. Hardebeck could trace those modifications because he knew the music of the Liturgy and he studied the Irish language. With that he knew the classical and romantic music of the chief European countries since the Renaissance, and he knew the laws of harmony.

And so he collected that great series of Irish songs, and published them with accompaniments based on the inner laws of the scales on which they were based. You all know those airs, Una Bhán, Cáth Céim an Fhiaidh, Sal óg Ruadh and the rest.

Besides those harmonisations, Hardebeck composed and published original works, of which the best known are perhaps Seothin Seo for orchestra, and the magnificently dramatic Deirdre's Lament for the voice.

And then he composed two Masses, of which, only one, the first, in E, has been published. The composer's good friend, Mr. James Delaney, tells me that later Mass in B Flat is a remarkably fine, mature work, full of rich invention. But there is plenty of invention here, in the Mass in E, too. You will notice the dramatic power of the Credo, particularly in the passage, Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolican ecclesiam. The composer's familiarity with German music is most notably evident in the use he makes of the famous Dresden Amen in the Sanctus. And in the 5/4 movement of the Agnus Dei the Celtic mode blends most clearly with the Plain Chant on the basis of which the whole work is built.

Now I must not stand between you and the choir any longer, but before I finish I think that on this, the anniversary of his death, those who realised the nobility of Hardebeck's achievement would like me in their name and in Ireland's name to say, Peace be to him and Lux perpetua luceat ei.