I have long wished for an opportunity, which has now happily arrived, of laying before the musical public an edition of the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore, in which the airs could be given an accurate form as noted by such excellent antiquarians as Bunting and Petrie. I have been able, thanks to the authorities of the British Museum and more especially to the able help of Mr. Barclay Squire who presides over the musical section of its library, to examine also the rare collections of Burke Thomoth, Carolan, and Holden. To this last Moore undoubtedly was (after Bunting) the most indebted.
While it is impossible to over-rate the value of much of Moore's work, both as containing masterpieces of lyrical writing, and as being the first popular presentation of the Folk-songs of Ireland, it must be remembered that the age in which they were published was not one of the golden periods of British Music, and that accuracy of detail was scarcely to be expected at a time when knowledge of the subject was very limited. In any strictures which I have felt compelled to pass on the poet and his arranger, Sir John Stevenson, this point must be kept in view, and it must be freely conceded that neither before nor since Moore's time has there been any Irish poet who so completely combined fineness of workmanship with spirit and pathos of expression.
As will be seen in the notes I have appended to the airs at the end of the volume, there is scarcely a melody which Moore left unaltered, and, as a necessary consequence, unspoilt. Whether he or his arranger was responsible for these corruptions is a matter which is lost to history; but as the name of the poet has the greater prominence in the original publication, I have laid to his door any blame which I am compelled to allot. Stevenson, a remarkable musician, who though resident all his life in Ireland was well read in foreign music, was much under the influence of the works of Haydn: and he seems to have imported into his arrangements a dim echo of the style of the great Austrian composer. He could scarcely have chosen a model more unsuited for the wildness and ruggedness of the music with which he had to deal. This probably led to the alterations of scales and characteristic intervals (such as the flat seventh) which are the life and soul of Irish melodies. Some airs are, owing to long usage in the form in which they were first dressed, almost hopelessly spoilt: as an instance I may mention "The Last Rose of Summer" (The Groves of Blarney), the original of which is to be found in Holden's collection. Moore has assisted this transmogrification, by supplying words often beautiful in themselves, but quite out of keeping with the style of the airs, such as sentimental poems for jig-tunes, dirges for agricultural airs, battle-hymns for reels. Such errors of judgment were incapable of alteration, save by a sacrifice of the words in a collection which was intended as a complete presentation both of the music and Moore's work: and I am bound to admit that in a few instances, such as "Let Erin Remember" and "Oh ye dead", the melodies are so intrinsically fine and so versatile in their adaptability to various sentiments, as to endure the change of character without loss of expressiveness.
Some few of the "Melodies" I have omitted, because they are not Irish at all. These are "Eveleen's Bower", "Believe me if all those endearing young charms", and "Oh the Shamrock". I have also omitted "By that Lake" and "Alone in crowds", because the airs assigned to them are identical with those of "O breathe not his name" and "I wish I were by that dim lake".
For the accompaniments I can only say that they are frankly modern. As the melodies themselves were seldom or ever imagined from any but a monophonic standpoint, polyphony must be an interloper, no matter what its style. Therefore I have adopted a free form, while preserving in all cases the scale of the melody; for my view is (and I admit that there are two sides to the question) that the more vivid and the more in accordance with the spirit of the present age they can be made, the better their chance of bringing the force of the melodies home to the listener. The airs are for all time, their dress must vary with the fashion of the time.
For the rest I have only to express my thanks to the authorities of the British Museum, and to Mr. Joseph Robinson, the pioneer in the art of musicianly arrangement of the music of Ireland, who most kindly allowed me to use his admirable phrasing of the "Minstrel Boy" in this volume. I may conclude with a maxim as to the proper vocal rendering of the tunes, which is well-known to all born Irishmen; that the tendency is always to make a short pause (almost chorale-fashion) at the close of a line, and never to be so strict in tempo as to sacrifice the exigencies of breath or to spoil the point of a phrase.
London, November 1894.