James Wilson

Composer who fell in love with Ireland
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The Independent Online

"Music is the nearest thing that we know to magic: its powers have still to be understood," said the composer James Wilson, British-born but resident in Ireland from 1948. "In my own work, I seek for clarity and economy and, above all, for the quality of lyricism."

Although his family background was not musical, Wilson was interested in composition "almost from infancy", and took piano lessons from the age of nine. Chance played its part three years later when, turned away from a packed cinema, he reluctantly took up his mother's suggestion that he go to Sadler's Wells instead. It was La bohème, and he was hooked; that was the moment when "the rot set in", as he put it.

As with many of his generation, Wilson's path to a musical career was interrupted by the Second World War, but in his case it proved a blessing in disguise. He kept up his studies during wartime service on a Royal Navy destroyer via a correspondence course run by "The College of the Sea", and spent his post-war gratuity on studies in composition, piano and harpsichord at Trinity College, London - but not as a matriculated student ("I never took an exam in my life and I'm not going to - I have no letters after my name of any kind"): he had returned to his pre-war civil service job in the Admiralty. "I did about 18 months in Whitehall and then I said, 'No, this is not for me any longer - I'm going to drop it and do what matters.'"

Chance had already played another card in Wilson's life, as he recalled in an interview last month:

During the last part of the war I was stationed in Derry. I suppose I fell in love with Ireland. I used to go across the border whenever I could, because you could get nice steaks and things, which you couldn't anywhere else; it was a very beautiful country. When the moment came for me to decide on the break I wanted to get completely out of what I had been doing and where I had been. By that time I knew people in Dublin - I'd been down here on holidays. I said, "Well, why shouldn't I go and live over there?" . . . I've never had one moment's regret.

Once settled in Dublin, Jim Wilson devoted his life to composing and teaching, carving himself a respected place in Irish musical life and producing a catalogue of considerable size, some 150 or so works strong. Many of these, too, are on some scale: there are a number of large choral works, and he was working on his eighth opera at the time of his death; the most recent concerto - for clarinet, written in 1999 - was his 12th.

His operatic career had an unorthodox start:

One night I was at a production of Britten's Let's Make an Opera with Lady Mayer, whom I knew pretty well, and during the interval she turned to me and said, "Wouldn't it be splendid if you wrote something like this?" I said, "Commission me and I will," and to my astonishment she said, "Yes, all right. Done".

Wilson preferred his operatic protagonists to be on the eccentric side:

I've written about three complete oddballs: Karen Blixen, Van Gogh and Jonathan Swift, all of whom are pretty nearly round the bend. They interest me as people and it starts from there.

James Wilson didn't follow any of the "schools" of the 20th-century, although he admitted to the influence of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Lutoslawski, as well - in pursuit of his goals of clarity and economy - as the doyen of contemporary French music:

I want to hear everything that is going on, which is why, to my mind, one of the best 20th-century composers was Henri Dutilleux, in whose music - may it be for an enormous force - you'll hear every note. He's been an inspiration.

His own music was eclectic in style: it could be freely atonal (although in a questionnaire he offered the Schoenberg String Trio as his concept of hell) but was open to anything he found useful: "I have, over the years, experimented with all kinds of composition techniques - 12-note cells, particular scales. Nowadays, I use a mixture of them. "

Wilson was never tempted by Irish folk-music, although other traditions made their mark on his compositions:

One thing I've always been very interested in is rhythm, and I had the best part of two years after I came to Dublin pottering around the Mediterranean in a small boat. I got involved in Spanish flamenco, Sardinian music and Greek music. I got a feeling for the kind of rhythms that people in this part of the world [Ireland] weren't writing - they were all writing in 6/8 - so I started writing in 7/8 and 11/8; once the performers got over the shock it seemed to be all right.

Wilson was also a valued teacher, holding a chair in composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music from 1969 until he retired in 1980. He recalled the time with a degree of ambivalence:

I've loved teaching. It's a curious business - looking back over the years, some of the people who, at the time I said to myself, "Now this moron - I'm totally wasting my time on this one. He will never be any good; it's time I sent him home." I didn't do so and they blossomed into quite good composers since, but gave me no indication whatever when I was teaching them that they'd ever do anything.

He was also active as an administrator, serving as consulting director of the Irish Performing Right Society and Irish Music Rights Organisation and as founding director of the Dublin Festival of 20th-Century Music, and he was prominent in the Music Association of Music and the Association of Irish Composers. In 1982 he was elected a member of Aosdána, the official academy of creative artists.

Wilson once said that the best thing about being a composer is that you do not retire - and, indeed, he died with his boots on. The first of two acts of that eighth opera, intended to be a comedy, was almost complete in outline, and he reckoned he had at least another year's work ahead of him to finish it - "if the fates are kind".

Martin Anderson