The Life and Music of John Buckley

by Benjamin Dwyer (Author)
©2011 Monographs XIV, 226 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 794


As well as providing a very readable and comprehensive study of the life and music of John Buckley, Constellations also offers an up-to-date and informative catalogue of compositions, a complete discography, translations of set texts and the full libretto of his chamber opera, making this book an essential guide for both students and professional scholars alike.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • 1 | Beginnings (1951-1972)
  • Early Years and Background
  • Introduction to Music
  • School Days
  • The Move to Dublin
  • 2 | Early Works (1973-1976)
  • Teacher and Composer
  • Contemporary Music in Ireland in the 1970s
  • New Developments
  • Sonata for Cor Anglais and Piano (1973)
  • Three Pieces for Solo Flute (1973)
  • Wind Quintet (1976)
  • 3 | Between the Celtic and the Avant-garde (1977-1987)
  • Part 1: Towards Ireland
  • Recognition
  • Studies in Cardiff
  • Myth and Modernism
  • Taller than Roman Spears (1977)
  • Oileáin (1979)
  • I Am Wind on Sea (1987)
  • Part 2: Towards Europe
  • Early Successes
  • Connecting with Cage and Lutoslawski
  • Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (1981)
  • Time Piece (1982)
  • 4 | Educational and Peripheral Works (1982-1998)
  • Ennis Composition Summer School
  • Educational Works
  • 5 | Consolidation (1988-1996)
  • Expanding Horizons
  • The Scene in Ireland
  • The Late 1980s and Early 1990s
  • Symphony No. 1 (1988)
  • A Thin Halo of Blue (1990)
  • The Words Upon the Window Pane (1991)
  • Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (1992)
  • 6 | Towards a New Refinement (1997-2005)
  • The Late 1990s and the New Millennium
  • Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (1997)
  • Tidal Erotics (1999)
  • In Winter Light (2004)
  • 7 | Constellations (2005-2010)
  • as far as the eye can see
  • Coda
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices I-VI
  • 1: Catalogue of Compositions
  • 2: Abendlied– (text)
  • 3: Rivers of Paradise – (text)
  • 4: The words upon the window pane – (Libretto)
  • 5: Te Deum (text)
  • 6: Discography
  • Index


I am indebted to many people and institutions that assisted me in the writing of this monograph.

I would like to express my gratitude to St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (Dublin City University) for its financial support of this project. I want to acknowledge the encouragement of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in providing financial assistance towards the publication of this book. Deborah Kelleher, Director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, has been very supportive of my work in all its areas.

Many professional colleagues of mine who know and work with John Buckley assisted me greatly. They include Ciaran Bennett, Anthony Byrne, Darby Carroll, Bobby Chen, Rhona Clarke, Frank Corcoran, Denis Costello, Raymond Deane, William Dowdall, Roger Doyle, Susan Doyle, Kenneth Edge, Brian Farrell, John Feeley, Fergus Johnston, Aylish Kerrigan, Timo-Juhani Kyllönen, John McLachlan, Darragh Morgan, Martin O’Leary and Gavin O’Sullivan. Their perceptive comments and performances of Buckley’s work helped me greatly to contextualize Buckley’s music. The Contemporary Music Centre (Dublin) provided access to scores, books and other archival material, which was extremely useful. Thanks are due to Tina Kinsella, Barra Ó Séaghdha and Kimberly Campanello, who read through early drafts of Constellations and made insightful suggestions and constructive criticisms.

Versions of some of the commentary in this publication first appeared in The Musical Times (winter 2010) under the title ‘From the Celtic to the Abstract: Shifting Perspectives in the Music of John Buckley’. I’d like to thank Hugh Maxton for giving me permission to publish his libretto The Words Upon the Window Pane.

Thanks also go to Tony Carragher for the cover photo and photos 6 and 7 inside.

I would like to add a special thanks to Dr Lorraine Byrne Bodley for her tremendous support for this project and her ongoing commitment to seeing a broad and healthy engagement with music in Ireland among composers, musicologists and music lovers alike. I want to further thank Dr Dan Farrelly and Carysfort Press (Dublin). Dan’s undertaking of the publication of a book relating to contemporary Irish music demonstrates his belief in the need for such a work to exist.

I am indebted as ever to my family, and in particular, my father Benjamin, for the constant encouragement shown to me during the long gestation of this monograph.

Finally, however, my greatest appreciation goes to John Buckley and his wife Phil. John has been as helpful as one could wish. He made himself available to me for numerous extended interviews at his home between April 2004 and September 2010, which often extended well into the night (in this regard, Phil always made sure that I was fed and watered). John also diligently responded to dozens of emails with detailed responses. Furthermore, he furnished me with a trove of fascinating letters, reviews, articles, journals, photographs, concert programmes and a collection of scores and CD recordings of practically every work he has written, which were all of inestimable value.

Benjamin Dwyer.


Barra Ó Séaghdha

This large-scale study of the life and work of the Irish composer John Buckley is noteworthy in several regards. It is a significant addition to a relatively underdeveloped sector in Irish cultural criticism. It draws attention to a modest but admirably dedicated member of a generation that had to persevere in the face of public indifference. And it demonstrates how mutual respect and critical integrity can be maintained when Irish composers of different generations meet.

In the nineteenth century, Ireland missed out on the building of musical infrastructure that took place in urban Britain. Independent Ireland failed to develop the educational philosophy of, for example, Patrick Pearse and offered further generations of schoolchildren little or no outlet for their creativity. For most of the last two centuries, under both British and native rule, the welcome Irish audiences have had for opera, whether grand or light, and, to a degree, for orchestral masterworks has not been matched by a nurturing environment for the creation of new works by Irish composers. Until recently at least, those who persisted in their vocations in independent Ireland could have no great expectations: a sprinkling of first performances but almost no opportunity to hear a work again or in a different interpretation; numerous works unperformed, unrecorded and unpublished; and, where public reception was concerned, a few brief newspaper reviews, an occasional interview or feature, and perhaps an article or two.

The last twenty years or so have witnessed a significant increase in the level of activity in the field of Irish music studies, across all genres. At universities and third-level institutes, in conferences, journals and reference works, the highways and byways of Irish musical culture and history are being explored. This is not to suggest that all is well, that the tide has turned. It cannot be said that critical debate has kept pace with institutional or infrastructural growth, and huge gaps remain in our knowledge and historical understanding. More importantly from a composer’s point of view, it is still extremely difficult to have a large-scale orchestral work or an opera performed.

During the economic euphoria of the Celtic Tiger years, the visual arts became a marker of ostentatious wealth and underwent their own inflationary bubble; the level of poetic creativity was routinely exaggerated well after the flowering of the 70s and early 80s. Meanwhile, as the composers of John Buckley’s generation came into their prime, their substantial achievements remained largely in the shadows. Such light as there was tended to fall on the flamboyant talent and personality of Gerald Barry, while it is more often as a political activist and writer than as a composer that Raymond Deane has tended to hit the headlines.

Where public profile is concerned, the case of John Buckley is unusual in a different way: though he has done much in the field of education – in fact, for his broadcasts, lectures and selfless commitment to music education he could be called a citizen-composer – his music has graced more civic occasions than almost any other composer of his day, the full scale and variety of his achievement is not always appreciated. Organ and saxophone concertos; intimate chamber works; a chamber opera; a site-specific collaboration with artist Vivienne Roche; solo instrumental works; strikingly conceived choral works - these are only a small selection of the forms to which he has brought his particular combination of studied craft and imagination.

John Buckley is fortunate that in Benjamin Dwyer’s Constellations: The Life and Music of John Buckley, he has found a combination of sympathetic understanding and critical distance that illuminates both individual works and the overall shape of the career. When executed with style and conviction, the study of a composer can remain a work of reference for many years. The primary audience for such a work is among performers, listeners, academics and students who wish to deepen their understanding of the composer. However, at a time when music is increasingly taking its place alongside literature and the other arts in Irish Studies, Constellations is also open to those with a less technical grasp of music. The book is organised in such a way that sections devoted to the broad shape of the composer’s career alternate with detailed analysis and illustration of style and technique.

It is a credit to both author and composer that, despite the clear evidence of cooperation between them – letters and emails from the composer, as well as quotations from interviews – the author’s assessment of the composer’s work is not just honest but at times quite stringent. Happily, Dwyer sees Buckley as increasingly masterful in realising his own musical world. Thus, there is a double gain for readers: a portrait of the composer and a demonstration of a constructively critical spirit in action. The relationship between the two, obviously based on mutual respect, is intriguing from another point of view in that Benjamin Dwyer, almost twenty years younger than Buckley, is himself a composer of substance. The book is therefore a meeting of generations as well as a meeting of minds.

Benjamin Dwyer’s engagement with contemporary music is intense. As a virtuoso guitarist, he has a particular insight into the interpretation of new music, while his growing reputation as a composer is founded on such works as his multi-media creation Scenes from Crow (arising from a deep engagement with Ted Hughes’s Crow sequence), numerous orchestral works and an outstanding set of études for guitar. He was artistic director of the Music21 new music concert series and festival (formerly Mostly Modern) for 18 years, a founder-member of the VOX21 ensemble (which commissioned many new works by Irish and international composers), and in 2007 was the driving force behind Remembering Ligeti, a multi-faceted celebration and examination of the composer. In addition to his teaching activities at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, he has contributed to such publications as the Journal of Music in Ireland and the Musical Times with articles on Berg, Ligeti, Britten and other topics. Dwyer’s broad expertise and extensive engagement in contemporary music in all its aspects is reflected in the energy and liveliness of his writing.

Constellations: The Life and Music of John Buckley fully deserves to take its place as a striking addition to the canon of music criticism in Ireland.

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John Buckley is regarded as one of the finest Irish composers of his generation. Along with Gerald Barry, Jerome de Bromhead, Frank Corcoran, Raymond Deane, Roger Doyle and Jane O’Leary amongst others, he emerged in the 1970s as part of a new flowering in Irish composition. This phenomenon was not marked by homogeneity or bound by a unifying aesthetic but rather comprised a disparate body of composers who sought to find their individual voices within a broader European context. However, their collective desire to embrace purely modernist ideals in place of traditional Irish folk elements unites these composers despite their stylistic differences.

Extraordinarily, Buckley rose to prominence in Irish contemporary music despite the fact that he came from a relatively poor rural background in the southwest of Ireland. Even in Ireland today, government commitment to classical music in relation to education, infrastructure, radio and television broadcasting, professional development initiatives, among other areas, leaves much to be desired in comparison with broader European contexts. Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, when Buckley was growing up in County Limerick, was even more underdeveloped in all these areas. Furthermore, the period was dominated politically by Éamon de Valera, whose essentialist vision of the slowly developing Republic was tinged with romantic views of a self-sufficient Catholic Ireland that celebrated the more traditional aspects of Irish culture.1

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Classical music, which in Ireland was historically (though not exclusively) practiced and enjoyed by the previously ruling Protestant class, was hardly an aspect of Irish culture likely to be afforded any great support from the government of this time. Buckley’s emergence as a leading figure in contemporary classical music is fascinating in light of the socio-economic and socio-political conditions he faced. He tackled the problem of working as a composer of contemporary art music in a relatively unsupportive environment by conducting a parallel professional life as an educationalist. Thus, he veered towards initial studies in education rather than pure music composition, and he worked as a school teacher throughout the 1970s. Even when he decided on a freelance career as a composer in 1982, teaching remained central to his ethos, and his involvement with music education cannot be separated from any thorough study of his work as a composer. Indeed, Buckley’s contribution to music education has exerted a remarkable influence over the past thirty years and continues to do so.


XIV, 226
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2011. XIV, 226 pp., 112. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Benjamin Dwyer (Author)


Title: Constellations
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