Brian Boydell

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Brian Boydell (17 March 1917 – 8 November 2000) was an Irish composer whose works include orchestral pieces, chamber music, and songs. He was professor of music at Trinity College, Dublin for 20 years, founder of the Dowland Consort, conductor of the Dublin Orchestral Players, and a prolific broadcaster and writer on musical matters.

Early years[edit]

Brian Boydell was born in Howth, County Dublin into a prosperous Anglo-Irish family. His father, James, ran the family maltings business while his mother, Eileen Collins, was one of the first women graduates of Trinity College.[1] Following their son's birth, the Boydells moved from Howth and lived in a succession of rented houses before settling in Shankill, County Dublin. The young Boydell began his formal education at Monkstown Park in Dublin, and was subsequently sent to the Dragon School at Oxford. From there he went to Rugby, where he came under the influence of Kenneth Stubbs, the music master. Although Boydell later spoke of his resentment at the anti-Irish attitude he experienced at Rugby,[1] he appreciated the very good education in science and music he received there.

Having completed his secondary education, Boydell spent the summer of 1935 developing his musical knowledge at Heidelberg, where he wrote his first songs and also studied organ.[1] He won a choral scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, where, perhaps through parental pressure, he studied natural science, graduating in 1938 with a first-class degree.[2]

However, his love of music led him next to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition under Patrick Hadley, Herbert Howells,[1] and Vaughan Williams. Already a good pianist, Boydell also became a proficient oboe player during this time.

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Boydell returned to Dublin and achieved further academic success in 1942 with a Bachelor of Music degree from Trinity College.

Life and career[edit]

Boydell's busy working life combined teaching, performing and composing. Following a brief stint in his father's business, Boydell plunged himself into Dublin's classical musical scene. In 1942, he succeeded Havelock Nelson as conductor of the Dublin Orchestral Players,[1] beginning an association with the amateur orchestra that would endure for a quarter of a century. Two years later he was appointed Professor of Singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a position he held for eight years. Along with fellow composer, Frederick May, he founded the Music Association of Ireland in 1948 as a vehicle to promote classical music throughout the country.[3]

Boydell's interest in Renaissance music, in particular the madrigal, led in 1959 to him founding vocal ensemble, the Dowland Consort, with which he performed for many years. In 1962, having obtained a Doctorate in Music, he was appointed professor of music at Trinity College and immediately revamped the course making it more relevant to the second half of the twentieth century.[3] He also found time to sit on the Arts Council throughout the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s.

Boydell's communication skills combined with his infectious enthusiasm made him a natural broadcaster. The appeal of his programmes on the history and performance of music, first on RTÉ Radio and later on Telefís Éireann, went beyond a specialist audience and were, for many people, their introduction to a new world of aural pleasure.

Boydell had many interests beyond music. As a surrealist painter in the 1940s, he was a member of The White Stag group.[3] He was also passionate about cars and photography.

Final years[edit]

Following retirement from Trinity as Fellow Emeritus.[3] Boydell devoted himself to musical scholarship, writing two books on the music of 18th century Dublin. He also contributed to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.[2] He was appointed to Aosdána in 1984.[2][4]

Brian Boydell died at his home in Howth at the age of 83 in the company of his wife of 56 years, Mary (née Jones), and their sons, Cormac and Barra. A third son, Marnac, predeceased him.[2]


As a young composer, Boydell was influenced by the music of Delius, Bartók, and Sibelius. He wanted to write modern Irish music that followed the European tradition. However, he also tried to avoid the temptation to incorporate folk tunes into his work to give it a distinctive national identity.[1]

His first major success came in 1948 with In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi, Op. 30, a 12-minute orchestral piece written in tribute to the recently-assassinated Indian leader whom Boydell admired.[2] The composer conducted the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra at its premiere in the Phoenix Hall, Dublin. His first String Quartet, Op. 31, composed in 1949, won the Radio Éireann Chamber Music Prize.[2]

Over the course of the next five decades, Boydell produced a great variety of music, ranging from orchestral works such as his Violin Concerto, Op. 36, and Masai Mara, Op. 87, to more intimate compositions for voice or solo instruments. An example of the latter is his piece for harp A Pack of Fancies for a Travelling Harper, Op. 66, premiered at the Dublin Festival of Twentieth Century Music in 1971.

His final work, a short composition for brass band entitled Viking Lip – Music, Op.91, was given its premiere by the Royal Danish Brass Ensemble at the Drogheda Arts Centre in November 1996 with the composer in attendance.[5]

In his latter years Boydell viewed his place in the greater world of late twentieth-century music with a certain wry detachment.

"I've now become something of an old fogey, but in the 1940s I was regarded as the naughty boy of frightfully modern music."[1]



For a full discography see here.

  • Ceathrar: Contemporary Irish String Quartets (1994) (features String Quartet No. 2), Chandos CHAN 9295.
  • Brian Boydell – Orchestral Music (1997) (features In memoriam Mahatma Gandhi, Violin Concerto, Masai Mara, Megalithic Ritual Dances), Marco Polo 8.223887.
  • British Brass Connection (1997) (features Viking Lip – Music), Rondo Grammofon 8358.
  • E-motion (1998) (features Three Pieces for Guitar), Black Box Music 1002.
  • In Blue Sea or Sky (2003) (features Pack of Fancies for a Travelling Harper), Riverrun RVRCD59.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g The Irish Times, "Brian's double forte", 6 November 1997
  2. ^ a b c d e f The Irish Times, "Composer Brian Boydell dies in Dublin aged 83", 9 November 2000
  3. ^ a b c d The Irish Times, "Irish composer and musicologist who transformed Trinity's music syllabus", 11 November 2000
  4. ^ The Irish Times, "Singing music's praise", 31 January 2002
  5. ^ The Irish Times, "Royal Danish Brass Ensemble", 19 November 1996

Further references[edit]