Frederick May (composer)

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Frederick May (9 June 1911 – 8 September 1985) was an Irish composer and arranger. His musical career was seriously hindered by a lifelong hearing problem and, despite displaying early promise, he produced relatively few compositions.

Early years[edit]

Frederick May was born into a Dublin Protestant family who lived in the suburb of Donnybrook. His father, also named Frederick, was employed at the Guinness Brewery. May pursued his musical studies at the Royal Irish Academy of Music where he was taught composition by John Larchet. In 1931 he graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a Bachelor of Music degree. May then moved to London where he studied at the Royal College of Music under Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. Two years later, he was awarded a scholarship that enabled him to travel to Vienna where he was to receive tuition from Alban Berg. However, Berg died just before May's arrival in the city and he studied instead under Egon Wellesz.[1]

Life and career[edit]

May returned to Dublin in 1936 where he combined composition with his role as musical director at the Abbey Theatre, a position he held until 1948. The onset of otosclerosis, which began to affect May's hearing in his twenties, hampered his productivity as a composer. Despite this he became an advocate of better musical education in Ireland and expressed his views on this and other musical matters through the medium of The Bell, a monthly journal dealing with the arts.[1] He was a co-founder, along with Brian Boydell and Aloys Fleischmann, of the Music Association of Ireland (now Friends of Classical Music), set up in 1948 to promote music as an integral part of the cultural life of Ireland.[2] Later he became a member of Aosdána.[1]

May never married. He spent his last years as a patient in St. Ita's Hospital, Portrane.[3] He died at the age of 74 and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.[1]


May's compositions are few in number, primarily due to the tinnitus and increasing deafness that plagued him for much of his adult life. He produced most of his small output in the 1930s and early 1940s and ceased composing altogether during the last thirty years of his life.[4]

May's first significant work was the Scherzo for Orchestra, written while he was still a student in London.[1] Three years later he produced his only chamber work, the String Quartet in C Minor, described in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as "one of the most individual statements from an Irish composer in the first half of the 20th century".[5] May composed the quartet as his hearing was beginning to deteriorate and he later described it as "an appeal for release".[6]

The first performance of his Songs From Prison, a setting for baritone and orchestra of poems by Ernst Toller and Eric Stadlen, was broadcast on BBC Radio in December 1942. For fellow composer Arthur Duff, the work demonstrated that May was "more a follower of Mahler and Berg than a successor to (Charles Villiers) Stanford and (Hamilton) Harty".[7] However, May later turned away from Berg and his contemporaries, describing them as "the very antithesis of Haydn and Mozart".[6]

Following a long break from composition, May produced what was to be his valedictory work in 1955. This was the nine-minute orchestral piece, Sunlight and Shadows, given its première performance on 22 January 1956 by the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre.[4] Although this was his last original work, May did not abandon music completely. He produced arrangements of Irish music for Radio Éireann, which while not perhaps rewarding artistically did help to alleviate his always precarious financial situation.[1][5]

May never realised his considerable musical potential. As music critic Charles Acton wrote in May's obituary, "(Frederick May) might have been our Sibelius or Grieg if things had worked out differently".[3]



  1. ^ a b c d e f Joseph J. Ryan, "Frederick May", Dictionary of Irish Biography, retrieved 6 December 2010
  2. ^ The Irish Times, "New Group To Promote Music", 21 May 1948
  3. ^ a b The Irish Times, "Frederick May – An Appreciation", 11 September 1985
  4. ^ a b The Contemporary Music Centre Ireland, retrieved 6 December 2010
  5. ^ a b "May, Frederick", Grove Music Online, retrieved 6 December 2010
  6. ^ a b The Irish Times, "Frederick May", 12 December 1974
  7. ^ The Irish Times, "Songs From Prison", 16 December 1942