“When a teacher creates enthusiasm, it rubs off on the performer”

SOMETIMES a fortuitous event can dictate the entire course of a life, a random case can set a course and a pattern to follow.

This seems to be the case with the life of the eminent Irish classical musician John Finucane, whose journey to the clarinet was the brainchild of an enthusiastic priest who was supposed to teach French to his students.

Since 1995, John has been Principal Clarinet of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and has an active career as a soloist and chamber musician. Described by Gramophone as “an exceptional virtuoso”, he has also worked with the Ulysses Ensemble, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Welsh National Opera and Opera North. He is also a highly regarded conductor, regularly conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra, and he teaches at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Photo: – Frances Marshall

Next weekend John will be in Galway, showing off his considerable clarinet skills when he performs at the Music for Galway winter festival, titled Stanford. But how did this unorthodox French class lead to this musical career?

A fortuitous French class

John’s journey into music was not inevitable, as he did not come from a musical family. “It’s strange,” John said in our Monday afternoon interview. “My father and his brothers immigrated to London in the 1950s. They were from Limerick breeding, and there was no music on their side, and yet my uncle, Tom Finucane, became l one of the most famous lutenists in the industry. It’s funny how there have been two professional musicians in the family.

“My mother was from Liverpool. She played the piano, like her whole family, they had some basic lessons. It was pub style piano and jazz songs. She was my first teacher, but I didn’t discover classical music until many years later.

Photo: – Frances Marshall

John’s introduction to formal lessons came when he attended Willow Park in Dublin, Blackrock College’s high school, and had piano lessons with a woman called Winnifred Rankin. “It was back in the days of ruler-finger rap,” he recalls, “but I still enjoyed it.”

Then a priest, Fr. Jarlath Dowling, returned to Ireland from the missions in Mauritius. John describes him as a man defined by enthusiasm, and he was keen to make music a big part of a school where rugby was dominant.

“He started a brass quartet. The following year he was teaching French and waving a clarinet in front of the class, ”says John. “He asked, ‘Does anyone know what this is? Does anyone want to try playing it? ‘ I was the only one who raised my hand, and I was able to take her home and check it out.

John Finucane by Frances Marshall 3

Photo: – Frances Marshall

“I was very sick as a child, I was very bronchial, I often missed months of school, so I wondered if I would be able to play the clarinet. My parents asked my doctor about it and he said I had to keep playing because it might cure me well, and he did! As I played, I felt myself clear up. Even today, if I don’t exercise regularly, I feel the wheezing coming back.

The clarinet was good for John’s health, and he turned out to have a natural aptitude for the instrument. “I loved it,” he says. “One of the main things my teachers taught me was enthusiasm. I have never met someone as enthusiastic as Father Dowling, and it kept me going. When a teacher creates enthusiasm, it rubs off on the performer. A few months after starting the clarinet, I was playing Mozart, in front of the school, with Father Dowling on the piano.

An Irish composer

Photo: – Frances Marshall

When John is in Galway next weekend for the MfG Winter Festival, he will play music by Charles Villiers Stanford, the Irish composer who has written many beautiful pieces for clarinet, of which John has recorded a number on albums such as Irish Holidays and Clarinet variations.

One of the works he will perform will be Stanford’s Clarinet Sonata Op 129. How does he rate Stanford in terms of his place in classical music?

“The same as Samuel Colderidge Taylor, in that both are underrated,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that they are top composers like Beethoven and the others, but they have an identifiable style. Stanford wrote great music, with great times.

From a portrait of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

Stanford lived and worked most of his life in Britain, which resulted in him being overlooked or ignored as an Irishman. Yet any examination of Stanford’s music reveals two things – his debt to Brahms and a deeply felt sense of being Irish.

“Stanford writes with an Irish accent,” explains John. “The Clarinet Sonata Op 129, the second movement is titled ‘Caoine’, the Irish word for cry. Musically, it’s a bit like his nostalgic songs from Ireland. The music is quite Irish in a nice way, not in a Hollywood way.

“The other movements are more classical – Brahms was his hero – and in other pieces there are lush twists of Brahms, like in the violin solo of the Nonet, and the last movement is reminiscent of Brahms 4th symphony. And I’m happy to play these songs. They must be heard.

Brahms and Stanford

Stanford has composed numerous pieces for clarinet. In this he also followed the example of Brahms. What attracts John to these Stanford pieces and what do they offer the clarinetist?

Charles Villers Stanford.

“I think it’s Stanford’s ability to be melodic, there are these lovely melodic lines throughout his clarinet pieces,” he says. “Brahms wrote a lot of music towards the end of his life for the clarinet. He was inspired by the tone of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld.

“Among the pieces written by Brahms were the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet and the Two Clarinet Sonatas – four of the major works in the clarinet repertoire. Stanford dedicated a play to Mühlfeld in the hopes that he would perform it. He didn’t, so Stanford scratched the dedication and dedicated it to British clarinetist Frederick Thurston instead, and he played it.

The shows will comply with Covid-19 government guidelines and will take place at the Town Hall theater on Friday 21 and Saturday 22 at 6 p.m., and Sunday 23 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The concert at the Saint-Nicolas collegiate church is on January 22 at 2 p.m.

Tickets are available through www.musicforgalway.ie and the Town Hall Theater (www.tht.ie or 091 569777).