This dissertation aims to document the influence of Celticism in British music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as expressed in opera, determining the extent of its popularity and examining the philosophies that lay behind its appeal to composers and audiences alike.
The thirty-six operas discussed in the course of this dissertation are all by British-born composers, written between 1878 and 1938, with libretti based on Celtic mythology or folklore often drawn from the literature of the late nineteenth-century Celtic Renaissance.
The dissertation is arranged in three parts, the first providing an historical survey of the various manifestations of Celticism in British opera, detailing relevant works and examining literary and musical trends and the underlying musical, social and political impulses. The second part, consisting of four individual chapters, considers the stylistic attributes and influence of a selection of eight operas: Rutland Boughton's The Immortal Hour, Cyril Rootham's The Two Sisters, Granville Bantock's The Seal Woman, Josef Holbrooke's trilogy consisting of The Children of Don, Dylan, and Bronwen, and two settings of J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea, by Fritz Hart and Ralph Vaughan Williams respectively. Central to the Celtic Revival, these particular works have been studied in depth in order to provide a more comprehensive insight into the movement and the wide range of expression brought about by the distinctive talents and musical personalities of the composers involved. The main text of the dissertation concludes with the presentation and analysis of the results of these investigations.
The third part provides a catalogue of thirty-six British "Celtic" operas from 1878 to 1938, documenting details of publication, sources and performance, and giving, where possible, a brief summary of the plot.
Two complementary modes of Celticism are delineated and explored; the first arising in the 1880s and associated with Celtic Nationalism; the second emerging just before the first World War and commonly referred to as the “Celtic Twilight”, attracting composers of English birth. While Celtic Nationalist works still appear sporadically, the English Celtic Revival was at the height of its popularity in the 1920s, offering audiences a Romantic escapism, and subject matter perceived as wholly British in origin. Differences between the two modes of Celticism are established in respect of the use of folk melody or imitation of folk idioms as well as subject matter and choice of language. The English "Celtic" works, are noticeably self-conscious in the use of folk material, often exhibiting an archaic but not strikingly "Celtic" mien. These works are more preoccupied with structure and musico-dramatic considerations even to the extreme of the complications of Holbrooke's leitmotif system, moreover their audience appeal has been far greater for the absence of a political agenda, the employment of quality libretti and an accessible musical idiom well-matched to the drama.