Music at the Abbey

The origins of the Abbey Theatre date back to 1899 when W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn founded the Irish Literary Theatre, by 1902, they were collaborating with the Fay brothers and staging new plays in various theatres. With financial support from Annie Horniman, premises were found and Abbey Theatre opened in December 1904.

Music was performed from the beginning of the theatre’s life and, in the early days, was provided by a solo violinist, Arthur Darley. However, it was the formation of a small orchestra in 1906 under the direction of G. R. Hillis that established the Abbey as a musical venue. By 1908, the orchestra was under the direction of the composer John F. Larchet who held the position for 26 years. His role involved writing incidental music for plays and ballets, in addition to directing music for the intervals. Almost every night at the Abbey saw a programme comprising overtures, individual symphonic movements and selections from operas: music that reflected popular concert and operatic musical culture in Dublin.

In 1936, Larchet’s composition student Frederick May took up the post of musical director. Under May, the programmes often included arrangements of Irish tunes. This had begun under Larchet and was maintained by all subsequent musical directors. May also provided incidental music to several plays during and beyond his tenure as musical director in which he remained until the composer Eamon Ó Gallchobhair took up the position in 1951. After the theatre burnt down, the Abbey Theatre Company settled at the Queen’s Theatre for a number of years. Ó Gallchobhair remained musical director throughout this period. His own arrangements of Irish melodies regularly featured on the programme, in addition to incidental music for several plays. Four years after taking up the post, he left and was replaced by Seán Ó Riada who retained the eclectic programming of his predecessors with opera overtures, orchestral excerpts and Irish airs performed side by side. Towards the end of 1962 Ó Riada left the theatre to take up a post at University College Cork. The orchestra continued and Pól MacCafraidh stepped in as musical director, but with rising costs and the approaching move to the newly-built theatre in 1966, it was eventually disbanded, thus marking the end of an era.

© Maria McHale