Peter Whelan, Ensemble Marsyas, and the soundscape of 18th-century Dublin | Interview

One of the most engaging of the current generation of Irish early-music players, Peter Whelan returns to Dublin in June with his Edinburgh-based group Ensemble Marsyas. Principal bassoonist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since 2008, he is familiar to Dublin audiences from his work with the Irish Baroque Orchestra. Also in demand as both a soloist and chamber musician, Peter won a Gramophone award in 2010 for his recording of Vivaldi bassoon concertos with the group La Serenissima.

With Ensemble Marsyas, he’s already released a recording of trio sonatas by Jan Dismas Zelenka, in 2012, with a new recording of Handel's Apollo and Daphne in the pipeline. As Whelan explains, like many groups, Marsyas (named after the wind-player of Greek myth) grew out of the collaborative environment of the conservatory: “Ensemble Marsyas was formed following my graduation from the Schola Cantorum in Basel as an attempt to continue playing with some of my fellow students and in order to tackle some of the virtuosic and largely ignored 18th century repertoire for wind instruments – wonderful music by little known composers such as Fasch and Zelenka. Ours was perhaps the first generation of musicians who were keen to break down the barriers between the 'modern' and 'baroque' music worlds, combining a respectful curiosity for music from the baroque era with the advanced technical abilities gleaned from the training on the modern instrument.”

Enemble Marsyas

The group’s concert in Dublin last year applied this approach to the Irish capital’s own past, presenting music by Bach alongside that of Handel, Geminiani and the relatively-unknown Flemish composer Pierre Van Maldere – with possibly two of the first symphonies composed and performed in Ireland. Asked what led him to programme this music, Whelan reflects on his own experiences as a student here. “Growing up in Dublin, I had always been fascinated by the historical musical landmarks of city: Fishamble Street, St. Werburgh's Church, the two cathedrals and the chapels at Dublin Castle and Trinity College Dublin (where I spent two years as a choral scholar). It was while trawling through Brian Boydell's inspirational 'Musical Calendar' that I first noticed Van Maldere's name in a footnote. We are lucky to live in a time of easy access to an abundance of historic sources online. It didn't take long to track down these charming little works, which were most likely composed in Dublin while Van Maldere was here.

“These symphonies feel very fresh and forward-looking for their time, boldly pointing in the direction of the classical symphonies that would later be composed by Haydn and Mozart. In order to put these works into context I programmed them beside works by Handel and Geminiani which would have been performed on the Dublin concert circuit of the time (Handel having visited the city only ten years beforehand). It was an interesting experiment and demonstrated 18th century Dublin audiences’ openness to musical fashions and trends from the European mainland, and not just that imported from London.”

As a performer, Peter’s perspective on the historical performance repertoire is coloured by his own research and also a sense of curiosity about the past, wanting to encourage others to look beyond conventional views of the past: “When it comes to studying musical life in 18th century Dublin, research is a labour of love and our discoveries so far constitute only the tip of a potentially enormous iceberg. Whilst Handel's Messiah was a pinnacle of musical achievement, I worry that this single event has eclipsed much else of interest. Dublin was the second largest city in these islands at the time and was hugely cosmopolitan and it is becoming increasing obvious that the city had its own tastes and traditions, separate from those imported from England.

"One of the big problems for researchers is the lack of access to the enormous quantity of uncatalogued 18th century music at the National Library of Ireland. Chronic understaffing, coupled with political unpopularity of non-traditional Irish music (perceived to be associated with the British colonisation of Ireland), may be to blame. As an analogy, just as the liturgical works of Bach and Monteverdi can nowadays be enjoyed without the necessity of faith, when it comes to recovering forgotten Irish music we should remember that despite the context of its composition this was an integral part of the soundscape of the city and could add colour to our current sense of identity and heritage.”

This summer, Ensemble Marsyas give two concerts in Dublin as part of the Great Music in Irish Houses Festival. As well as an all-Handel programme at Castletown House on June 13, the group’s return to the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle (on June 12) sees them delve even further into Dublin’s musical history. “With support from the Arts Council we will be performing a newly recovered work called The Applause of Mount Parnassus by Johann Sigismund Cousser (1660-1727). The sung text (published separately) was long known to exist, but the musical score was only recently discovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is a ‘Serenata da Camera’ or short chamber opera, written for the birthday celebrations of Queen Anne at Dublin Castle in 1711.” With a story featuring the god Apollo and his nine muses, the ensemble will be joined by soloists Mhairi Lawson, Anna Reinhold and Reinoud van Mechelen along with young singers from Irish Youth Opera.

Cousser (or Kusser) is himself a curious figure in Dublin’s musical history, based there from 1707 until his death 20 years later. As Whelan describes him, “Cousser is an excellent example of a cosmopolitan figure living in 18th century Dublin. Born in what is now Bratislava, he spent time studying the French style with Lully at Versailles before travelling across Germany composing Italian Opera for German audiences. In Dublin he became Master of Musick at Dublin Castle and he was expected to write Birthday Odes for the reigning monarch as well as music for other festive occasions. In 'The Applause of Mount Parnassus', Cousser shows his full palette of international musical colours: a French style overture (with perhaps some Irish influence in the gig-like fast section), a grand chorus on a ground bass similar in style to Purcell, and Italianate solo violin writing.”

Marsyas Poster

Friday 12 June, 1.00pm

Ensemble Marsyas, directed by Peter Whelan, presents The Universal Applause of Mount Parnassus by Johann Sigismond Cousser, at Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle

Tickets: €10 available from National Concert Hall Box Office, 01-4170000 or

 Presented in association with the KBC Great Music in Irish Houses Festival