Seán Ó Riada was the founder of the modern school (which is to say, the authentic ancient style of playing) of Irish folk music and, equally important, a vital nationalistic voice in the orchestral music of Ireland. Best known today as a composer, he was also present at the recording of the first album by the Chieftains, and founded the folk chamber orchestra Ceoltoiri Cualann, Paddy Moloney's group before forming the Chieftains.
Seán Ó Riada (or John Reidy, in English) was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1931, and attended University College, Cork. He received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1952, and served as assistant music director for Radio Eireann in 1954 and 1955. In 1955, he became the music director of the Abbey Theater in Dublin, a post he held until 1962. The following year, he became a lecturer at University College, Cork, a post he held until his death in 1971. During this period, he composed prolifically in all areas, including music for plays, two ballets, various orchestral suites and symphonic pieces, several choral works, masses, chamber pieces, and piano works, and three notable pieces of film music.
Among his generation of Irish composers, Ó Riada was the most deeply involved with traditional Irish music. Curiously, however, most of his works for the concert hall utilized no folk material, and some of it -- most notably Nomos No. 1, is a contrapuntal piece that uses 12-tone ("serialist") technique. Nomos No. 2 utilizes a text drawn from Sophocles' Theban plays in its reflections on life and death and the history of music, and includes a quotation from Mozart's Symphony No. 41. Ó Riada was just as likely to look back to Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms as to his own nation's musical heritage.
Ó Riada also prepared numerous arrangements of traditional Irish songs, and in the late '50s he organized Ceoltoiri Cualann, a folk chamber orchestra whose membership consisted of the best traditional musicians in Ireland. Ó Riada's group performed Irish folk music stripped of all its then-typical pop inflections and sentimentality. The earliest versions of the melodies and dances served as the source material, and the group played them with a natural lilt and an abandon that came from deep within the music's origins; the airs, in particular, stripped of their modern inflections, came across with even greater poignancy than anyone had recognized in them in decades. It was out of this group that Paddy Moloney formed the Chieftains in the early '60s, a smaller, more flexible ensemble that eventually brought this new/old vision of Irish music to the world. Ó Riada was with the Chieftains on their first album, and some three years after his death, his composition "Women of Ireland," as used in the 1974 Stanley Kubrick movie Barry Lyndon, broke the group in America, garnering considerable radio play and network television time for them. His own film scores included the music for three documentaries -- I Am Ireland, Freedom, and The Living Fire -- and Brian Desmond Hurst's 1962 feature film, Playboy of the Western World.
Ó Riada's other great contribution to Irish folk music lay in the realm of orchestral composition. While England had composers such as Gustav Holst, George Butterworth, and, most important, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who used English folk music as the basis for some of their most successful orchestral compositions, Irish music never quite achieved the same degree of prominence as a source for serious orchestral music -- not until Ó Riada came along. Although his most serious compositions drew from German and Austrian inspirations, he also took up authentic Irish music as a basis for composition in several of his works, and ended up doing for Irish folk music what Vaughan Williams did for English music. His work has been compared to that of Gustav Mahler, for his ability to paint orchestral pictures with rich colors and sparse austerity, and also to Sibelius in its nationalist sentiments.