2015 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of composer James Wilson. It is also the fiftieth anniversary of the first performance of his children’s opera The Hunting of the Snark, which was be the major turning point in Wilson’s career.
Wilson was born in London in 1922 and, after a period working in the Admiralty, served during the Second World War on a destroyer in the Arctic. After the War he studied composition for a time at Trinity College London with Alec Rowley before relocating to Dublin to live with his partner John Campbell who had been commander of Aegean Raiding Forces during the War. After a two-year period spent sailing around the Mediterranean with Campbell, Wilson turned seriously to the task of establishing himself as a composer, but it was not until the mid 1960s that he finally managed to make a breakthrough with his Lewis Carroll opera. Over the next forty years Wilson was to become a central figure in Irish musical life, not only through his compositions but also through his involvement in such organisations as the Music Association of Ireland, the Association of Irish Composers and the Performing Rights Society. He was one of the eight composers nominated to Aosdána upon its foundation in 1981. His influence lives on via the many composers he taught in the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Ennis Composition Summer School.
Wilson bequeathed his papers to Trinity College Library; the collection contains the manuscripts of all his surviving compositions as well as correspondence with a range of artists from around the world, papers relating to his involvement in various musical organisations and programmes for the premieres of his compositions. The collection also contains the detailed war memoirs of John Campbell and papers relating to the Campbell family of Co. Sligo.
The Life and Music of James Wilson (Cork University Press) is the title of a new biography of Wilson which is being launched on 13 May 2015 in the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, Chatham Row, Dublin 2. This is the first full-length study of this important cultural figure, who produced such wonderful work at a time when musicians faced considerable difficulty in having works performed or published. It also addresses the wider issue of recognising the contribution of composers to Ireland’s cultural heritage generally. All are welcome to this celebration of Wilson’s life and work and all are encouraged to avail of a reduced launch-night price for the book of €30.
Dr Mark Fitzgerald
DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama