Joan Trimble (1915 - 2000):
Joan Trimble was one of the most distinguished musicians to come from Ulster in the twentieth century, and was a veritable musical all-rounder: composer, executant and pedagogue. She has been described as the doyenne of Irish composers; with her sister she formed a piano duo who were household names in the mid-twentieth century. She also took over the direction of the family business, publishing a prominent local newspaper.
Trimble was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, daughter of William Egbert Trimble, proprietor of one of Ulster’s best-known and successful regional newspapers, the Impartial Reporter, and Mary Dowse, from Dublin, an accomplished violinist from a musical family of which all eleven children attended the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM). Mr Trimble, apart from his newspaper activities at the reporter, in which he was the representative of the third generation of his family, was himself a keen and talented musician, especially singer, winning gold medals at local festivals. Her parents were encouraging of Joan and her younger sister Valerie, so that both girls brew up in very musical milieu: music-making at home, at school, with trips to Dublin for lessons. Joan attended Enniskillen Royal School for girls, of which she was the first Head Girl, and in 1931 she and her sister commenced studies at the RIAM , studying with Annie Lord and Claude Biggs for piano. Joan also studied composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music from 1930 with John F Larchet, meanwhile winning a scholarship to the University of Dublin where she graduated BA in 1936, the following year achieving an external MusB.
In 1936 she toured with Count John McCormack, the legendary tenor (his title was not hereditary but a personal title bestowed by the Vatican; Trimble was not his accompanist but performed solo) before moving to London to join her sister at the Royal College of Music, where they studied composition with Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams, two of England’s leading composers. They also studied piano with Arthur Benjamin, another all-round musician whose best-known composition, the four-hand “Jamaican Rumba”, was written for the Trimble sisters to play at their debut as a performing piano duo, a move suggested by Benjamin; they would always use the piece as their musical carte de visite (Benjamin also received from the Jamaican government a free barrel of rum a year for his contribution to making the country better known). That was 1938, the year of her first published compositions: songs and some music for piano duo which were also performed at the sisters’ debut. Joan’s music included “Buttermilk Point”, a reel for four hands/two pianos, which became one of her best-known compositions, still popular all over the world. The sisters toured widely for decades after that, starting of course in wartime, appearing at the celebrated National Gallery lunchtime concert series organised by Dame Myra Hess (one of the country’s leading pianists who often appeared herself as soloist) and the Gallery’s Director, the famed art curator and historian Sir Kenneth Clark. The sisters worked as volunteer nurses for the Red Cross, but besides this and their music, they also found time to get married, Joan in 1942 to a Royal Army Medical Corps officer Valerie in 1945 to a musician.
Musically, the sisters continued to be busy. They debuted at the celebrated Proms concerts in 1943, and broadcast on the BBC, for the series, “Tuesday Serenade”, which had initially been envisaged as a short run but lasted decades. The Trimbles performed weekly on the programme, with their extensive repertoire including Arnold Cooke (the prolific English composer and pupil of Paul Hindemith), Dallapiccola, another twentieth-century composer), and Stravinsky. They premièred the two-piano concertos of Arthur Bliss and Lennox Berkeley, and in the early 1950s gave the British première of one of Mendelssohn’s concertos for two pianos, that in A flat, whose original première had been given by the composer along with Carl Loewe, the German musician remembered today for his Balladen. (In a story of Cold War intrigue, Mendelssohn seemingly shelved the piece after only two performances, the only public one of which took place in Stettin in 1827; the parts ended up in a library there, and in the early 1950s Western books were smuggled into East Berlin in return for the parts.)
A notable milestone in her career as a composer came in 1957, when the BBC commissioned from her an opera, Blind Raftery, about a wandering Irish bard in the 17th century. This was the first new opera ever to be broadcast on BBC television. It nearly wasn’t, as Joan Trimble only just met the deadline – not at all her fault as it was brought forward rather late in the day.
In 1967, on the death of her father, Joan became managing director of the family firm, which owned the Impartial Reporter, thus keeping the concern firmly in the family. Joan was an active managing director, and regularly commuted between London and Enniskillen. She was not only a managing director; she also wrote for the paper, notably the column “150 years ago”, devoted to the history of the district. This involvement with journalism may have been the reason for the seeming decline in her activities as a composer; but she was certainly not finished in this regard, and in 1990 accepted a commission from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which resulted in a new composition, a wind quintet, esteemed as her first major composition since 1957 and Blind Raftery.
Joan Trimble died aged 85 in 2000, having outlived her sister by some 20 years; she outlived her husband by a mere two weeks. He had been ill for quite some time, but was well cared for by Joan, at home in Enniskillen. In 2002, mindful of her lifelong ties with and affection for Enniskillen and Fermanagh, the Joan Trimble Awards Scheme was instituted, with the aim of supporting creative arts projects for young people in County Fermanagh, mostly through schools. In 2012 Fermanagh County Museum held an exhibition, “Buttermilk Point: The Musical Life of Joan Trimble (1915-2000)”.
In 1953 she was awarded the Radio Eireann Centenary Prize for How dear to me the hour when daylight dies, for voice and orchestra, and in 1990 she wrote Three Diversions for Wind Quintet, an Arts Council of Northern Ireland commission for her 75th birthday.
The authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians writes of her music:
“An Irish idiom informs her distinctive style, giving it both a rhythmic and rhapsodic quality. Her compositions also convey something of the colour and clarity of French music.”
She herself stated:
“I have always written music ‘subject to neither schools nor period’. As a performer-composer, communication with the listener is essential and response follows. Shape and form, rhythm and clarity, as well as freedom of expression, are all important. I am free to be myself, regardless of fashion.”
|Born:||18 June 1915|
|Died:||6 August 2000|
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography (for quotation from Joan Trimble); obituary, Daily Telegraph 12.8.00; obituary, The Guardian; The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn, Peter Mercer-Taylor (ed.); R Larry Todd: Mendelssohn: A Life in Music; Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition, Stanley Sadie (ed), vol 25, page 736 (Macmillan, 2001; a complete list of her compositions is available here); private information
© 2023 Ulster History Circle