In a timely commemoration at the NCH earlier this month the RTÉ NSO, under the assiduous direction of Belfast-born Kenneth Montgomery, celebrated the centenary of composer AJ Potter.
In a riveting performance of his sinfonia de Profundis in a new edition by his amanuensis Sarah Burn, the work refocused attention on someone whom the late RTÉ music producer Venetia O’Sullivan called “an extraordinary man of versatility and imagination”.
AJ (Archibald James but more affectionately known as Archie) Potter was born into a Belfast musical Presbyterian family on September 22, 1918. His blind father was a church organist and piano tuner but the family had its own problems leading to Archie being reared by relatives in Kent.
Scholarships took him into the prestigious choir school of All Saints’ Church in London and to Clifton College, Bristol as an organ scholar. Another took him to London’s Royal College of Music where his composition teacher was the revered Ralph Vaughan Williams and where he won a coveted Cobbett prize for chamber music.
World War II interfered with Potter’s studies and he served in the army in the Far East. On being demobbed he worked for the United Africa Company, a subsidiary of Unilever, in Nigeria. However, the call to music prevailed and Potter came to Dublin. Appointed a Lay Vicar Choral in St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1951, he studied at TCD receiving his doctorate in 1953.
By this time Potter’s compositions were coming under critical scrutiny and he was awarded Radio Éireann’s Carolan Prize in both 1952 and 1953 for his Rhapsody under a High Sky: Overture to a Kitchen Comedy and Concerto da Chiesa – a work for piano and orchestra. A superb theorist and academician, he taught composition at the RIAM for many years from 1955.
But Potter was himself a prolific composer with his music “direct and entertaining, however serious and profound his thought”. His interest in theatre led to a number of ballet scores including Careless Love – a collaboration with writer Donagh MacDonagh. Highly regarded, it was also one of Potter’s own favourite works.
There are also two operas; the first Patrick (nothing to do with our national saint) was another partnership with Donagh MacDonagh. An RTÉ commission, it was screened on Telefís Éireann on March 17, 1965, with Edwin Fitzgibbon and Bernadette Greevy. The second, and far more successful, T-he Wedding had its Abbey Theatre première in June 1981, almost a year after the composer’s death on July 5, 1980.
Among his sacred music Potter’s setting of the Hail Mary honoured the 21st birthday of Our Lady’s Choral Society in 1966. Sarah Burn tells me it is not an intimate interpretation of the Annunciation but rather a depiction of how the composer felt about the event and its magnitude.
The five-movement sinfonia de Profundis, one of Potter’s most personal works, concerns his struggles with alcoholism and his thanksgiving for deliverance. The NCH performance showed the solid strength of music than can be severe and frightening as well as temperate and triumphant.
- Away from Potter, Handel’s Messiah returns to Knock Shrine on Saturday November 3 with Our Lady’s Choral Society, local choirs and RTÉCO under Proinnsias Ó Duinn. Tickets on line: www.knockmessiah.com or at the Basilica Information Office.