Ó Riada, Seán (John Reidy) (1931–71), composer, was born John Reidy on 1 August 1931 in Cork city, the first child of Seán and Julia Reidy (née Creedon). A second child, Louise, was born in 1935. His father, from west Clare, was a member of the Garda Síochána, and was an amateur musician and traditional player. His mother was from west Cork, and was also a talented traditional musician. He was educated by the Christian Brothers at Adare, Co. Limerick, and at University College Cork, where he read classics and music (B.Mus., 1952). He also studied music with Aloys Fleischmann (senior), to whose memory he dedicated a short song-cycle in 1964. At UCC his professor, Aloys Fleischmann (qv), recognised Ó Riada's exceptional abilities but deplored his want of application. During his university years Ó Riada acquired much experience as a performer and arranger of dance music. He became friendly with the poet Seán Lucy (1931–2001) (afterwards professor of English at UCC), and partly through Lucy's influence immersed himself in contemporary European literature and the writings of James Joyce (qv). In the same period he evinced an interest in European musical modernism and showed an awareness of the compositional techniques of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.
In 1953 Ó Riada was appointed assistant director of music at Radio Éireann, and in the same year he married Ruth Coghlan, with whom he was to have seven children. He spent part of 1955 in Paris, where he may have come under the influence of Messiaen, but he did not undertake any formal study there. Although most of Ó Riada's surviving compositions postdate his appointment to Radio Éireann, his friendship with Arthur Duff (qv) and Gerard Victory (qv) (both of whom worked there) undoubtedly fortified his ambition to become a professional composer. He nevertheless resigned his position in Radio Éireann in March 1955, and in July of that year Ernest Blythe (qv) appointed him as director of music at the Abbey Theatre, where he was to remain until 1962. He wrote and arranged much incidental music for plays and directed the small pit orchestra at the Abbey (then housed in the Queen's Theatre). Although much of the repertory was drawn from the European tradition, Ó Riada began to employ traditional instruments for the annual Gaelic pantomime and for plays in Irish at the theatre, and in 1961, during the Dublin Theatre Festival, he presented Ceoltóirí Cualann – his ensemble of traditional Irish instrumentalists, singers, and harpsichord – for the first time. In the autumn of 1963 Ó Riada accepted a post as Cork corporation lecturer in music at UCC, and moved with his family to Cúl Aodha, in west Cork. Despite the apparent isolation which this entailed (and the criticism which this wholesale removal stimulated among his professional colleagues), Ó Riada travelled frequently to Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland as a professional musician, and he maintained close contacts with literary as well as musical figures, including Thomas Kinsella and Seamus Heaney.
Throughout his career, Ó Riada explored virtually every medium of musical life in Ireland: he worked extensively as a broadcaster of traditional music; he wrote music for television and film documentaries; he received commissions for orchestral and chamber compositions; he composed liturgical settings of the mass ordinary in Irish; and he wrote or arranged traditional music for a host of domestic and formal settings, which ranged from private houses in west Cork to the Gaiety Theatre and UCD. In the first phase of his career (1955–65) he entered a decisive claim for the significance of an emancipated art music in modern Ireland unrelated to the traditional repertory which he was subsequently to espouse so completely. He later abandoned this claim in a crisis that was both artistic and personal, with the result that formal composition became for him a marginal activity. In his symphonic essays and his music for film, and in his cultivation of an original ensemble of instruments dedicated to Irish traditional music, he meditated on the question of voice and style in Irish music to such an extent that each overlapping phase of his compositional career tended to undermine its predecessor. His early works, including Nomos no. 1, Hercules Dux Ferrariae (1957), and Nomos no. 2 (1965), confirm a preoccupation with the textures and techniques of the European classical tradition wholly removed from the traditional repertory that was to dominate his later career. These works (and the six variously scored Nomoi as a whole) are strongly suggestive of the influence of the Irish composer Frederick May (qv), whose Songs from prison (1958) establishes a vital precedent for Nomos no. 2 in terms of orchestral technique and harmonic vocabulary. Ó Riada's deployment of serialism, variation technique, and vocal-orchestral texture is notably adept, notwithstanding the somewhat bombastic premise of the second Nomos, which attempts to gloss the history of European music as a whole.
The film scores commissioned from Ó Riada by Gael Linn predominate in the second, overlapping phase of his career (1959–68), and they reflect, sometimes with extraordinary vehemence, the composer's efforts to reconcile the ‘heritage’ of traditional Irish music with ‘the idiom of an Irish symphonic period that had never happened’ (Louis Marcus). However unfair this brilliant formulation may be to the symphonies of C. V. Stanford (qv) in particular, Marcus correctly identifies the vital (and novel) impact which the composer's orchestral writing had on films such as Mise Éire (1959), Saoirse? (1960), and An Tine Bheo (1966). Mise Éire especially earned Ó Riada a degree of fame hitherto unequalled by an Irish composer in the twentieth century, and more specifically defined an idea of Irish art music that would continue to exert a formative influence in the twenty-first century. The films themselves, however, reflected a nationalism that would be radically redefined by the Northern Ireland crisis which erupted in the late 1960s, and although the composer expressed in private an aggressive response to that crisis when it occurred, he had by 1966 already declared himself ‘over-exposed’ to the nationalism which he was expected to glorify in An Tine Bheo. By this time, too, he had firmly repudiated any further notion of reconciliation between European (art) and Irish (ethnic) traditions in a series of lectures broadcast (and subsequently published) as Our musical heritage (1965; 1982). ‘The first thing to note about Irish music, obviously, is that it is not European’, Ó Riada asserted in Our musical heritage, in which he went on to declare Nomos no. 2 as his ‘farewell’ to European art music. By the mid-sixties, having exchanged ‘John Reidy’ for ‘Seán Ó Riada’ (the form by which he customarily signed himself from 1962), the English language for the Irish language, and European art music for Irish traditional music, he completed this transformation with the exchange of orchestral resources and formal composition for Ceoltóirí Cualann, to which the greater part of his creative energies was devoted until the last year of his life.
Ó Riada's arrangements, recordings, and performances with this ensemble comprise the third phase of his career (once again overlapping the previous two). He announced his intentions of disbanding the ensemble in 1970 on the occasion of the launch by Claddagh Records of Vertical man (a recording of his European works which featured the New Irish Chamber Orchestra), but between 1961 and 1969 his work with Ceoltóirí Cualann permanently altered the complexion and sound of traditional Irish music.
Although it would be incorrect to underestimate the contribution of other musicians associated with Gael Linn in the formation of this ensemble (notably Éamonn de Buitléar, Sean Potts, Paddy Moloney, and Martin Fay), it was unquestionably Ó Riada's imaginative drive and (occasionally ruthless) artistry which determined Ceoltóirí Cualann's collective personality and textural identity. The ‘folk orchestra’ (with its unmistakable roots in baroque chamber music) which the composer assembled entailed an entirely novel approach to the traditional repertory, even if Ó Riada himself was doubtless aware of the proximity of Ceoltóirí Cualann to the céilí band tradition, from which indeed it partly derived. The final recording which he made with Ceoltóirí Cualann, Ó Riada sa Gaiety (1969), testifies to the remarkable transformation of the tradition which Ó Riada had effected in eight years, whereby the rudimentary textures of Irish music played in unison to elementary accompanimental patterns, gave way to the integrated textures, novel instrumentation, and virtuoso finesse of Ceoltóirí Cualann.
Ó Riada's increasing interest in the music of Carolan towards the end of his life coincided with his waning commitment to Ceoltóirí Cualann. His wilful and difficult temperament (exemplified by several episodes involving the ensemble and the film company which he had established in the mid 1960s) made it increasingly difficult for him to sustain a working relationship with professional colleagues. Although he continued to work with traditional Irish musicians, notably in performances of liturgical as well as secular music, his last recordings can fairly be taken as the fourth and final phase of his career insofar as they suggest a revived attempt to create an inherently Irish art music. The harpsichord improvisations on Ó Riada's farewell (1970), however, are the work of a broken man.
Although he promised to become the first Irish composer of truly international significance, Ó Riada's failure as an artist – in ironic contrast to the prestige which he enjoyed among an Irish cultural elite indifferent to European music – is sharply expressive of that fundamental tension between colonial and ethnic ideologies of music in Ireland which he himself so stringently tested throughout his life. His sometimes extensive pronouncements on Irish and European music – a lifelong habit which found its most ferocious expression in Our musical heritage – tended only to exacerbate the difficulties which he sought to supervene. It is fair to say that the success which he enjoyed as a national figure was intimately tied to his brilliant redeployment of traditional Irish melodies as an orchestrator, and more notably still as a performer and arranger, with Ceoltóirí Cualann. Although his legacy in these respects is a distinguished one (not least with regard to The Chieftains), the crisis of modernism in Irish music which he so compellingly identified has yet to be resolved.
Ó Riada became seriously ill in the summer of 1971 and was hospitalised in Cork. He died 3 October 1971 in London.