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John Kinsella obituary: Prolific composer and head of music at RTÉ

John Kinsella, one of Ireland’s most celebrated composers and a former head of music at RTÉ, has died at the age of 89, according to his family. The Dublin-born, self-taught composer is widely regarded as the most productive Irish symphonist to date, having written 11 symphonies, several concertos for various instruments, and a variety of chamber music, including a series of excellent string quartets, among other works. When he died, he had just begun work on his 12th symphony, which would have been his last.

The sheer volume of Kinsella’s symphonic work, according to Séamus Crimmins, former director of RTÉ Orchestras, Quartet, and Choirs, is enormous in itself. As Crimmins put it, “His genuine love of music and composition resulted in a lifetime’s worth of works that were distinguished by intense rigour, self-examination, single-mindedness, and originality.”

It was the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) that recorded Nocturne (1990), a piece for string orchestra that was later issued on a Contemporary Music Centre disc, that made him famous. Nocturne is one of his most well-known pieces. Later, he created a new version for cello and orchestra, which was recorded by the International Chamber Orchestra in 2012. Una Giga Para Carlos, composed by Kinsella and recorded by Malachy Robinson, was included on the latter’s recording, The Irish Double Bass (2021).

Kinsella was awarded the Marten Toonder Award for artists in 1979, and he was a founder member of Aosdána in 1981, when the organisation was founded. When the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performed the premiere of his 11th symphony in the National Concert Hall (NCH) in 2019, he was presented with the National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award. “As I get older, my music seems to get quicker or more consumed with speed and continuity and surprises…,” he remarked in an interview conducted in advance of the show. Always believe that music should be entertaining and should pique the interest of listeners in some way or another, regardless of its other purposes.”

John Kinsella, the younger brother of poet Thomas Kinsella, grew up in Inchicore, Dublin, where he was educated. He credits his father with introducing him to music at a young age, when he purchased him small scores before he could even read.
In the 1940s, while he was a youngster, he entered his first composition for the Carolan Prize, which was sponsored by RTÉ. He studied viola at the College of Music (now known as the TU Dublin Conservatoire of Music and Drama), and he briefly studied composition with composer and arranger Éamonn Gallchobhair, who later became his mentor. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the end of the 1950s that he began to compose consistently, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that he had several works accepted for performance by RTÉ ensembles that his work became well-known.

Two string quartets, a chamber concerto, Two Pieces for String Orchestra, and Montage II for orchestra were among the works on the programme. In 1973, he performed A Selected Life, a large-scale choral and orchestral work based on a series of poems written by his brother Thomas Kinsella about the then-recently deceased composer and arranger of traditional Irish music, Seán Riada, which was the culmination of this group of works, which embraced serialism within the European avant-garde music genre.

Job performed by the player
Kinsella left his employment as a computer programmer at the Player Wills tobacco firm in Dublin in 1968 to work as a senior assistant in the RTÉ music department. Kinsella was born in Dublin and grew up in the city. Through his work at the Irish Broadcasting Corporation (RTÉ), he was invited to the annual Unesco Rostrum of Composers in Paris, where he was exposed to a wide spectrum current composition. The so-called “International” style of composition, which was emerging from serialism at this point, began to pique his interest, and he gradually drifted away.

Following the death of his first wife, Bridget O’Neill (with whom he had four children), in 1977, he took an 18-month hiatus from composition to grieve.

In 1978, he tied the knot with violinist Therese Timoney. Rathfarnham in Dublin was the family’s new home, and it was here that their two children were born. In 1979, Kinsella returned to writing with a more independent approach for The Wayfarer: Rhapsody on a Poem of P.H. Pearse, which was commissioned by the government to commemorate the centennial of Pearse’s birth. Kinsella’s music was performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
The following year, Kinsella was appointed head of music at RTÉ, and the following year, he completed his Symphony No. 1. Following a commission to write a piece for the newly appointed RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartet for inclusion in a Wigmore Hall recital to commemorate their victory at the prestigious Portsmouth String Quartet competition, he made the decision to devote his time exclusively to composition. He now lives in London.

Over the course of four days, while staying at the Tyrone Guthie Centre for artists in Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan, he worked on the composition. RTÉ fired him one year later in 1988. He went on to compose 10 additional symphonies, two concertos, another string quartet, and a number of other solo and chamber works over his career. He frequently referred to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius as one of his major influences.

Known as a gentle, funny family man, Kinsella avoided the limelight after his departure from RTÉ. He did, however, serve on the board of the National Chamber Music Society for a period of time and was a member of the panel that produced the PIANO (Provision and Institutional Arrangements Now for Orchestras and Ensembles) study in 1996, which was published by the NCH.

Education in the performing arts
Due to his personal experience with very young children learning to play instruments in Finnish playschools, he is a strong believer that musical instruction should begin in early childhood. According to him, “music and language should both have a crucial position in our educational system for all students from the very beginning,” just as they do for language.

During the Second World War, he developed a lifetime love in chess and developed a fascination for the period because of boyhood recollections of wearing gas masks and staying in air-raid shelters while his family stayed in Manchester for a brief period of time during the war.

In an interview following his acceptance of the NCH Lifetime Achievement Award, he was asked for tips on how to become a successful composer. “The financial benefits in composition are such that, in the vast majority of situations, another source of income will be required,” he responded. “Never, under any circumstances, suppress your actual creative urges because they will, more than likely, come back to haunt you.” Séamas de Barra, a musicologist, will publish a book on the works of John Kinsella in the near future.
In addition to his wife Therese Timoney, John Kinsella is survived by his children Paul and Una Kinsella, Finbar and Gráinne Kinsella, and Aisling and Aoife Kinsella, as well as five grandchildren. Thomas O’Neill, his first wife, died in 1977, and Bridgit O’Neill died in December 2021, the same year as his brother Thomas. later on in the year birth.listen to music. Throughout his lengthy life, he amassed a collection of scores that he could use to follow along with while listening to the linked works.