Prolific composer and Head of Music at RTÉ

John Kinsella

Birth: April 8, 1932

Died: November 9, 2021

John Kinsella, one of Ireland’s greatest composers and former head of music at RTÉ, has died aged 89. Considered Ireland’s most prolific symphonist to date, the self-taught Dublin-born composer wrote 11 symphonies, several concertos for different instruments and a range of chamber music, which included a series of beautiful string quartets. He had started work on his 12th symphony at the time of his death.

Kinsella’s symphonic output alone is monumental, according to Séamus Crimmins, former director of RTÉ orchestras, quartets and choirs. “His deep love of music and composition has produced a lifetime of work, characterized by intense rigor, soul-searching, determination and originality,” Crimmins said.

Nocturne (1990), a piece for string orchestra recorded by the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) and released on a Contemporary Music Center recording is one of his best known works. He then produced another version for cello and orchestra, which was recorded by the ICO in 2012. More recently, Kinsella’s Una Giga Para Carlos was included on Malachy Robinson’s recording The Irish Double Bass (2021) .

Kinsella received the Marten Toonder Award for Artists in 1979 and was a founding member of Aosdána in 1981. In 2019 he received the National Concert Hall (NCH) Lifetime Achievement Award when the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performed the premiere of his 11th symphony. In an interview before this gig, he said: “As I get older, my music seems to get faster or more obsessed with speed, continuity and surprises…I still think that, apart from anything else, music should be entertainment or should intrigue people in some way.

John Kinsella grew up in Inchicore, Dublin, the younger brother of poet Thomas Kinsella. He credited his early introduction to music to his father, who bought him miniature sheet music before he could even read music. Throughout his long life he built up a library of scores to follow while listening to the associated works.

As a teenager in the 1940s, he entered his first composition for RTÉ’s Carolan Prize. He studied viola at the College of Music (now TU Dublin Conservatoire of Music and Drama) and briefly took composition lessons with composer and arranger Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair. But it was not until the late 1950s that he began to compose regularly, and in the 1960s he had a number of works accepted for performance by RTÉ ensembles.

These included two string quartets, a chamber concerto, Two Pieces for String Orchestra and Montage II for orchestra. This group of works – which embraced serialism in the European avant-garde musical genre – culminated in the 1973 performance of his large-scale choral and orchestral work, A Selected Life, based on a series of poems written by his brother, Thomas Kinsella, about the recently deceased Irish traditional music composer and arranger, Seán Ó Riada.

Job Player Wills

In 1968 Kinsella gave up his job as a computer programmer at the Player Wills tobacco company in Dublin to work as a senior assistant in the music department at RTÉ. His work at RTÉ brought him to the annual Unesco Composers’ Rostrum in Paris, which exposed him to a wide range of contemporary compositions. During this time, he began to lose interest in the so-called “international” style of composition that emerged from serialism.

Following the death of his first wife, Bridget O’Neill (with whom he had four children) in 1977, he stopped composing for 18 months.

He married the violinist Thérèse Timoney in 1978. The family settled in Rathfarnham in Dublin where their two children were born. In 1979 Kinsella returned to composition with a more independent style for The Wayfarer: Rhapsody on a Poem of PH Pearse, commissioned by the government to mark the centenary of Pearse’s birth.

Kinsella became head of music at RTÉ in 1983 and the following year he composed his Symphony No. 1. He decided to devote himself to composition full time following a commission to write a piece for the new RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartet to be included in a Wigmore Hall recital to mark their victory in the prestigious Portsmouth String Quartet Competition.

He composed the piece over four days while staying at the Tyrone Guthie Center for artists in Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan. A year later, in 1988, he left RTÉ and went on to write another 10 symphonies, two concertos, another string quartet and numerous solo and chamber works. He has often cited Finnish composer Jean Sibelius as one of his greatest inspirations.

A quiet, witty family man, Kinsella did not court publicity after leaving RTÉ. He did, however, serve on the NCH Board for a time and was a member of the group that produced the PIANO (Provision and Institutional Arrangements Now for Orchestras and Ensembles) report in 1996.

music education

He was a firm believer that musical education should begin in early childhood, having seen very young children learn to play instruments in Finnish preschools. “Music must have a fundamental place in our educational system for all children from an early age, just like language,” he said.

He always had an interest in chess and a fascination with World War II, which stemmed from childhood memories of wearing gas masks and being in air-raid shelters when his family lived in Manchester for a short period during the war.

In an interview at the NCH Lifetime Achievement Award reception, he was asked what advice he had for budding songwriters. He replied, “The financial rewards in comping are such that in the vast majority of cases another source of income will be required.” However, he added, “Never deny your true creative impulses because they will most likely continue to haunt you.” Musicologist Séamas de Barra will publish a book on the works of John Kinsella later this year.

John Kinsella is survived by his wife Thérèse Timoney, his children Paul, Una, Finbar, Gráinne, Aisling and Aoife, and five grandchildren. His first wife, Bridgit O’Neill, died in 1977 and his brother, Thomas, died in December 2021.

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