Reproduced in tribute to the late composer Eric Sweeney, this interview was first published in the Waterford News & Star in December 2018
I’M in Eric Sweeney’s kitchen in a house with views of Knockenduff to die for and I have to admit that I’m surprised when he tells me that he too was a Beatles fan. So I suppose it’s only fitting to describe his story as a continuing magical musical mystery tour.
There’s a sort of Sound of Music, ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ feel to our interview as he brings me back to his paternal grandfather – a steam tram driver on the Blessington Tram – who played traditional music, and his maternal grandmother who grew up in the Liberties. And who simply loved music.
‘I suspect Eric Sweeney came into the world with a wail in C Major’
Without a penny to her name, her first purchase when she married was a piano on which she was able to pick out tunes. Her son later became Director of Music with BBC Northern Ireland.
I suspect Eric Sweeney came into the world with a wail in C Major. “I was a choirboy,” he fondly remembers, “at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and started learning the organ there at the age of 10.” It was a musical training and discipline that stamped a life of hard work and dedication. Music for those in choir was everywhere; rehearsals every morning before school, matins at 10, evensong at 4 and helping out as organist when required.
In a time when money was scarce, Eric admits to have been lucky. “I got a choral scholarship to Trinity and a few gigs at weddings and some teaching hours at DIT kept me going.”
However, what really opened doors in composition and performance was an Italian Government Scholarship to study in Rome. I laugh when he tells me that the man who would play the organ in Christ Church, Waterford learned from Fernando Germani at the Vatican of all places! He loved the big full sound of the traditional church organ and Germani worked him like a carthorse. Despite a sigh, I’m guessing that Eric really loved Fernando’s demand for “three new pieces a week”.
Returning to Dublin, it was really a case of when Eric met Sally. Marriage and a family of two girls and a boy. They’re now grandparents and are heading for Japan to meet their newest granddaughter Lanna who, the pics prove, is a dote with a note or two already in her head.
‘There’s contentment to Eric’s smile; the knowledge of what’s accomplished and the awareness of his enormous contribution to the musical heritage of Waterford’
Eric arrived in Waterford to replace the late Waterford composer and teacher Fintan O’Carroll.
“Fintan established a music course in WIT that was unique and dynamic,” and Eric loved the challenge of building on Fintan’s work. “The course was performance based and everyone had to play two instruments in addition to the academic work. It was a blank canvas and the Music School prospered as numbers built and more hugely qualified lecturers and performance teachers arrived.”
I put the current concerns surrounding the Music School to Eric where teachers are not being replaced on retirement although the demand still remains. “Unfortunately finance – or the lack of it – is dictating matters.” Eric is still hopeful that finance will improve and the School of Music that has done so much for Waterford music students will begin to prosper again. “I hope so,” I reply “because the WIT Music School in Humanities is a musical resource that cannot be allowed to leave the city.”
He’s just retired as organist in Christ Church after 27 years. “Do you pray,” I ask. “Yes,” he replies. Without hesitation. “I feel that the organist is part of a music ministry and I’m humbled by the history of worship and tradition in the Cathedral.”
He’s just released a CD ‘The Bright Seraphim’ that’s he recorded on the Christ Church organ and is on sale at the Cathedral.
Eric’s been composing since the age of 10, he reckons, and in his retirement has started to catalogue his work. There are boxes and boxes of music everywhere and he laughs when he remembers writing cantatas and quartets in his teens. He’s always loved choral music and drew inspiration from the greats: Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. He tells me that he now finds a mutual mind in American composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Eric moves to a different space now as he speaks of what draws him to composition today. “I’m interested in composing work that is tonal and rhythmic and in experimenting with traditional Irish music. Minimalism is just perfect for that,” as he remembers a work that was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic. “It was dance music that was based on an Irish reel using rhythmic patterns that is somewhat layered. But very tuneful,” he adds, in case he’s just getting that little bit too technical for the layman.
He speaks warmly of his friend Mark Roper; poet and librettist for his recent opera The Invader that played to big houses in the Theatre Royals of Waterford and Wexford. “With composition,” Eric laughs, “It’s words first, and then the music.” I got the feeling that poor old Mark was under pressure to produce the goods at an ASAP rate. Eric loves myth and legend and is drawn to them for the plotlines for his operas. Truths that are universal and ageless. “And cautionary,” I add. “Hmmm”, says the smiling composer.
“Was there any other career you would have liked,” I wondered. “No,” he laughs, “Because I would have been no good at anything else!”
I wasn’t surprised. Eric was born into a music tradition that he has carried on. He has shouldered responsibility naturally and is aware of his place and responsibilities in the world. His life is a musical continuum. Choirboy and child organist, Trinity and Vatican student, husband, father, academic and performer. And now Grandad to three beautiful grandchildren.
There comes a time when it’s good to look back. There’s contentment to Eric’s smile; the knowledge of what’s accomplished and the awareness of his enormous contribution to the musical heritage of Waterford.