Herbert Hughes, Irish composer, music critic and a collector and arranger of Irish folksongs, is born in Belfast on May 16, 1882. He was the father of Spike Hughes.
Hughes is raised in Belfast but completes his formal music education at the Royal College of Music, London, where he studies with Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood, graduating in 1901. Subsequently, he works as a music critic, notably for The Daily Telegraph from 1911 to 1932.
Described as having an “ardent and self-confident manner,” Hughes is first heard of in an Irish musical capacity (beyond being honorary organist at St. Peter’s Church on Antrim Road at the age of fourteen) collecting traditional airs and transcribing folksongs in North Donegal in August 1903 with his brother Fred, Francis Joseph Bigger, and John Patrick Campbell. Dedicated to seeking out and recording such ancient melodies as are yet to be found in the more remote glens and valleys of Ulster, he produces Songs of Uladh (1904) with Joseph Campbell, illustrated by his brother John and paid for by Bigger. Throughout his career, he collects and arranges hundreds of traditional melodies and publishes many of them in his own unique arrangements. Three of his best-known works are the celebrated songs, My Lagan Love, She Moved Through the Fair, and Down by the Salley Gardens, which are published as part of his four collections of Irish Country Songs, his key achievement. These are written in collaborations with the poets Joseph Campbell and Padraic Colum, and W. B. Yeats himself. A dispute with Hamilton Harty over copyright on My Lagan Love is pursued on Bigger’s advice, but fails.
Hughes has a unique approach to arranging Irish traditional music. He calls upon the influence of the French impressionist Claude Debussy in his approach to harmony: “Musical art is gradually releasing itself from the tyranny of the tempered scale. […] and if we examine the work of the modern French school, notably that of M. Claude Debussy, it will be seen that the tendency is to break the bonds of this old slave-driver and return to the freedom of primitive scales.” He regards arrangements as an independent art form on an equal level with original composition: “[…] under his [i.e. the arranger’s] hands it is definitively transmuted into an art-song, an art-song of its own generation.” His folksong arrangements have been sung all across the English-speaking world. John McCormack and Kathleen Ferrier are the first to record them on gramophone records.
An admirer of James Joyce‘s poetry, Hughes in 1933 edits The Joyce-Book, a volume of settings of Joyce’s poetry, with 13 pieces by 13 composers including, besides Hughes himself, Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, and non-British composers such as George Antheil, Edgardo Carducci-Agustini, and Albert Roussel. The large-format, blue-cloth covered volume has since become a collector’s item.
Hughes also composes a limited amount of original chamber music (a violin sonata is mentioned in a letter to Hughes from Bernard van Dieren dated April 4, 1932), and some scores for the stage (like And So to Bed by James Bernard Fagan) and film. Hughes and John Robert Monsell also create songs for a musical version of Richard Brinsley Sheridan‘s The Rivals called Rivals!, which is staged at the Kingsway Theatre in London in October 1935 by Vladimir Rosing and runs for 86 performances.
Married to Lillian Florence (known as Meena) Meacham and Suzanne McKernan, Hughes has three children: Patrick, known professionally as Spike Hughes, Angela and Helena. He dies in Brighton, England, at the relatively early age of fifty-four on May 1, 1937.