Fiachra TrenchBorn: September 7th, 1941, Dublin (Ireland)
During his secondary school years in Waterford, Fiachra proved himself a bright pupil, doing well in all regular subjects. All the while, he continued studying the piano and music theory, while having his first attempts at composition as well. “I would say fledgling attempts,” he adds, laughing. “In spite of that, I wanted to carry on in music, which is why, upon graduation, I decided to go to the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. That was in 1959. Probably also because my parents didn’t think music was a proper career, in parallel I studied science at Trinity College in Dublin. As I was interested in agriculture, I wanted to specialise in organic chemistry leading to a job in agrochemicals, something which I am completely opposed to nowadays. Meanwhile, I played in Trinity College’s very own dance band, Group Two. Outside of Trinity, I was involved in all kinds of jazz groups in Dublin, playing everything ranging from Dixieland to bebop. It was the source of some wonderment to my chemistry professor that I was able to get through and finish my honours degree.”
At the Royal Irish Academy, Fiachra Trench studied under the aegis of two reputed professors: organ with George Hewson and composition with Archibald J. Potter. Fiachra, commenting: “Bizarrely, thirty years before I did, my mother studied the organ with Hewson as well. No, studying music was by no means a side show – first and foremost it was a source of huge enjoyment. All the while, I was playing freelance gigs in parallel with my studies. In the late summer of 1962, I was the pianist and musical director for a sketch show by the Dublin University Players, which played at the fringe of the Wexford Opera Festival. That went into the first week when I should have been back at Trinity. Needless to say, the Head of Chemistry wasn’t exactly thrilled. Still in 1962, I wrote an orchestral piece and submitted it to Feis Ceoil, a competitive festival of classical music – and I won first prize. By the time I obtained my degree at Trinity and my diploma at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 1963, it was fairly clear that I was going to work in music rather than in chemistry, but in retrospect I am grateful to my parents for their encouragement not to give up on my chemistry studies, because on the back of my Irish undergraduate science degree I got into graduate school of music in the United States! I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship.”
For three years, Fiachra Trench lived in America, studying music – first at the University of Georgia, based in Athens, Ga. (1963-1964), and continuing at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio (1964-1966), where his tuition fees were paid for by his role as a graduate assistant, teaching keyboard harmony. In Cincinnati, he gained his Master of Music degree. Trench: “This three-year spell in America was fascinating, not least because Georgia and Ohio are completely different places. At that time, I thought I was going to be a long-haired composer of concert music, which was an unrealistic ambition to begin with. As a student in Cincinnati, I earned some extra money by playing the piano in the Playboy Club as well as organ in a Methodist church. That was a pretty interesting double, I must say, and quite a tough one as well – my Saturday gig at the club usually finished in the early hours of the morning, and I was expected for Sunday service at ten o’clock. It was a case of living on the edge, but I got by. In your early twenties, you don’t give much mind to not getting enough sleep!”
Looking back now, knowing that he later worked as a record arranger for most of his working life, how much of the formal background he acquired in music at university did he need to be successful as an arranger? “I could probably have had the same career as an arranger without the formal education. Anyone who aspires to being an arranger needs a talent for music – by whatever means, you have to learn the nuts and bolts of it. Others followed a different route, but they all had to nurture their knowledge of music theory in one way or the other. There are some wonderful books on arranging – Nelson Riddle wrote one, as did Don Sebesky. Those would have been bibles for talented musicians who didn’t go to university, but wanted to extend their formal knowledge – and some of these guys became excellent arrangers; Noel Kelehan, for example… but all roads lead to Rome, I suppose. A musician I later worked with in London claimed he had obtained a degree at the British Rail School of Music. What he meant was that he read scores by classical composers while travelling on the train from home to work every day – which can be another form of ‘teach yourself’, by closely studying the orchestration of a complicated classical piece. If I could have done the same following that route, I don’t know; probably, yes. I for one consider myself very privileged to have my formal education, as I thoroughly enjoyed going to university. But I would never deride the British Rail School of Music!”
In 1966, straight after his last oral exam in Cincinnati, Fiachra went straight off to a job, going on a nine-month tour as the pianist (and later bass guitarist) of a dance band which played at US Air Force bases in West Germany and Italy. Fiachra: “By that time, I was married. Earlier that year, my first child was born. Those nine months on the road provided me with the income I needed to support my family. After all, you can’t live on fresh air. It was a lovely time, as my wife and child were with me all the time. The tour included three months at the NATO base in Naples, which I remember as one of the dirtiest and xenophobic cities I have been to – but it was a wonderful place at the same time. For more than half of that spell, our band played in the open air, looking out on the Bay of Naples, with Capri and Ischia in sight. We played the tunes of the day and some jazz, but we also accompanied visiting cabaret artists. After the tour was over, we came back to Ireland briefly for just a few months. I did a little bit of gigging in Dublin, but I had come to realise that I didn’t want to live the life of a musician on the road, having to play the same music every night.”
In 1967, Fiachra Trench won a scholarship awarded by Ireland’s Arts Council to study for one year at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After this year, he decided to stay in England, doing freelance work in hotels, dance palaces and cabaret clubs. “That provided an income, but for quite a while, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. By that time, I had given up my dream of being a composer of serious music. While playing in a cabaret club down in Devon in 1969, suddenly there was this light-bulb moment: I could be an arranger! I came back to London and found myself playing on a demo session for a music publisher. At this session, Deke Arlon, the CEO of the publishing company of CBS happened to come along – and he asked me to do some arrangements for him. It was astonishing that I didn’t have to prove myself first to reach my goal. I had thought I would be a copyist for other arrangers, slowly working my way into the business, but along comes Deke and there I was, creating arrangements, directing orchestras and earning more money than I had ever made in my life. The songwriter I wrote these first arrangements for, Perry Ford, has long since disappeared off the radar, but I had a foot in the door.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, beside writing arrangements, Trench composed a considerable number of jingles and melodies for adverts while he also played as a session pianist for other arrangers. In 1970, he released a solo album with dance tunes, Organ Time. As an arranger, he worked for a wide range of artists, from pop singer Clodagh Rodgers to jazz saxophonist Kathy Stobart and progressive rock band If, for whom he produced the album Waterfall, released in 1972. Moreover, Trench worked with iconic Irish rock band Thin Lizzy, writing string and oboe parts to the track ‘A song for while I’m away’ (1973). He went on to write further arrangements for Thin Lizzy albums, culminating with Phil Lynott’s two solo LPs.
It is worth noting that, in the early 1970s, the job of a London-based arranger was markedly different from his counterpart on the continent. In the recording studios of Paris, Munich and Milan, the arranger usually had a free hand, writing the parts for all instruments, not only string and brass, but the rhythm section as well, whilst also overseeing the recording of the vocals; whereas, at that time, in the United Kingdom there were many bands and singer-songwriters who, working with their respective producers, created their own vocal and rhythm tracks.
“So, usually, the melody and rhythm were there,” Trench explains, “and my job was to work the orchestra around that; my role could be described as adding sweetening, if you like. Prior to writing an arrangement, I would meet with the artists and producer to talk about the material they wanted recorded. In this meeting, I asked them what they wanted to do with their song, where they thought a string or brass line would fit in well… and then I went back home, sitting with my cassette recorder and writing a score based on the existing track, hoping I would come up with something they liked. Fortunately, in my twenty-five years of being an arranger in London, it happened to me only once that a band rejected a score I had written – but once in twenty-five years isn’t very often, I would say! The amount of confidence put in me was huge; and I am happy to say that there have been very few tracks that I haven’t managed to put something extra into... and indeed very few artists who haven’t been anything but a pleasure to work with.”
By the mid-1970s, Fiachra Trench had become an established name in London’s studio world, working with soloists like Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Michel Polnareff, as well as groups such as Birmingham-based hard rock band City Boy. As a producer, he oversaw the recordings of several albums by jazz pianist/composer Mike Westbrook. In 1976, Fiachra even got to work on a demo of a song written by Paul McCartney for a film – which eventually was not used.
Trench, commenting: “Frankly, in those years, there was never an issue in finding arranging work – and hence there was not much elbowing going on between arrangers. There were times when I had too much on my plate and passed it to somebody else; and other arrangers have reciprocated. I remember doing some arrangements for an album which Del Newman produced for a Dutch singer called Liesbeth List… and Del lacked the time to take care of all the arrangements himself. I was more than happy to help, because he was one of the colleagues I admired most. He could write for strings like nobody else. Others I admired were Johnny Spence and Johnny Arthey, whom I also worked for as a session pianist. These guys were good colleagues… not really friends, no: the music business is a world in which one has a few close friends, but many acquaintances. As a musical director during a studio session in London, I could be looking at a string orchestra of twenty-six players, knowing every one of those faces – but there were very few with whom I had any sort of social contact. In an ad-hoc orchestra, it is always going to be like that.”
In 1979, Bob Geldof’s punk band Boomtown Rats released their third studio album, The Fine Art of Surfacing. Of the ten tracks on this LP, just one included a string arrangement – in fact the first-ever Boomtown Rats song which included strings: ‘I don’t like Mondays’. It turned into a huge chart success and has become the group’s best-remembered song by far. The striking string arrangement was written by Fiachra Trench. “That was a major arranging job which was given to me by the Boomtown Rats’ producer, Phil Wainman. For the arrangement, I didn’t really look for an elaborate countermelody, but took the elements which already were in the rhythm track. From the band only Johnny Fingers was there when we started the recording session. After having done the string part, we added some handclaps. At that point, Bob Geldof showed up and had a listen – he looked singularly unimpressed. To him, it must have seemed so alien to have a sizable string section playing on his track. He even thought about rejecting it, but thankfully he didn’t. All in all, the result undoubtedly was atypical in their genre; and I suspect that was one of the reasons why it stood out.”
In the early 1980s, Fiachra Trench continued to be involved in recording projects for domestic and continental markets alike. In 1981, commissioned by Spanish producer Oscar Gomez, he provided arrangements for an LP by close-harmony group Mocedades, which included their immense chart success ‘Desde que tú te has ido’. One year later, he worked with Thin Lizzy’s front man Phil Lynott on his first solo album – and its best-remembered track, 'Old town', for which he came up with the memorable piccolo trumpet solo: “I don’t remember if it was my idea or Phil’s to use the trumpet. The influence came from ‘Penny Lane’ by the Beatles with its striking trumpet solo. 'Old town' is a fascinating song. At the time he wrote it, Phil must have been listening to American Songbook repertoire… the chords in the chorus of 'Old town' betray the influence. Many years later, The Corrs did a new version for their MTV Unplugged concert, for which I also wrote the arrangements – and we kept it virtually unchanged, except that the key had to be changed to accommodate Andrea Corr’s voice. By coincidence, the trumpet player who was booked in the orchestra, turned out to know the solo by heart, as he had played it many times in the showbands [Irish cover bands touring the dance hall circuit – BT]… so he already had it up his sleeve, which was neat. After having adapted to the key change, he played it very beautifully.”
Though he was freelance and worked for many different producers and record companies, Fiachra teamed up with DJ, songwriter and producer Ian Levine for eleven years (1976-1987). Levine penned and produced disco tracks and later became one of the standard bearers of Hi-NRG, which is considered to be a precursor of house and techno music. Initially working with Levine as an arranger, Trench later became his co-writer and co-producer.
“Together, we wrote hundreds of songs,” Fiachra recalls, “and every one of them was recorded. Typically, Ian wrote the lyrics for a verse and a chorus – and I worked my way around it. In 1984 we had a major hit with ‘High energy’ for Evelyn Thomas; it took us no more than twenty minutes to write. That is the nature of popular music, you know; it’s somewhat ephemeral. Thirty-five years on, I still receive a trickle of royalties from that one tune. The track largely consists of samples with the live elements being the vocals and my playing some lines on keyboards. It was a sign of the times, because the business underwent profound changes in those years. By the early 80s, orchestras had virtually disappeared from the studios, replaced as they were by computer programming. As a consequence, I struggled somewhat to find enough arranging jobs. To make up for that, I did some session work as a keyboards/piano player – and I even MD’ed a couple of theatre shows and played in the orchestra accompanying one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals in London's West End, not because that type of job suited me very well… but it provided me with a steady income for some time.”
In terms of arranging work, the second part of the 1980s proved a more fruitful period for Trench, teaming up, as he did, with some high-profile names in the business. He wrote string arrangements for albums by Joan Armatrading and Irish folk-punk band The Pogues. For the latter, he was responsible for penning the orchestral score to ‘Fairytale of New York’, which the band recorded with singer Kirsty MacColl – and was a huge international hit. Fiachra’s most durable working relationship originating from the 1980s, however, proved to be with Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. In 1987, he was commissioned to write the string arrangements for Morrison’s album Poetic Champions Compose; two years later, he also scored Avalon Sunset which includes the romantic evergreen ‘Have I told you lately’. Since then, Van Morrison has worked with no other string arranger – and Trench has taken care of more than fifty arrangements for Morrison across eleven albums.
“There is no artist for whom I have done more arrangements than for Van. When he was looking for a string arranger, apparently my name was mentioned to him. I got a call to meet him in his apartment in Notting Hill. He sat me down and started playing the mixes of tracks that he had been working on. After a while, I asked: “Yeah, but why am I here?” “Well,” he said, “you do arrangements, don’t you?” So that’s how it began – very low key. Over the years, Van has put an enormous amount of trust in me. Often, when working on a new album, he sends me rough mixes of all songs and invites me to suggest which tracks might be enhanced with strings or brass. Van says very little about my work with him, but in one interview he has said he finds me very empathetic to what he’s doing – which is actually what an arranger should be doing: following the artist and the song itself, adding some simple and effective colours to it. My work with Van is a prime example of working within the track, in an organic way.”
In 1991, after twenty-four years of living in the UK, Fiachra Trench decided to move back to his native Ireland: “I turned fifty that year. My second wife, Carmel McCreagh, whom I first met in London in 1973, is from Ireland as well. We both had quite a strong feeling about moving back, also because we thought it would be good for our two sons, who were then aged five and three. So we left London behind, settling down in County Wicklow, to the south of Dublin. Initially, I was still working in London quite often, so I got to know all the air crew on Aer Lingus and other airline services really well. Latterly, however, I have done most of my work over here in Ireland – and I can’t say I miss England that much. I had the wonderful experience of working with studio orchestras in London for more than twenty years, but I have since then spent a considerable amount of years of recording with Irish-based freelance players and symphony orchestras, which has been equally enjoyable.”
Fiachra Trench’s moving to Ireland did not impede producers and artists from finding him for their recording projects. Among countless other credits, he wrote string arrangements for ‘Love is all around’ by Wet Wet Wet (1994), Kate Bush’s rendition of ‘Mná na h’Éireann’ (1996) and ‘There you’ll be’ by Faith Hill (2001). Wet Wet Wet’s version of ‘Love is all around’, a cover of a song originally recorded by the Troggs, remains one of the biggest selling songs of all time, with nearly two million copies in the UK alone. Trench: “At some point, Wet Wet Wet were approached by the producer of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and he invited them to do a cover of one of three suggested songs, to be included in the film soundtrack. They picked ‘Love is all around’ and, my goodness, did they make the right choice. We recorded it in Dublin with a string section – well, and the rest is history. After fifteen weeks at number one in the UK charts, Wet Wet Wet themselves engineered that the song came off the top, because people were beginning to be fed up with hearing it. Around that time, I met one of the fiddle players who took part in the session and before I could even say hello to him, he exclaimed: “If I hear that f***ing song one more time…”, simply because it was played on the radio all day long… there was no escaping it. It was lovely to work with the Wets – and I did a fair number of arrangements for them. After the group split up, I also wrote scores for several of Marti’s solo albums.”
Unsurprisingly, after his return to Ireland, Fiachra Trench worked extensively with some of the island’s most successful pop acts, such as Secret Garden, Jimmy MacCarthy, The Corrs, Brian Kennedy, Altan and The Chieftains. With the last-mentioned folk group, he also performed on stage as a musical director in concerts in Dublin with the Orchestra of Ireland and in Palermo with the Orchestra del Teatro Massimo. For The Corrs, he orchestrated and MD’ed their MTV Unplugged concert as well as a live show with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
From the mid-1980s onwards, beside his activities in pop music, Trench had become involved in composing and orchestrating music scores for film and television, which became a significant part of his career for the following two decades. He wrote additional music to Florence Nightingale (1985) and Stars and Bars (1988) for composer Stanley Myers. As an orchestrator, he had a hand in block buster movies such as Die Hard (1988) and Pearl Harbor (2001) – the latter having a score written by Hans Zimmer, with whom he has worked closely for many years. In 2005, Fiachra’s own music to the Irish comedy The Boys and Girl from County Clare was nominated for an IFTA for best movie score. In the field of television music, he composed the music to several fiction and nonfiction series, including the much acclaimed BBC documentary series People’s Century (1995–1997), which traces the history of the twentieth century.
As Fiachra explains, writing for such a documentary requires a different approach from a film soundtrack. “In documentary, it is very important not to reflect too much of the drama. For People’s Century, I remember having to write music to footage of the results of a napalm attack in Vietnam. My music for that bit was just a very quiet, low string line, which was sufficient – it would have been inappropriate to accentuate the sheer horror of the image by burying it under heavy orchestration which would have made it feel like a movie. All the drama is there before your eyes and it should not be in the music. And speaking of movies, though I am not a big fan of grandiose film scores, composing and orchestrating soundtracks does allow for a bigger palette of instruments than in a pop arrangement. Most of my pop stuff has been strings, sometimes brass, as additional elements onto an existing track, but for film music, you can write a whole piece from start to finish.”
Although having almost exclusively worked in the world of entertainment, Fiachra Trench has never lost interest in classical music, citing Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Pärt as some of his favourite composers. Following his university years, occasions to write orchestral compositions himself were few and far between. In the 1960s, he composed MM – A Symphonic Movement and Overture for Brass and Percussion, both of which were performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. In his years in London, he wrote some library music – and after his return to Ireland, some more pieces saw the daylight, including a Summer Suite for the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (1993), Celebration!, a suite for concert band (2005) and Aisling na Síochána, a composition for tin whistle, guitar, cello, harpsichord and a string ensemble (2019), commissioned by the Mermaid Arts Centre as part of a concert, The First Hundred Years, on the occasion of the centenary of the sitting of the Irish Free State’s first assembly.
Trench: “The core group which played the piece is an Irish baroque quartet, Sonamus, and I added the strings around them. It was nice to note that this composition was well received by the audience and the people who commissioned it, but I guess I will never feel completely comfortable working on orchestral pieces, especially the longer ones. I am in awe of works by the great classical composers, which show an incredible skill with structure and instrumentation. Most of the orchestral pieces that I have done are much shorter; for instance, the 2019 piece for Sonamus was only about five minutes long. In all, I don’t feel particularly precious about these instrumental pieces. Others are better equipped to write such music than I am.”
In 2011, on the occasion of Fiachra’s seventieth birthday, an honorary concert was organised of his compositions and arrangements performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and guests including Altan, Brian Kennedy and Marti Pellow, who agreed to perform ‘Love is all around’ for the first time in many years. Though continuing to work as an arranger for several artists, most notably Van Morrison, nowadays Fiachra mainly works as an arranger and musical director for his wife, Carmel McCreagh, who is a professional singer in her own right. For performances in venues across Ireland, they formed the Carmel McCreagh Band – and later, when they teamed up with another solo singer, Flo McSweeney, they became Two Divas and a Piano.
“Some ten years ago, Carmel decided she had had enough of her daytime job,” Fiachra recalls. “She decided she wanted to be a singer and make an album. We have played in clubs and theatres, with audiences ranging from 40 to 240. Carmel sings ballads, jazz standards and contemporary songs, from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. And we've recorded three albums together. Flo McSweeney is another singer with whom I've made an album – and it turns out Carmel and Flo form a wonderful duo on stage. The songs they do as Two Divas and a Piano are well rehearsed — some as solos and some as duets — but the repartee is completely spontaneous. It is gratifying to have audiences in front of you who are really there to listen to your music. I am happy to still be in the business. Music has been my career and it has been fun for the last fifty-odd years. There is a line in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion: ‘Happy is the man who can make a living by his hobby’, and I couldn’t agree more. Retirement is not an option, at least not for me!”
Fiachra Trench in the Eurovision Song Contest
Three years later, in 1996, director Béatrice Esposito of broadcasting station France 2 felt it was time to show Europe another aspect of the country’s rich cultural heritage, as she invited Dan Ar Braz to compete in the 1996 festival in Oslo with a song entirely performed in Breton, the language of the western region of Brittany. At the time, the guitarist and singer from Quimper was enjoying success in terms of record sales and concerts with his project L'Héritage des Celtes, for which he had brought together a group of musicians from Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, all dedicated to preserving Celtic heritage; lead singers for most of the songs were Karen Matheson and Elaine Morgan, hailing from Scotland and Wales respectively. Picking Dan Ar Braz seemed a shrewd move by France 2 as Celtic music was enjoying unseen international popularity with record buyers – and moreover, the year before, Secret Garden had proved the genre could work in the Eurovision Song Contest as well, when they won the festival outright with their esoteric ‘Nocturne’.
The song chosen for the contest was ‘Diwanit bugale’ (literally translated: ‘May you blossom, oh children’). As Dan Ar Braz himself confided to us, this wonderful, tranquil melody was not written especially for the contest – in fact, it was nearly twenty years old: “I wrote it in 1976 to help the first Breton-language school, which was founded at the time here in Quimper, my home town. I composed the music and wrote lyrics in French about the hope of a renaissance of Brittany’s culture and language, which was subsequently adapted and translated into Breton by Gweltaz Ar Fur. We did not release the song at the time, which meant it was still eligible for the contest. At the time, the musical accompaniment consisted of nothing more than guitar and piano. The news about our Eurovision participation came through while we were in the middle of recording our new album Finisterres in Dublin. We decided to temporarily break off work on this cd in order to be able to fully focus on this one song. In the studio in Dublin we used at Windmill Lane, many previous Irish Eurovision winners had been recorded – and with the same sound engineers. These guys knew which recipe to apply to a Eurovision entry. My producer Donal Lunny picked Fiachra Trench to write a string arrangement, and he did a wonderful job on that. Moreover, working with him, we found him “un monsieur absolument charmant”.
Asked as to why Donal Lunny picked him to pen the orchestration, Fiachra Trench explains: “I have known Donal since 1967. We had already worked together several times. When he produced Mike Scott of the Waterboys, I wrote the arrangements – but that is just an example. In the same year as the Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo, he produced a track in Gaelic with Kate Bush for which I took care of the strings. For ‘Diwanit bugale’, Donal and his assistant Calum MacColl turned to me for adding a string arrangement to the existing track that they had done with Dan and the band. I didn’t get to meet Dan himself until we were in Oslo, but I had previously been to see a concert of his in Paris. I was friends not only with Donal Lunny, but also with Donald Shaw who was a member of Dan’s band. This was before there was any talk of Eurovision. I had earned enough Air Miles from my trips back and forth from Dublin to London to get a free flight to Paris and meet up with my friends. For the strings to ‘Diwanit bugale’, Donal and Callum gave me carte blanche. After we recorded them in the Westland Studios, also in Dublin, they wanted an additional sustained high note in one passage, which was added from a string sample. With that last element added, the recording was complete. This version was the basis for the Eurovision performance.”
Subsequently, to Fiachra’s surprise, he was invited to be part of the French delegation for the Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo to conduct the festival orchestra for his arrangement to ‘Diwanit bugale’, thereby becoming the first-ever non-French national to conduct a French Eurovision entry – but for some reason, he was not entirely sure if he should accept: “I hadn’t previously given a thought about going to Eurovision – and Donal only asked me after the recording had been done. By now, we were just a few weeks before the contest was due, so it was late in the day when I was asked to go to Oslo. It was an event I only knew from television – and from the stories my friend Shay Healy told about winning Eurovision with his composition ‘What’s another year’. My only involvement prior to Oslo was writing one arrangement for a song in the Irish heats that didn’t make it. Long story short: I didn’t know what to expect. I rang my friend Phil Coulter and quizzed him about his Eurovision experiences [which, apart from composing ‘Puppet on a string’ and ‘Congratulations’ includes conducting his wife Geraldine Branagan when she competed for Luxembourg in 1975 – BT]. He encouraged me to go and was sure I would enjoy it – and so I decided to do it! I didn’t have any qualms about representing a country other than mine. I was completely comfortable with that. I mean, how many times did Noel Kelehan conduct for country other than Ireland?”
In Oslo, Dan Ar Braz and his two vocalists, Karen Matheson and Elaine Morgan, were accompanied on stage by Donald Shaw (keyboards) and two French instrumentalists playing the tin whistle and uilleann pipes. Back then, Eurovision rules allowed a backing track, provided that any instrument on it was mimed by performers on stage. It was up to Fiachra Trench to guide the NRK Radio Orchestra as it played live over this pre-existing track; apart from the string arrangement, the percussion part was taken care of by the orchestra.
“The rehearsals were flawless,” Fiachra recalls. “The Norwegian orchestra couldn’t have been more pleasant – just lovely. Frankly, they would probably have done a fine job even without me standing in front of them. The orchestra players were wearing headphones and played to a click track indicating the beat. In other words, the conductor was in their headphones. In such cases, you don’t need somebody up there waving his arms. Nothing can be more tedious and unnecessary than that. I did cue entries of the respective instruments and gave some dynamic indications and encouragement, but even those were probably redundant. I was the traffic cop, alerting them: By the way, one bar, and you’re in! That’s called musical direction, and that is how I would describe myself: an arranger and musical director. Although I am familiar with the minimum technique – how to beat four or five, for example – I wouldn’t call that proper conducting. Real conductors don’t even have to think about what their arms have to be doing. I wouldn’t want to put myself on the same level as those guys.”
When asked about his further memories of Oslo, Fiachra has nothing but praise for the Norwegian organisers of the contest: “We were all very well looked after and all the NRK staff were very pleasant to work with. The schedule of rehearsals was extremely efficient – in my room in the hotel adjoining the auditorium, I could watch the progress of rehearsals on CCTV and check when we were due down there. We rehearsed every other day; on the days off in between, we were extremely well entertained. They took us on a boat on the Oslo Fjord. The Irish delegation was on the same trip and I remember hanging out with Eimear Quinn and her backing group. We were also taken to a folk village near Oslo and, topping all that, one of our free days was Norway’s national day, so we were able to attend the procession and see the King and Queen looking on. Taking part in Eurovision certainly wasn’t ‘another day at the office’. I have never been blasé about my work and I thoroughly enjoyed the week in Norway.”
On the night of the broadcast, Fiachra Trench wore a Nehru jacket. “It was a suit with a mandarin collar,” he explains, “so I didn’t wear a bow tie. When the camera was put on me to take my bow, I just waved at the audience before turning to the orchestra. I don’t remember whether it was premeditated; it could have been my down-playing of the role of the conductor. To be honest, I wouldn’t have bothered too much if I hadn’t been shown on screen. When I came back to Dublin, my two young nieces, who were six and eight years old at the time, were somewhat disappointed with me for not bowing at the camera and for not wearing a tie. Somehow, they were tantalised that I didn’t wear the uniform. The performance itself was flawless, not only on the part of the orchestra, but Dan Ar Braz and his group did a good job as well.”
Did Fiachra Trench have a feeling the French entry could do well in the contest? “Well, I remember being interviewed by a Scottish film crew who were following Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw, and saying to them that the best songs in the festival were the more ethnic ones. Apart from us, there were the Spanish, Portuguese and Irish entries who stayed away from the Eurovision-generic clichés. But in that same interview, I noted that most of them never stand a chance. Well, I was proved wrong, because Eimear Quinn won for Ireland. In the Green Room, we were sitting right beside the Irish delegation when the results rolled in. Looking across at Brendan Graham [composer of the winning song, ‘The voice’ – BT], he shrugged his shoulders and half-smiled at me, as if to say: “What can I do?” Well, the truth of the matter was that he had composed a beautiful, very tender piece of music.”
At the end of the evening, Fiachra Trench was the only Irishman in Oslo who had no reason to celebrate. In the voting, ‘Diwanit bugale’ picked up a meagre number of eighteen points, finishing nineteenth among twenty-three competing entries. Dan Ar Braz himself blamed the unpopular French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll in 1995 and 1996, which created a backlash against France in general – including some countries even imposing an embargo on French wine for a while. Fiachra, however, is not convinced events in the Pacific had any influence on the Eurovision result. “That seems to me to be a little far-fetched, to be honest. I don’t think the fact that it was performed in Breton had anything to do with it either; had it been in French, would it have been any more attractive to the voting public? I don’t think so. My guess would be that the song was too inaccessible for Eurovision audiences. Even back in the 1990s, Eurovision had a lot to do with presentation – and some beautiful songs were overlooked. ‘Diwanit bugale’ falls in that category. It was underrated, which was all the more disappointing as, in rehearsals, the Norwegian television crew didn’t stop telling us how much they liked the song. Dan Ar Braz felt hugely crushed. I was sorry for him. He was a lovely man and we had a good laugh during the week. He and the rest of the group were a credit to work with.”
The 1996 Eurovision Song Contest and ‘Diwanit bugale’ were to remain the only collaboration of Fiachra Trench with Dan Ar Braz and l’Héritage des Celtes. On their album Finisterres, which was released later that year, an adapted version of the Eurovision song was included which left out the strings and replaced them with bagpipes – in keeping with the remainder of the album, which does not include any orchestral arrangements.
Dan Ar Braz, commenting: “All along, our intention had been to record ‘Diwanit bugale’ with a bagad [a traditional Breton bagpipe band – BT]. Once it was picked for the Eurovision Song Contest, it had to be adapted to fit in with the rules of the festival: we abridged it to just three minutes and the bagad was replaced by a string orchestra. That being said, the result was really good, but it felt as a bit of a let-down that we could only have six persons on stage to work with the local symphony orchestra available in Oslo. How impressive would it have been to have a bagad of thirty or forty persons on stage as well as the Eurovision orchestra accompanying us. It would have made our message much stronger: we wanted the world to listen to Breton music. Even without the bagad, many people in France failed to understand how France could be represented abroad by a song performed in Breton. There were even discussions about it in parliament. I was really happy to have caused so much of a stir, at least in France. Moreover, our record sales went through the roof. When L’Héritage des Celtes was disbanded, we had sold a grand total of over 1,2 billion albums.”
Lastly, we asked Fiachra Trench about developments in the Eurovision Song Contest in the years following his sole participation: “It grieves me that it has more and more become about presentation, and less and less about songwriters and well-crafted songs. Previously, the Eurovision trophy was awarded to the composer, not the performer – and that is how it should be in a competition of original songs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in awe of the presentation of the television stations who organise it, putting out all these laser lights and the like… but that and the people on stage doing things of acrobatic nature has become entirely what it’s about; the song itself takes second place. Incidentally, I was thrilled when the Portuguese entry ‘Amar pelos dois’ won in 2017 – a beautiful love lament, wonderfully performed; for once, the tired Eurovision-generic mould was truly broken. And the orchestra? Well, much as I would like there to be a place for an orchestra in Eurovision, I cannot imagine what its role would be when in general the majority of songs are in dance-pop style with electronically derived backing tracks. It’s shambolic, but that’s the way the contest seems to have developed.”
Other artists on Fiachra Trench