When Bill Whelan composed a short musical piece called “Riverdance” for the intermission act of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, he had no idea of the impact it would have on the perception and appreciation of Irish culture and traditional dance worldwide. First televised to a European audience of more than 300 million people, “Riverdance” teamed a fast-paced Irish hard-shoe dance routine with Whelan’s lively score. “The heart of the nation was captured that very first night… young and old alike,” wrote John Falstaff of Dirty Linen #63, “and this was to be the beginning of what [would become] the runaway artistic and commercial success of the decade in Ireland.” After its debut, “Riverdance” was released as a single, topping music charts in both Ireland and the United Kingdom, and Whelan collaborated again with co-creators Moya Doherty and John McColgan to produce the full-length smash-hit River-dance —The Show. During his 20-year career, Whelan has composed for albums, film, and theater, in addition to producing and arranging for such artists as U2, Van Morrison, Kate Bush, and Paul Brady. But it was not until Riverdance that he began to receive the magnitude of recognition that he deserves. “In Ireland he has been propelled from the ranks of somebody familiar only to those who read liner notes carefully, to a veritable household name,” observed Falstaff. “With the astonishing critical and commercial success… of the River-dance stage show… there can be little doubt that Whelan has earned the title of High King of Irish Music.”
Born and raised in Limerick, Ireland, Whelan was the only child of two musicians; his father played harmonica, and his mother was a classical pianist. After earning a law degree at University College in Dublin, Whelan later abandoned a legal career to become a professional pianist and guitarist. A break came for him in the early 1970s, when he was asked to write the main title music for the film Bloomfield— released in the United States as The Hero —starring actor Richard Harris, also a Limerick native. Whelan did additional work with Harris and was introduced during this period to Jimmy Webb, who became his idol and was one of the people to whom he dedicated the Riverdance album. After working on Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice musicals on tour in Ireland, and a stint at songwriting and arranging, both in the late 1970s, Whelan found his niche with the group Planxty. “I got involved in music firstly as a writer, but after an initial small degree of success as a song writer, began to concentrate more on producing, arranging, and working as a session musician,” he recalled to Falstaff. “It was during my period as a keyboard player that I first got involved with Planxty. Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine invited me to play on a Planxty album, and as a result I ended up joining the band and touring and recording with them for two years.” It was with Planxty in
Born in Limerick, Ireland; married, wife’s name, Denise; has four children. Education: earned law degree at University College, Dublin.
Performed with group Planxty in late 1970s; produced and arranged for such artists as Patrick Street, Stockton’s Wing, the Dubliners, and Andy Irvine in the 1980s; composed orchestral works Dance of the Morrigu, The Seville Suite, and The Spirit of Mayo in the late 1980s and early 1990s; worked as composer-in-residence for the William Butler Yeats International Theatre Festival, 1989-1994; composed signature work Riverdance, 1994; composed soundtracks for films Some Mother’s Son and Trinity, mid-1990s. Has also composed music for a variety of television shows and films and has served as musical adviser on a number of films.
Award: Grammy Award, Riverdance, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019; Phone: 212-484-6000.
1981 that Whelan first performed at Dublin’s Eurovision Song Contest; perhaps an omen for the groundbreaking success of “Riverdance” years later, he played keyboard during their intermission piece “Timedance.” Aside from composing for the albums The Woman I Loved So Well (1980) and Words and Music (1983), Whelan focused primarily on producing and arranging during the first part of the 1980s.
Explaining to Falstaff that his “connection to traditional music had been sealed at this state,” he produced albums for Patrick Street, Stockton’s Wing, the Dubliners, and Andy Irvine—including Irvine’s solo Rude Awakening and East Wind, which combined Irish, Bulgarian, and Macedonian music. Other projects for Whelan included producing and arranging Dublin’s Millennium album in 1988, and doing extensive television work.
Whelan returned to his first love—composing music—in the late 1980s. In 1987 he wrote the orchestral suite Dance of the Morrigu, commemorating the film music of Irish composer Sean O’Riada. The piece was conducted by Elmer Bernstein and performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in 1990. He also worked in theater, creating a musical score for Pirates of Penzance and a critically acclaimed adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Whelan left his musical stamp on the silver screen as well, composing for such films as Colin Gregg’s Lamb, Twice Shy by the Radio Telefis Eireann, and Donald Taylor Black’s At the Cinema Palace. In 1992 he got an even better opportunity to showcase his creative abilities when his specially commissioned orchestral work The Seville Suite was first performed at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and broadcast on national television. Featuring a 60-piece orchestra, The Seville Suite debuted in Spain that same year and has since been released internationally on compact disc and cassette by Tara Records.
Yet Whelan credits his greater self-confidence in composing music to his 1989 appointment to the William Butler Yeats International Theatre Festival under the auspices of American director James Flannery. “My connection to the works of Yeats and to the directorial style of… James Flannery was enormously influential on my theatrical writing style,” he told Falstaff, “to say nothing of its effect on freeing up certain hesitancies I had felt about my own writing.” Before being chosen as composer-in-residence, however, Whelan was admittedly unfamiliar with Yeats’s works, telling Fred Lapisar-di of American Theatre that he “had to go out and buy a copy of the Collected Plays.” In preparation for composing the scores in his studio, Whelan would attend rehearsals, listening to Yeats’s words being spoken aloud and watching choreographer Sarah-Jane Scaife orchestrate the movements of the cast and chorus. During his five-year tenure with the festival—at which Flannery hoped, in the words of Lapisardi, “to help restore Yeats’s dramatic work to the repertoire of his beloved Abbey Theatre” —Whelan composed original music for 15 of Yeats’s plays, including The Countess Cathleen, Deirdre, A Full Moon in March, and The Shadowy Waters.
By the early 1990s Whelan had amassed an impressive body of work for which he had received critical kudos, yet it was becoming apparent to him that being a “classical” composer and sometime record producer did not afford him the sense of job security that he desired. Even after the Dublin premiere of another of his major orchestral works, The Spirit of Mayo— whose 85-piece orchestra employed the power of several choirs and a battalion of drummers—Whelan considered giving up his profession for a more dependable career in law. Soon afterward, however, came the call that changed his life: TV producer Moya Doherty asked him to write a musical score for the intermission act for Eurovision 1994, and Whelan composed the original “Riverdance.” The collaboration included Doherty, her husband John McColgan, also a producer, and Michael Flately, who was one of the main dancers in the “Riverdance” debut, and later left the Riverdance camp to create his own Irish musical show Lords of the Dance. Through River-dance— -which features such traditional dance forms as the jig and the reel—Doherty hoped, nevertheless, to alter conventional perceptions of Irish culture and artistic potential. “I wanted to show a modern image of Ireland,” she explained in Time, “not the old green pastures. Irish dance is frozen in tradition, and I thought it’s time to thaw it out.”
The resounding success of the “Riverdance” premiere motivated Whelan and colleagues to create a full-length version, aptly titled Riverdance —TheShow. In justafew months, Whelan composed the score “from scratch,” incorporating music from Irish, Spanish, African, and other cultures. Riverdance does not tell a story in a traditional narrative sense, but rather explores issues that have been at the center of Irish culture and history, including mass emigrations that took place in the nineteenth century. “The show deals… with themes which are at the heart of a lot of early music and dance—songs in praise of the earth, sun, fire, the moon, and other elements that are common to all cutlures,” Whelan explained to Falstaff. “Part One is more purely Celtic in form and content. Part Two tells how the native culture has been forced to emigrate and, by doing so, is exposed to the forms of expression of other cultures, both in dance and music. Finally, there is a homecoming where the influences picked up abroad are integrated.”
Riverdance has elevated traditional Irish step dancing—in which the dancers primarily keep their upper bodies rigid while their legs and feet move frenetically—to a new level of artistic perfection. Praising the show’s “scarcely controlled energy and bravura,” Martha Duffy of Time described a specific River-dance sequence as follows: “A piece for the male corps called Thunderstorm is a consistent showstopper. It is performed a capella, the tapping, stamping feet providing the accompaniment. As the dancers traverse the floor, the rhythm they kick up resembles a storm in all its fury, followed by the growls and eddies as the storm regroups. When conventional, cheerful instruments join in at the close, the effect is one of rescue and relief.” As step dancing is regarded as a kind of competitive sport in Ireland, some Riverdance cast members have competed against each other in dance contests in the past. Noting the precision and fluidity of the dancers’ movements, and the fact that as many as 35 performers are on stage at once, Whelan, emphasizes the show as an ensemble piece. “This is a celebration of huma connection,” he told Peter Carlin of People.
In March of 1996—well timed for St. Patrick’s Day—Riverdance dazzled American audiences, as it debuted on television’s Late Night with David Letterman and premiered at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, drawing in $2. 2 million over eight sold-out performances. The show has since embarked on several American tours, playing in such cities as Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis to packed-in theaters. Dance magazine critic Clive Barnes, who had seen the New York premiere, wrote: “The show proved a perfect gem of its kind, and it was almost amazing how… audience interest [was maintained] with a style of dance that, however charming, is somewhat limited in its variety. A jig is a jig is a jig—but here it has been jogged and jagged into something practically fugal in the delicately satisfying variations on its theme. That remarkable dance… virtually sustains the evening.” In spite of its overwhelming American reception, not all Riverdance reviews have been wholly positive. According Robert Greskovic, also of Dance, the first New York show “proceed[ed] like a theme-park presentation taking its audience on Riverdance, the Journey. Booming narration about Celtic culture mix[ed] with lustily amplified music by… Bill Whelan.”
However, it does not seem that the Riverdance phenomena will fade anytime soon. The Grammy-winning soundtrack stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s world music chart for 36 weeks in 1996, and a video version was later released by Columbia Tristar, selling over 2 million copies and claiming the title of all-time best-selling music video in the United Kingdom. According to Entertainment Weekly, “in the twenty months it’s been a show, Riverdance has been seen by nearly 1.6 million people, many of them British, defying long-standing Irish/English cultural tension.” For Doherty, no amount of exposure is too great, and, along with McColgan and Whelan, is willing to ride the crest of the Riverdance wave as far as it will go. “Our tactic is a sort of lap around the world,” she was quoted as saying in the same source, “to fly the Riverdance flag.”
What remains important to Whelan is that Riverdance not only captivate audiences but speak to them about Ireland’s deep connections among its people and with the earth. “There’s a strong interest out there in spiritual matters,” he noted in Entertainment Weekly. “River-dance in some way responds to that.” Living much of the time in Ireland with his wife, Denise, and four children, Whelan does not take his newfound prominence for granted, nor is he one to bask in the limelight for too long. His most recent projects include composing music for the film Some Mother’s Son, from In the Name of the Father creators Terry George and Jim Sheridan, and for a film version of Leon Uris’s Trinity. Eager to embark on new creative endeavors, Whelan confessed to Carlin that he is, for now, “Riverdanced out.”
The Woman I Loved So Well, 1980.
Words and Music, 1983.
The Seville Suite, Tara Records, 1993.
Riverdance, Celtic Heartbeat, 1995.
Some Mother’s Son, Celtic Heartbeat, 1996.
American Theatre, July/August 1992.
Dance, September 1996; December 1996.
Dirty Linen #63, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, October 18, 1996.
People, March 17, 1997.
Time, March 18, 1996.
—Carolyn C. March
"Whelan, Bill." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/whelan-bill
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