Post of the Week – Discovering music in the 1950s

Instead of a ‘Piece of the Week’, today I thought I’d just write a few memories of my musical education in the 1950s: a significant birthday this week seemed a good time to indulge myself…

I grew up in Blackheath, South East London, and my first musical memories are playing the recorder at school – as soon as I got one of my own, and realised that you could buy blank books of manuscript paper too, my composing career was born! Aged about 9, it wasn’t long before I started pestering my parents for a piano (including by drawing a piano keyboard on sheets of paper, sellotaping them together and putting them on the kitchen table and ‘playing’ them) and I cannot say how thankful I am that they obliged and bought me one – I will never forget the day that it arrived and I started experimenting with different triads and combinations of notes – it was heaven! Then I started piano lessons at the Blackheath Conservatoire with Geoffrey Flowers, who wasn’t only a great piano teacher but also inducted me into the exciting mysteries of harmony and counterpoint.

Although some aspects of musical learning in the 1950s were very similar to today, some were very different, although the ultimate goal was of course the same.  No photocopying, no computers, no youtube meant, perhaps, rather more time discovering and working out things for oneself in public libraries etc, as well as developing an ability to quickly copy music out by hand when necessary! It was a year or two before we had a record player, too, so the lack of easy access to recorded music certainly developed my score-reading skills.

In 1958 I moved to secondary school – a state grammar school with a good musical reputation, and the music teacher here was Desmond Swinburn. I sung in the choir, played the oboe for a couple of years, and continued piano lessons with Geoffrey Flowers.

Anyway, here are some of the things that inspired me:

While at primary school (age 9-10) – (years 5-6)

  • Unison songs, particularly The Wizard by Peter Jenkyns (what exciting harmony) and Handel’s ‘Did you not see my lady’ (what a shapely melodic line)
  • The Oxford School Music Books (classical songs, folksongs from everywhere, and musical rudiments explained using threepenny bits!)
  • Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ (I learnt a great deal from studying the score, and following a recording – the first one we had) and his ‘The Little Sweep’
  • Stewart Macpherson’s ‘Melody and Harmony’ – everything you would ever want to know – and more!
  • Percy Scholes ‘Oxford Companion to Music’ (I used to love poring over this)
  • Walter Carroll ‘Scenes at a Farm’ and the other easy piano books (though oddly, I never realised, until recently, that you could sing the poem printed for each one to the tune of the piece – and nobody told me!!)
  • And I was taken around to perform in a number of music competitive festivals: Lewisham, Bromley, Bexley, South East London Festival (SELMA). I’m sure this was good for me, though at the time it all just went by in a sea of nervousness. And of course I took ABRSM exams, which I thought were more fun than performing to an audience, and were a very good way of widening ones repertoire and stylistic awareness.
  • And I wrote music prolifically, including several short ‘operas’ (which of course were never performed….)

First two to three years at secondary school – years 7-9

  • Discovered the delights of singing in parts:
  • J.S.Bach ‘St. John Passion’
  • George Dyson ‘In Honour of the City’
  • Vaughan Williams ‘In Windsor Forest’
  • Brahms ‘Requiem’
  • Delius ‘On Craig Dhu’ (what a beautiful piece)
  • Morley ‘Now is the month of maying’ (and other madrigals)
  • Class music lessons, were, for me, less interesting than actually making music. But I made up for that in my local libraries – Lewisham, and St. John’s Park in Blackheath, both of whom had great collections of piano music and miniature scores. Lots of stuff to explore! And I continued piano lessons, of course, and I won a prize for something – the complete Beethoven piano sonatas!! Plenty to learn from there.
  • And of course I continued to write music – some of it is lost or thrown out, but what I’ve still got sees me experimenting with a range of styles, the models often too clear!

Looking back on these early years now, I think I worked out a lot for myself – always the best way to learn – though this was somewhat at the expense of exploring things with teachers, fellow musicians and learning together, even though I was lucky in the music making that went on in school.  Piano lessons, and composing, can be quite a solitary experience, and there seemed to be less opportunity for young people to get together to make music outside school than there is now. I was the only ‘composer’ that I knew – and of course composition wasn’t part of the music curriculum as it is today. I never remember, at that stage, discussing my compositions with any school friends, still less getting the chance to write for instruments that I didn’t play – that had to wait till later. But I was lucky in that my piano teacher, while sticking to piano during the term-times, gave me composition lessons in the holidays, and this continued until he moved away when I was about 15 and I changed teachers.

I don’t recall going to concerts in London, even though it was only a 20 minute train ride away. But I do remember the concerts at the ‘Blackheath Music Society’ where we heard some excellent performers, including Jacqueline du Pre before she made the headlines, and also enjoyed the opportunity for massed singing in large festivals where schools came together and listened to each other sing and joined together in ‘set pieces’: these were at Goldsmith’s College in New Cross and were presumably organised by the LCC. I also recall a ‘private recital’ at a house in Blackheath Park, where I remember swooning over some Delius!

I did once enter for a composition competition – I suppose I was about 12 and I wrote a piano piece about a train journey at night, loosely based, perhaps, on Honegger’s 2-3-1. It was quite a dramatic piece, full of parallel chords, dissonances, repetitive rhythms, and really explored the pitch and dynamic range of the piano. I was quite pleased with it. It received a very low mark and the comment that I would do better to study harmony rather than experiment with ‘these modern ideas’.

I suppose, if one could sum up music education in the 1950s as compared with today, one might say that there was a clear seriousness of purpose and intent, more ‘instruction’, but less opportunity to put it all into practice. Not surprisingly, given the austerity of the age, it was quite dry, and focussed on the past, with less opportunity for experimentation. Improvisation on the piano was something to be done in secret! And I don’t remember encountering as many ‘contemporary’ composers as I perhaps should have done. But, overall, I am truly grateful for the secure musical background that was instilled into me during those early years.

I’ve attached photographs of some of the music and books that I learnt from in those years, and also the first page of an ‘opera’ which I wrote at the age of eleven – unlike the others that I wrote, this one is complete, but I’d be embarrassed to show you any more!

Next week I’ll say something about what I learnt in the 1960s – an exciting time to be a teenager…



Piece of the Week – Olympian Sketches

Olympian Sketches, for clarinet quartet (four clarinets), originated in a request from the inspirational clarinettist, teacher and conductor Angela Fussell, for whom I wrote a number of saxophone and clarinet pieces and who was also the teacher of my son Sam, now a professional saxophonist.

It was written in 1993 for a group of her students at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, to give these young aspiring professionals something to get their teeth into, and they gave the first performance at the International Clarinet Congress in Ghent, Belgium, that summer. It was subsequently performed and recorded by the Chinook Clarinet Quartet, and by several other groups.

Mount Olympus was the mythical dwelling place of the Greek gods and goddesses, and I chose five of these immortals as subject material for musical portraits. I love writing for the clarinet – it is such a colourful and flexible instrument, with a very wide pitch range, and the ability to create the tiniest pianissimo to a piercing scream, and for this this piece (with the exception of two movements where one Bb instrument is replaced by the higher Eb clarinet) I wrote for three Bb clarinets and one bass clarinet.

The first movement depicts Apollo, the god of music and of poetry, and features interweaving melodic lines alternating broken chords and scale passages. The equality of the three Bb instruments enables the ideas to cross over and seamlessly mingle with each other, whereas the bass clarinet remains slightly apart, moving more slowly through its range, binding the whole together. The general mood is of peaceful expressiveness.

There is a big change of mood for the second movement, which portrays Charon, the mysterious and malevolent ferryman of the underworld. Two clarinets oscillate in rhythmic unison, but a diminished fifth apart (the traditional ‘devil’s interval’) suggesting the rocking of the boat, while the bass clarinet takes up the same intervallic pattern in a low staccato figure. Periodically the high Eb clarinet breaks the relative silence with loud screaming passages, again based on the diminished fifth pattern – the effect is frightening and unsettling and I felt that the rocks above the underground lake were closing in, in a claustrophobic manner. By contrast, the third movement, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is fairly lightweight as he speeds from place to place with little trumpet-like fanfares and short melodic ideas thrown from instrument to instrument.

I wrote these first three movements at home in Colchester, then it was time for an Easter holiday in south-eastern France where I completed the piece, in between sight-seeing, Easter-Egg hunts, and games of table-tennis with our young family. I don’t think at the time I detected any change of approach in these final movements due to the change of scenery or language, but looking at the pieces again now I think I must have been thinking of Messiaen in the fourth movement, and Poulenc in the fifth!

The fourth movement is Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty – a gift to such expressive instruments as the clarinets, and the sinuous and freely rhythmic melody is based on the alternating tone and semitone modes of which Messiaen was so fond. And finally Artemis, the goddess of hunting, is welcomed with horn-calls and bouncing rhythms.

None of the movements are long – the whole piece lasts about 10 minutes – and it’s been enjoyable for me to revisit it after more than twenty years, and I hope you enjoy it too. There is a recording on YouTube here.

I subsequently made a version for saxophone quartet as well, for the Essex-based group Saxology. Neither version is currently published, but I’d be very happy to send copies to any clarinet or saxophone quartet interested.

Piece of the Week – Shepherds, guarding your flocks

It might seem a little strange to be posting about a Christmas piece in the middle of summer – but this is the time that many choral directors start thinking about their Christmas programmes, so I thought it might be interesting to say something about this carol.

Very often my new pieces happen as a result as a commission from the performers, and this is an example. Commissions are always good to do, and it’s great that the performers have enough faith in one’s music to agree to give the first performance, and pay for, a piece that they haven’t seen in advance!  Of course, I have to do my best not to disappoint them, by writing something which is ‘new’ and ‘theirs’, but which doesn’t spring unwanted surprises, and which, I hope, will be taken up by other choirs afterwards.

This carol was commissioned for The Stondon Singers, director Christopher Tinker, by a choir member, Chris Overy, in memory of his father, mother, and brother, and I felt it was a real honour to be commissioned in this way. In this case, I chose the text (sometimes commissioners like to make suggestions, of course). It’s a lovely Victorian poem, by Canon Matthew Woodward, and it describes, in six verses, the shepherds on the bleak hillside, the angels singing, the journey to the town, visiting the stable, bowing down to the baby Jesus, and finally Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the angels joining together in a ‘joyous hymn of praise’. At the end of each verse comes the traditional refrain ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ (Glory to God in the highest) and I have presented it in a slightly different way in each verse, from meditative to joyful.

The first performance was given by the Stondon Singers in the beautiful mediaeval church of St. Laurence in the pretty mid-Essex village of Blackmore, and I was very gratified that they performed it again the following Christmas.

It’s now been published by Oxford University Press and you can hear a recording by the Oxford Choir (director Bob Chilcott) here.

I hope you enjoy it, and thank you to Chris Overy, Christopher Tinker and the Stondon Singers for helping to bring this new carol into being!

Here’s the page on this website about it, which also includes a link to the OUP website.

Piece of the Week – Dance of the Universe

Last week’s Piece of the Week lasted 4 minutes – so as if to compensate, this week’s piece lasts 50 minutes!

I wrote Dance of the Universe during 1979 – it was my first big choral and orchestral piece and I shall always be indebted to Ian Ray and Colchester Choral Society for commissioning it from me. A few years earlier, as a young man in my twenties, I had arrived in Colchester to take up a teaching post at Colchester Institute, and naturally I got to know the local choral society and their conductor Ian Ray, who was a colleague there. I was a pretty unknown composer and he took a great leap of faith in asking me to write it, and it became one of many collaborations between us – in fact I’m writing a new piece for Colchester Choral Society at the moment!

At the time I was living on my own in a cottage in a village just outside Colchester, and for a piece like this I had to establish a good routine for writing, so that I could fit it in around my day job – this meant early mornings or evenings. I settled for early mornings – and so as not to disturb my neighbours too much, I got into a routine of getting to work an hour or so early and settling myself in a practice room to compose until the teaching day started. So whenever I hear this piece I always think of early mornings! I think it took me getting on for a year of this, full score as well as vocal score, and I remember that I paid one of my students to copy out the instrumental parts in those pre-computer days.

For all choral composers, finding suitable texts is often one of the most challenging aspects of the job. I can’t remember, now, which poetry I looked through while choosing the subject matter, but I was certainly very happy with the poem that I decided upon: ‘Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing’ by the sixteenth century poet Sir John Davies. This is in the Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, which I had recently bought, and the poem is massive – 131 verses of 7 lines each. It is presented as a dialogue with the Goddess Penelope (Ulysses’ queen) and to quote Davies: ‘judicially proving the true observation of Time and Measure, in the authentic and laudable use of Dancing’.

Even for a 50 minute piece, this poem was far too long, and I cut the 131 verses down to 25, and arranged these into three sections, each with a specific focus. In the first section I chose poetry that describes the heaven and the earth, and in the second, the sun, moon, and air. For the final section I chose verses which describe how the dancing rhythms of these elements are applicable to every living being.

Settling down to work, I remember that I began, not at the beginning of the piece, but with the setting of the words ‘Dancing, bright lady’ in five-four time, which occurs several times during the work. I also remember how much I relished, not only writing for choir and soloist, but also the opportunity to explore the range of colour available from the orchestra.

A friend said to me after that first performance that ‘it sounded like a massive galliard’ – and although that’s probably not true of the 5/4 sections, the characteristics of that Elizabethan dance, together with its soul-mate the pavane, certainly found their way in, though I don’t remember deliberately doing that at the time. Not having listened to it for a few years, I’ve enjoyed re-visiting it. It is quite long, and possibly I might have been a bit more ruthless with the cutting if I was writing it today, but I do admire the energy I brought to writing all those notes before starting my day’s work!

You can find all the words here
And you can listen to it here
And the vocal score is available on sale here

And here’s a picture of the last page of the full score:

Piece of the Week – Harwich Hornpipe

As this is the week of Harwich Festival 2017, I thought it would be appropriate to feature my Harwich Hornpipe. I wrote this short orchestral piece in 2003, and it was commissioned by Essex Music Services for the Essex Youth Orchestra (conductor Robin Browning) and first performed in a previous Harwich Festival.
Harwich is a town on the Essex coast – today it is a large container port, but the picturesque riverside streets and alleys in the old town are evidence of its long maritime history, and this overture was written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the granting of the town’s Royal Charter.
I based the piece on a seven-note motif derived from the letters H-A-R-W-I-C-H: this appears in many ways throughout the piece as the music takes us through various aspects of sea-faring activity – blasts on the fife and drum, a stirring march, a vision of the stormy high seas, then a becalmed ship, momentum regained, and finally the earlier ideas re-appearing, combined with a somewhat distorted ‘Sailors Hornpipe’. I had a lot of fun with all of this, and the whole thing is over in less than four minutes! I hope you enjoy it – just follow this link.