Some years ago I came across the Carmina Gadelica – songs of the Gaels – a massive collection of Celtic chants and prayers collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic, by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912). Since their publication these poems have become a treasure-trove, and like many composers I have often made use of them.
Carmichael was an exciseman – a job which gave him much opportunity for travel – and he must have been a remarkable person, getting to know the inhabitants of these remote districts and isles, and gaining their confidence to enable him to write down the prayers and songs which meant so much to them, and were an essential part of their daily life. Admittedly, there is much controversy over how close the ‘translations’ were, and how much were paraphrases or even simply inventions from Carmichael’s own head, but I don’t think this weakens the heartfelt thoughts and prayers that they contain, in which the daily activities of farming, fishing and household activities are enmeshed with birth and death, the sun and the moon, and prayers to God.
As far as I can recall, the first song that I wrote using Carmichael’s texts was Prayer for Peace. Sadly, these words are still relevant, as they begin:
Peace between nations, Peace between races, Peace between neighbours…
My musical setting is straightforward, melodious and simple as befits the words, and over the years it’s been sung in many places. Originally published separately, it’s now available in the collection Alan Bullard Anthems, published by OUP.
Following the probable lead of Carmichael, I too made some alterations to the text as I wrote the piece, to make it more appropriate for modern times. And since then, another composer has set my altered text, believing it to be the original!
Here is a link to a performance on YouTube sung by Susan Hollingworth’s excellent Sine Nomine choir.
There are a number of other prayers based in some way upon these words, and I’ve very recently set one of them – but that’s another story….
You can read some of Carmina Gadelicahere (follow the links at the bottoms of the article)
And here is a scholarly approach to Carmichael’s works:
Last week I wrote about my experience of discovering music in the 1950s, and this week I shall say something about what I discovered in the 1960s. Next week, normal service will be resumed, with a ‘Piece of the Week’
During 1960 I became a teenager, and although I did the usual teenager things like going to youth clubs, parties, and meeting girls, I never swerved from my desire to compose music. At school, things continued much as before, with some great opportunities for singing in choral works but no opportunity to take O level music in the academic ‘stream’ that I was in. However, in the sixth form I was allowed to take A level music alongside another boy – looking back now I think this only worked because Desmond Swinburn, our music teacher, taught us in his spare time, because the lessons were either at lunchtime or after school, assisted by a couple of young teachers who were probably on ‘teaching practice’. Also in the sixth form I had the opportunity to compose and direct the music for a school play and also for a sixth-form review: outside school, a part-time job in a local dancing school led to an opportunity to write music for a dramatic production (which I played on a harmonium). These things, coupled with the wider variety of music that I was discovering, the pop music of the time, of course, and also some early jazz (the notated sort – Jelly Roll Morton, etc.) as well as a wider variety of classical music, all gave me confidence in composing the right music for whatever occasion. I think I was also impressed and inspired by the musical abilities of Dudley Moore – the parody of Beethoven and the imitation Britten folksong for instance – programmes like ‘That was the Week that Was’ and ‘Not only but Also’ were required viewing at the time.
Then, in the mid-sixties, I went to the Royal College of Music. What a strange old-fashioned place that was! Female students were not allowed to wear trousers (unless they were cellists) and the ‘Lady Superintendent’ kept an eye on everybody’s dress code and general morals, and some of the older staff still referred to the ‘Girl’s Staircase’ and the ‘Boy’s Staircase’ – one at each end of the building. In the basement canteen, every table had its own character. On the left hand side as you came in, dwelt the members of the opera school, whose behaviour and dress could well have kept the Lady Superindentent awake at night! In the middle there were areas for string players, brass players, wood-wind etc, and at the far right-hand side was the organists’ table – which tended to be also frequented by the more academic musicians, like me. You could tell the occupants of this table because they wore a sports jacket, shirt and tie. Upstairs were rows and rows of teaching rooms and the organs were right at the top in the tower – it’s not changed very much today, except that there are now lifts and numerous fire doors. There were also practice rooms in the basement, and also in the basement of what was then the Royal College of Organists building across the road. If you wanted a practice room you queued up in the office in the morning and were allocated one – alternatively you just took pot luck.
My timetable was very simple: a piano lesson once a week (with Antony Hopkins) and a composition and ‘paperwork’ lesson once a week (with Herbert Howells). Everyone had to sing in the main choir in at least the first year, and there were a few other classes, history etc. and those associated with the London BMus degree which I was doing, some of which involved a trip to Kings College in the Strand. After the first few weeks I was excused the aural class because I could do it too easily (no suggestion of giving me harder challenges…), but there were a number of optional classes and choirs that you could attend, some of which I did. After that, you were left on your own to make contacts, arrange rehearsal partnerships – which I did, but not as much as I should have done – and there were always plenty of student concerts to attend as well of course as the many concerts in London generally. At the end of the year you got a short report on your progress – less informative than many a school one – and this was sent to your parents, as if you still were at school!
I had some good teachers (called ‘professors’), though.
Antony Hopkins, who was most famous for his ‘Talking about Music’ series on the radio, was very keen to get me playing with more ‘feeling’. His teaching method was to sit at one piano while I sat at the other, showing me ‘how it should be done’. I don’t think he ever taught me any piano technique, but he taught be a great deal about how to perform, and about music generally. And his ‘Talking about Music’ technique… ‘And a lesser composer might have done it like this (…improvises…) but Beethoven did it like this (…plays the real thing…) inspired me in my own lectures from that day to this!
My composition teacher, Herbert Howells, was a charming man and I learnt a lot from him by, I think, a kind of osmosis. In his early seventies, elegant and dapper, with a cigarette drooping from his lips, he studied my compositional efforts, got me to play them to him, and silently amended them in 2B pencil to sound more like Howells! He was very kind, but I wish he’d pushed me a bit more! There was little structure to his lessons, and he never set me any work – I had to make all the decisions and just make sure that I had something to show him each week, either a piece of harmony or a composition. But, to be alongside a real composer was a great musical experience – in my first year he was scoring his Stabat Mater and it was exciting to see it growing on his desk and to go to the first performance with David Willcocks and the Bach Choir (where, during the interval, HH suddenly placed his lit cigarette between my fingers, murmuring ‘there’s someone over there who doesn’t like me smoking’, and walked off) – and to have studied with a composer who studied with Stanford, who studied with Brahms, is a great pedigree.
In my second year, Herbert Howells tripped and broke an ankle when running for a no. 9 bus from his house in Barnes, and for a term I was taught by Ruth Gipps instead. She was much more pushy, and although she was perhaps less broad-minded musically than Howells was, she soon got me writing an orchestral piece which she then premiered with the good amateur orchestra that she conducted, and encouraged me in various other ways – so when Howells returned to work I had more confidence to experiment a bit more.
In those days, at the RCM, very few people knew what was going on at Darmstadt or anything like that, though I imagine professors such as Humphrey Searle and John Lambert were pretty well informed. But Howells, unlike some of his colleagues, was quite receptive to my having a go at twelve-note techniques, though he preferred me to use Berg as a model rather than Webern. And works like Boulez’s ‘Le Marteau sans Maitre’ I suspect passed him by!
Other tutors that I had, in classes, included Thurston Dart (at Kings College, always entertaining, scholarly, and somewhat left-field in his interpretation of musical sources), Bernard Stevens (rather dull presentation but good ideas about the relationship of music to society), Frank Howes (frankly resting on his laurels as author and critic and whose history classes seemed to echo a viewpoint from the 1920s), Denys Darlow (organised and efficient keyboard harmony classes), John Lambert (intelligent and thoughtful but could be a little opinionated and condescending) – and I’m sure there were others but I can’t remember.
Also, of course, for the first time I met a big range of other composers and performers – some of whom are now quite well known, but others who seem to have completely disappeared. It was always good to discuss compositional ideas – though I remember I was also quite surprised at first to find how many musicians wanted to talk about anything but music!
Here are some of the piano works that I learnt during the 1960s – or attempted to:
A number of pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book
Scarlatti: sonatas including the E major one
Bach: various preludes and fugues
Schubert: B flat major sonata
Beethoven: F minor sonata op. 2 no. 1: E major Sonata op. 131
Chopin: several Ballades, though the final pages were often a challenge
John Ireland: Sarnia
Dallapiccola: Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera
So what was the result of all this study? Well I wrote quite a lot of music (though I don’t think I ever worked as hard as I have subsequently), but out of all of it there’s only one song that I’d like to hear again. Nevertheless many compositional techniques and styles found their way into my brain.
After I left the RCM, I went for a year’s study at Nottingham University – an MA in Analysis of Contemporary Music led by Arnold Whittall – a very intelligent and inspiring man. I applied merely because I saw a little advertisement for it in the newspaper and thought it sounded interesting. It was – and I got to grips with understanding, for the first time, how much twentieth – century composition worked. It may not have had an instant effect on my musical language, but over the long term I came to realise that there was more to musical composition than I had learned from Macpherson’s ‘Melody and Harmony’.
Then I was out in the world – and I don’t propose to write anything about that for the time being….