My Piano Preludes

Some years ago I started writing some piano preludes in odd moments between writing other things, partly to play myself, but also for others to play, of around Grade 6-8 standard. They grew into a set of twelve, one in each major key – hardly an original concept, but one which gave me an opportunity to think hard about variety within my self-imposed limit of only two pages per piece!  This first set was published in 2017, and I then followed this up with a second set, again written in odd moments, which was published very recently, in February 2020. The second set contains one in each minor key.

In both sets, if played complete, I recommend repeating the first prelude to make a final thirteenth prelude – hence the title Twelve or Thirteen Preludes.

I’ve always liked some kind of limitation in my work, whether it be the necessity for sticking to a five-finger position in a very easy piano piece, the demands of a certain key or mode, a specific motif or shape, or the expectations and skills of a particular group of singers, real or imagined. It releases the mind to concentrate on other parameters of musical invention. In these pieces, the aim for variety of style and texture was an important consideration, without ever (I hope) losing sight of my own musical voice. Some movements suggest the romantic, some the neo-classic, some the minimalist, and it was surprising how the requirement for one piece in each key suggested different moods. In the first set, for example, there is a lively D major, a simple and repetitive F sharp major, a quixotic F major, and a mysteriously floating B major; and in the second set there is a quirky B minor, a dramatic C minor, a romantic E minor, and a poignantly heartfelt G sharp minor, dedicated to the memory of a friend who passed away during its composition.

So, apart from key and variety of mood and character, my two main constraints in writing these pieces were, firstly, that I could manage to play them, and secondly, that they were two pages long. It’s been a real joy to explore a variety of textures and moods within these parameters, and it has rekindled my interest in writing for the piano.   You can hear me playing them all on YouTube here:

Twelve or Thirteen Preludes for piano Set One (major keys)

Twelve or Thirteen Preludes for piano Set Two (minor keys)

Further details, and how to buy copies, follow this link.

I’ve also made a version of six of the preludes (some from each set) for clavichord. This has involved a certain amount of rewriting to make them work, and was a really interesting project because it gave me the opportunity to look at the preludes with fresh eyes and ears. This version was first performed by Francis Knights in Fitzwilliam College Chapel on 29 February 2020.

Ancient Mexico and modern Britain – two of my orchestral pieces

I am hoping to write an orchestral piece this year, as a way of seeing in the 2020s.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of piece I might write, and I have an emerging plan in my head – no notes or rhythms yet, but some idea of overall sonorities and how the piece can be shaped by contrasting instrumental registers. While not really a ‘programmatic’ piece it is inspired by a landscape that I know well, and the changes that occur year by year.

Partly as preparation for this, I’ve been listening to a range of orchestral music, including some of my own, and realising yet again the enjoyment, as well as the pitfalls, of writing for orchestra.

Yesterday I listened to two of my orchestral pieces – apart from the fact that, oddly, they both begin with a gong, they are very different pieces.  One of them was written for a youth orchestra, with easy instrumental parts, and the other one was written for an orchestra of music students, and was designed to stretch these trainee professional musicians both technically and musically. Both have several movements, with descriptive titles, but, after that, they have little in common!

The earlier piece was ‘A Colchester Suite’ written in 1982 for the newly-formed Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra. It has four movements, each relating to a different aspect of life in Colchester, past and present. Colchester is a Roman town, with much history, and these pieces are, if you like, picture postcards of the high-street market, the countryside nearby, and the old port down the hill. And the last movement is a fantasia on the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, which has some claim to be of Colcestrian origin. The music is accessible, often influenced by folk-song, and uses the orchestra in a colourful but traditional way.  Indeed, its pictorial quality became even more evident when, a few years later, it was made the subject of an Anglia TV film, in which appropriate video was put to the music. (One day I must try and trace that film).

Very different was the piece that I wrote to see in the millennium. ‘Aztec Genesis’ (2000) was written for Christopher Phelps and the Colchester Institute Symphony Orchestra. At that time, Colchester Institute, where I taught, had a very large music department, for students from 16 to 21+, and provided many musical opportunities: this orchestra was just one of the many student ensembles on offer. This is an expansive piece, for large orchestra, and provides both technical and musical challenges for player and listener. 

In the year 2000 I think many of us were thinking of our own past, our traditions and beliefs, and somehow I was led to consider the traditions of other peoples, and in particular the creation myths of the Aztec people of Mexico. The Aztec civilisation goes back many thousands of years, and although much has now been destroyed, some wonderful works of art remain.  There are five movements in my piece, which reflect the Aztec belief that the world was created five times and destroyed four times – we are now living in the fifth era. Each era was named after a god and a force of nature: Sun, Wind, Rain, Water, Earthquake, and I based the music on a five-note motif derived from the letters AZTEC.

Deriving the music from a short motif immediately provided a different approach to the melody, harmony, and texture than in the earlier piece. I think the thing that excited me most about writing this was the opportunity that the large orchestra gave me to think in tone-colours, and although each movement is to an extent pictorial, the picture painted is rather more amorphous and difficult to pin down than in the earlier piece. I was excited – and I think the students were too – by the power unleashed by the heavy percussion, the snarling brass, the rushing woodwind: and by the delicacy of the strings in their highest and lowest registers, by the gentle heterophony (several players playing the same material but deliberately not quite together) and the peaceful sonority created by solo wind instruments, and by the pitched percussion and piano. 

Not everything quite came off – although there are many areas of busy, forward moving music, there are possibly slightly too many points of relaxation; and also in the final bars I wanted the large gong to make so much noise that you couldn’t hear the rest of the orchestra at first, so that gradually the other sounds would emerge as if out of the depths, and this didn’t seem to work.  But most of it did succeed, and I was pleased with the colour and texture that I had created, and have enjoyed listening to the recording again after twenty years.

So, here are two pieces, by the same person, with some similarities, but yet which provide a big contrast in mood and style.  I wonder what my new piece will be like?

The image is a page from the last movement of Aztec Genesis.

You can hear recordings on YouTube of both pieces:

A Colchester Suite 

Aztec Genesis

A new year for church musicians

Now that we’ve put our carol books back on the shelves and taken down the decorations, your thoughts might be turning to music for Lent and Easter.

Easter week is the most meaningful one in the life and music of the Church, and the excitement of Easter morning portrayed in music is one to which I always thrill.

I’ve written quite a few anthems for Lent and Passiontide, but I’ll begin by mentioning my cantata, Wondrous Cross.  Written for my home church of Lion Walk Church, Colchester (you can hear them sing it on Youtube) and subsequently recorded by Selwyn College Choir (dir. Sarah MacDonald) for Regent Records, it lasts about 30 minutes and is based on the Seven Last Words, mixing recitative and congregational hymns with settings of related poems and texts. It’s published by OUP and can be accompanied by organ alone, or organ and strings. I’ve led several workshops on it over the years, and It has now had a healthy number of performances in worship services and in concert, in the UK, Europe and the USA.

Several of the movements in Wondrous Cross can also be sung as separate anthems. Additionally, I have contributed several Lent and Passiontide anthems in The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems and The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems. Other anthems include the powerfully dramatic O Saviour of the World and, for Palm Sunday, a lively setting of The Feast of Palms (both of these are recorded on the Wondrous Cross disc, and by following the links you can hear extracts).

Maybe I should write an Easter cantata too – would that be of interest to choir directors, I wonder? Anyway, in the meanwhile my Easter anthems range from the rich and lengthy Rise up, my love to the rhythmic and lively He is Risen. Others include Alleluia, Thine be the Glory, and several arrangements in The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems.

There’s plenty to choose from – and I’m sure there will be more in the future!

For a full list of my anthems, listed by seasons, go here.

Thank you for reading.

Recent Publications

Recent publications include the following: click the link for details of each one

Images of Peace (choral suite for SATB unaccompanied)

Welcome Yule  (SATB with organ or piano)

For Christ is Born (SATB with organ or piano)

Thine be the glory (SAMen with organ or piano)

Bread of Heaven (SATB unaccompanied)

The world has waited long (SATB with organ or piano)

This is the Key (upper voices in one or two parts)

Song to the Moon (upper voices in or two parts)

He is Risen (SATB with organ or piano)

How Good is our God (SATB unaccompanied)

The Oxford Book of Flexible Choral Songs

Make a joyful noise!

Alan Bullard’s anthem, Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord, receives its first performance on Sunday 27th October at St Guthlac’s Church, Market Deeping, by the church choir directed by the organist, Peter Davies.  Peter has had a long association with Bullard’s music and Alan was delighted to have the opportunity to write this anthem, funded as part of the organ restoration project.

The church’s 137-year-old organ has been given a new lease of life in an £80,000 restoration project and it to be re-dedicated this weekend – the new anthem forming part of the celebrations.

The instrument, in St Guthac’s Church, Market Deeping, will be re-dedicated by the Bishop of Grantham, the Right Rev Dr Nicholas Chamberlain at a service of thanksgiving and re-dedication on Sunday 27th October at 10am.  Details here.

The anthem will be published by Oxford University Press next year.

Clavichord music

In the early 1970s, inspired, I think, by the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and by the clavichord music of my teacher Herbert Howells, I bought a secondhand Morley clavichord, and quite soon wrote some music for it.  Later, due to pressure on space and house-moving, it sat in a corner unplayed, and only recently I found a performance space for it again and was able to revisit and further explore the clavichord repertoire, enjoying this quiet and peaceful, but also most sensitive and colourful keyboard instrument.

This explains the forty-year gap between the composition dates of my clavichord pieces: Prelude, Air and Gigue of 1973 (the Air and Gigue were published by Oxford University Press but are long out of print), Six Miniatures of 1975, and Level, 2018.

Air and Gigue were first performed by Kathleen Crees at London’s Purcell Room in June 1975, and much more recently have been recorded, on harpsichord, by Penelope Cave – details here on the CD ‘Panorama 1919-2013’ (Prima Facie CD) and on Spotify here (tracks 18 and 19).

My recent piece, Level, is a palindromic study originally written for marimba and first performed by Joby Burgess, and now completely revised and rewritten for the clavichord. The marimba and the clavichord have more in common than one might think and it was a very interesting and enjoyable task to recreate the piece.  The palindromic structure – the second half of the piece being the first half in reverse (both in rhythm and pitch), creates a gradual development from calm (with one or two intermediate rises and falls) towards a busy climax, and then a gradual return to the character of the opening.  I think that the difficulty for any composer using this structure is that a climax point half-way through the piece is more difficult to manage, as there is a natural tendency for high points to feel more appropriate at approximately two-thirds of the way through (the ‘golden section’ proportion) but I hope that in my piece the relaxed and calm character of the clavichord, together with the emerging realisation of the unfolding of the music in reverse, will carry the music through.

So it is with great pleasure that I look forward to a clavichord concert by Francis Knights on Saturday 9 March 2019 at 2.30 pm in Hughes Hall, Cambridge, in which he will play all of the above pieces, alongside music by Herbert Howells, Barry Guy (world premiere), Ivan Moody, Julia Usher (world premiere), Graham Lynch and Matyas Seiber: a great opportunity to hear and assess clavichord music of the past hundred years. Admission is free: details here

Alan Bullard’s music at ACDA

For all composers, bringing their work to the attention of performers is a major part of their work, either individually or working with a publisher. This week sees the biannual convention of ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) in Kansas City, to which publishers, performers and composers will be travelling to from all over the world.

Alan Bullard’s music will be available to see and hear both on the OUP and the GIA stands. Oxford University Press have produced the following online material as a backup to their presence at ACDA: you can view an OUP online catalogue for the choral music of Alan Bullard here  and, if you have Spotify, there is an OUP playlist of Alan Bullard’s choral music here

New works for Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas

Two new works for the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas

Alan Bullard’s two new songs for the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, was premiered in Centuries of Song at the Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas, (see picture) on April 7 2019.
Alan was there to hear Song to the Moon performed by the Prelude Chorus (director Cynthia Nott) and This is the Key, performed by the Apprentice Chorus (director Kimberley Ahrens).

Both works are published by Oxford University Press

While Alan is in Dallas, at 2.00 on the same day he led a workshop on his music entitled Meet and Sing, an afternoon with composer Alan Bullard sponsored by the Church Music Institute, at Northway Christian Church, Dallas.

June update: here are links to the live first performances of Song to the Moon and This is the Key 

Images of Peace

A couple of years ago I was approached by Colchester Choral Society, a good amateur choir who have commissioned several pieces from me over the years, to commission a new unaccompanied work that would focus on the concept of world peace – a subject dear to the hearts of many, and sadly perhaps in our minds  even more now than for many years.

As always with choral music, finding suitable texts liberates and starts the compositional process, and for this piece, the commissioners requested a work that would encourage peace and understanding while not focussing on any particular creed or belief. So in my research for texts and ideas I looked at a number of peace symbols or images, and while not all of these suggested appropriate poetry, the symbols of the olive branch, the dove, and the rainbow in particular came into the foreground. Eventually, I found texts from a range of sources, including the English metaphysical and pastoral traditions, and the Taoist, Jewish and Christian traditions, and the shape of Images of Peace was born.

With five movements, the work lasts nearly 14 minutes, and although it is written so that the movements can be performed separately, I attempted a quasi-symphonic structure for the complete work: the calm first and last movements (‘Sweet Peace’ and ‘Bread of Peace’) partly share the same material, and between these are three contrasting movements. ‘Rainbow of Peace’ is a lively scherzo, and this is followed by an expressive slow central movement (‘Peace in the world’), and then an elegant allegretto (‘Doves of Peace’).

‘Images of Peace’, for unaccompanied mixed choir was commissioned by Colchester Choral Society, using funds from a legacy by Richard Daniel, and the first public performance is on Saturday 17th November, 7.30pm, St Botolph’s Church, Colchester.  

 

Colchester Choral Society, under their director Ian Ray, have also made a recording of this and other works of the British tradition. This will be available at the concert at a price of £10, and also by post (charge for postage): please follow this link for details.  By permission of the Society, you may also listen to the recording of Images of Peace on Soundcloud here. 

The score of ‘Images of Peace’ is published by Oxford University Press. Details here 

Here are excerpts from the five movements (at lower quality sound than the actual CD):

1. Sweet Peace

2. Rainbow of Peace

3. Peace in the World

4. Doves of Peace

5. Bread of Peace

Piece of the Week – New Year Carol

In the 1980s, when our children were either very small or perhaps not quite born, our friends David and Margaret Cutforth kindly lent us their beautiful Elizabethan house in White Colne for a holiday (in return for a little cat-sitting). The lovely grounds stretched down to the river and the house was a magical warren of rooms where the tall amongst us needed to keep our heads down – the doors were marked with a ‘Duck or Grouse’ sign.

On their many bookshelves was an old poetry book containing the poem ‘Here we bring new water’ – quite a well-known verse (set by Britten in the 1930s) which welcomes in the New Year, though I’ve never found anyone who quite knows what it all means!  As a case in point, try reading the Wikipedia entry for the phrase ‘levy-dew’ – which forms the chorus text, and, in my setting, a constantly repeated background to the verses as well. After several learned guesses, the writer has to admit that ‘the meaning of the words is not certainly known’.

Other interesting phrases are:

‘The seven bright gold wires, and the bugles that do shine’ (something to do with Revelation?)

‘Open you the West Door, and turn (=let?) the Old Year go: open you the East Door, and let the New Year in!’

I love these slightly unclear and archaic verses, and I responded, in the productive atmosphere of the old house, with joy and happiness, dedicating it to the owners. You can hear a performance here, and the music is published by Banks Music Publications.  Happy New Year!