It’s always pleasing when a piece that you have written takes on a life of its own – sometimes in a way that you couldn’t have imagined. Here’s an example.
Over twenty years ago I wrote a set of easy pieces for cello and piano – Lunar Landscapes. At about Grade 1 to 2 level, each of the eight short pieces reflects an aspect of the moon – Moonflight, Moon Rock, Moonbeams, etc.- and for a time some of them featured in the ABRSM exam syllabus and a number of young cellists sawed their way through them.
I’d rather forgotten about them until some years later I was contacted by an Italian youth orchestra asking if they could record them with a cello ensemble and piano, and the resulting film (with lovely drawings and animations as well) is a wonderful performance, with some much more professional-sounding playing than I would ever have imagined for my little pieces.
I’ve no more to say really – except follow this link to the Orchestra giovanile di violoncelli Tiroconlarcoand enjoy their playing and visuals!
Commissions for new works usually come with suggestions or requests from the commissioner – length and scoring, of course, but also often other pointers: where the piece might fit in a concert, or suggested mood (celebratory, meditative, and so on), subject matter, standard of choir, what they like singing, and all kinds of other things, sometimes even a specific poem. These constraints are almost always a good thing as they give the composer a starting point around which to shape their musical ideas.
One of the strangest, and most useful, requests I ever received was twenty-five or so years ago when Peter Davies, a great mover and shaker in the world of choral music and commissioner of many pieces from me for various choirs, asked me to write a piece for a choir he then conducted – the Sawtry Chorale in Huntingdonshire, UK. The stipulations were simply that it should be a Christmas Carol, and that it should be in 7/8 – an asymmetrical time signature of seven quavers in the bar!
This gave me some cause for thought – but actually it forced me into writing a carol that was, I believe, more rhythmic and memorable than if I had set to work around a more conventional time signature: so the commissioner got the piece he wanted for his choir, and the challenge that he gave me spurred me on musically.
A little child there is yborn is then, mostly, in 7/8 – a lively and rhythmic setting of a fifteenth-century text, with a main theme that appears both in minor and major modes. For just one section – where the Three Kings appear – does the music move into a more regular, slightly pompous, metre, but it soon returns to the rhythmic character of the first section. Looking at it again now, I can see elements of similarity with ‘Glory to the Christ Child’, which I wrote about fifteen years later, though this carol lacks the reflective elements, isn’t so challenging in performance, and is really just one joyful romp. And I’ve used the 7/8 metre in a regular way (2+2+3) so it is quite easy for choir, and conductor, to get their head round it.
Recently published is the saxophone collection, Final Whistle, to which I contributed four of the pieces. Aimed at learners at around Grades 2-5, with editions for Eb and Bb saxophone, several of the pieces feature in the 2018 ABRSM saxophone syllabus.
My interest in writing for the saxophone goes back a long way: in 1990 a teaching colleague of mine, the late Angela Fussell, asked me to write a piece, Circular Melody, for the Colchester Institute Saxophone Choir (one of very few in the UK at that time) which was first performed at the first British Saxophone Congress at Wakefield. This commission, together with Angela’s enthusiasm, awakened my interest in this sonorous and colourful instrument, and I followed this up with Three Picasso Portraits, commissioned by the saxophone quartet Saxology, and recorded by them on CD and now available on Spotify. At the same time my son Sam’s interest in the saxophone was awakening, and I wrote Weekend for him in 1993, when he was eleven, and subsequently the much more challenging Workout, in 1997. (both of these publications are with piano accompaniment and are available in editions for alto and tenor sax). Now in his thirties and a professional saxophonist, Sam is reviving Workout, with me at the piano, for a lunch time concert on 25th October at Colchester’s Lion Walk Church.
Then, in 2005, I wrote a set of saxophone studies, Sixty for Sax, but apart from arrangements of existing pieces I’ve written little else for the saxophone until now, so it was good when saxophonist Chris Gumbley invited me to contribute to his new collection, Final Whistle. The book contains four pieces by me, four by James Rae, and four by Chris Gumbley, who edited (or ‘refereed’ as he says) the book and chose the football-themed titles – mine are called ‘Kick-off’, ‘Mexican Wave’, Waltzing to Wembley’ and ‘Final Whistle’. I had a lot of fun writing these pieces and reviving my interest in writing for the sax.
Here are the publication details. There are no recordings yet, but who knows what may happen as the book rises up the league!
There’s something very haunting about Pachelbel’s Canon. Yes, I know that for many its attraction has palled, and after all it is just based on a very standard 17th century bass line, the romanesca, but there is something about the inevitability of the harmonic shape that makes one feel warm and comfortable. At least, that’s how I felt when, quite a few years ago now, I was asked to write a new setting of ‘The Lord Bless you and Keep You’ for a wedding at my church. So I took Pachelbel’s famous piece, and wove some new canonic melodies over the top, overlapping and combining with each other, occasionally changing key and texture to give some variety and shape.
It’s recently resurfaced in The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems as, although it’s in three vocal parts, it’s possible to sing it with fewer: and it’s been enjoyable to revisit it.
If you have had enough of Pachelbel, you may not care for it, but if you’d like to listen, it’s here, performed by members of Commotio directed by Griselda Sherlaw-Johnson
And the page about it on this website, with various links, is here
In Summer 2005 I left my college teaching post to allow more time for composition – and the first piece I wrote that summer, with my new-found freedom, was a Christmas carol, ‘Glory to the Christ Child’.
This piece alternates a rhythmic and asymmetrical refrain (harmonised differently on each appearance) with a lovely medieval poem, ‘Out of the Orient skies a blazing star did shine’. The last line of each verse of this poem refers to the baby Jesus: ‘A blessed babe divine’ in the first verse, ‘This blessed babe did rest’ in the second, and ‘Born is this new king’ in the third – and the change of mood occasioned by these words enabled me to end each verse with slow moving chords: calm and peaceful in verses 1 and 2, joyous in verse 3. Then I realised that by ending the piece with a repetition of that calm mood, repeating the words ‘The blessed babe divine’ I could contrast the joyous celebration of the refrain with the promise of peace that the Christ-Child brings, and thus the carol assumed its overall shape.
But I still wasn’t quite sure of the notes! (that often happens – and there’s still one in this piece I wish was different now) and in particular the choice of the chords in those final peaceful bars gave me some difficulty. There’s a passage in Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ where a girl draws a picture of a young lady about to jump off a cliff with three pairs of arms in different positions, with the intention that she would erase two pairs when she has decided on the best one to keep. I felt a bit like that when, on a hot summers afternoon at an ABCD conference, I spread out three versions of those final bars on the grass in front of several members of the OUP staff to seek their advice. Advice was duly given and the piece was complete!
It’s become one of my most-performed carols. It was sung by the choir of Kings College Cambridge (director Stephen Cleobury) at the Nine Lessons and Carols service broadcast on Christmas Eve 2007 and 2008, and it was wonderful to hear it in that magnificent setting. And this year it has been chosen by The Sixteen (director Harry Christophers) as the title carol to their UK Christmas tour – so I am really looking forward to hearing that!
There are several performances on YouTube: some of them are not very tight or accurate rhythmically and thus rather unexciting, but here is a good one from an Italian choir. and here is another good one from the OUP website.
And there is also an excellent EMI Kings College Cambridge CD with it on, though I don’t think it’s currently available.
Here is a link to the page about this carol on this site, which contains publisher and recording details.
A few summers ago, my wife Jan and I were writing one of the books in our Pianoworks series – Pianoworks Popular Styles (Oxford University Press). This is a collection of new pieces composed by us, in a wide range of styles from the past 100 years, both popular and classical: they are designed to complement the other books in the Pianoworks series, at about Grade 2 to Grade 3 level.
We had a lot of fun writing this book and responding to the various styles of the relatively recent past with titles such as ‘Just one Day’, ‘Moonlight through Glass’, ‘Brighton Belle’, ‘Model T’, ‘Night Waves’, ‘Satin’ and many more, including ‘Azalea’, which I’ll come to in a moment.
Before I do that, I’ll just mention that I played a selection of these pieces in a concert the other day, when I had to suddenly deputise for a sick colleague with little time for me to practise: and although we never really thought of them as concert material, they did work in concert, and were appreciated by a large audience for their variety and colour. One of the pieces I played was ‘Azalea’ and although this piece is theoretically about a sort of rhododendron, it was actually written at the time when our granddaughter Azalea was born. (Her fourth birthday is this week, and she loves to hear me play it!)
This year also marks the tenth anniversary of the original Pianoworks Book 1, which has now been supplemented by eight other volumes.
You can see a YouTube recording of ‘Azalea’ here and you can see some sample pages and obtain the complete book here or from your usual music supplier. There are eighteen pieces and moods to explore….
About ten years ago I was approached by the headteacher of a primary school in Clacton, with the idea that I should write a ‘Global Anthem’ for the school celebrating togetherness and understanding between countries.
Clacton, a seaside resort on the eastern edge of Essex, is in an ‘Educational Priority Area’ which meant, at least at that time, there was extra funding from the British Council available for projects for schools in deprived areas. The school had decided to use the funding to arrange a visit to a school in Clacton’s ‘twin town’ in Germany, and to commission a song for both schools to sing, in both languages. (It is somewhat ironic that, more recently, Clacton became a stronghold of UKIP, the UK Independence Party).
I suggested that we made the text of the song from phrases suggested by the children themselves, and this project gave the children of both schools a real sense of ownership of the material. Then I put the words together, wrote the song, and provided them with a recording with a backing track.
It was fun to do, and also rewarding to give the young people the opportunity to visit another country and experience things they would have been unlikely to have done otherwise. The multi-lingual nature of the text may limit its use for other purposes, but as you can see and hear from the video, filmed in Germany, they sung it with gusto.
Here are some of the words of Our World/Unsere Welt:
We want a world of justice,
We want a world of happiness,
We want to look after our world:
For this world is full of people so great,
Ev’ry day we can find a new mate,
In our world. (etc.)
Egal welche Hautfarbe wir haben, [No matter what colour your skin is]
Egal, wer unsere Eltern sind, [No matter who your parents are]
Egal wie wir ausseh’n jeder von uns, [No matter what you look like]
Wie tellen uns die eine Welt, [Together we share one world]
Uns’re Welt. [Our world]
Peace looks as blue as the sky,
Peace sounds as calm as a sigh,
Peace feels as deep as the sea,
Peace is for you and for me! (etc.)
I hope you enjoy the video, and the sense of life that the young people bring to the song. It’s not published – let me know if you would like the words and music.
When I first came to teach at the School of Music at Colchester Institute, Essex, one of the many exciting things was the existence of a really good college orchestra, inspired by an excellent conductor, Chris Phelps. It wasn’t too long before Chris gave me the first of several opportunities to write for the orchestra. I had written for orchestra before, of course, and learnt something of the craft of orchestration from text books and scores, but the piece I wrote for them, ‘Fanfares’ (1985) was the first time that I had the opportunity to write freely for an orchestra of near-professional standard.
The piece was commissioned by Colchester Institute to celebrate its centenary, and my aim was to write a short exciting celebratory piece and also, perhaps, to try out some of the ideas that I had recently learnt in studying the music of Sibelius, Lutoslawski, and Reich. Sibelius for his ability to move seamlessly from fast to slow music and back again (e.g. the 7th Symphony), Lutoslawski for his use of interlocking pitch groups and his rhythmic structure based on number patterns (as in ‘Livre’), and Reich for his use of gradually changing motor rhythms. I think I assimilated all these influences into something of my own to make a colourful piece that gave the students something exciting to play and to demonstrate their skills.
[If you prefer not to read analytical notes, skip this paragraph.] So, with a background of driving repetitive rhythm, the piece moves though different ‘tempi’ but with a steady pulse throughout, using a number of different fanfare-type motifs, each one largely associated with a different instrumental group. Harmonically the music is based on two six-note groups (together using all the notes of the chromatic scale) and rhythmic motifs are often created from a simple number pattern 1-2-3-4-5.
You can hear the performance on YouTube here, and here are a couple of pages from near the end of the score:
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….