Piece of the Week: Our World/Unsere Welt

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] (etc.)

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.

Piece of the Week: Fanfares for Orchestra

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:

Piece of the Week: Prayer for Peace

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 Gadelica here (follow the links at the bottoms of the article)
And here is a scholarly approach to Carmichael’s works:

Post of the Week – Discovering music in the 1960s

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
  • Berg: Sonata
  • Schoenberg: Suite
  • 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….

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.

Piece of the week – Attitudes for solo guitar

Although I’ve written quite a lot of easy guitar pieces for sight-reading practise, Attitudes is my only professional-standard guitar piece – it was commissioned by the guitarist Martin Plackett in 1991 and it gave me a real opportunity to explore guitar sonority and colour.
It’s in three movements, and I took the standard guitar tuning of EADGBE (going upwards) as a way of making decisions about the melodic and harmonic content of the piece. It’s possible to use those tuning pitches to create a kind of mode by placing the same pattern of intervals above each one. Sadly I can’t find, and probably haven’t kept, the original sketches for the piece (which would have been interesting, for me, at any rate), but, as far as I can remember, I created motivic cells which were then transposed to begin on each of the open strings. So, there is something there for the musical analyst, perhaps – but, for the listener and player, what I hope is more interesting is the range of colour that the guitar can produce and which I aimed to utilise.
The first movement, ‘Dramatic’ begins with an improvisatory rising melodic line. I’m particularly fond of using the guitar as a melody instrument, as this gives the player optimum opportunity to colour and vary the sound. Then, later, contrast is provided by using the guitar chordally, and also a section with harmonics. Finally, the opening melody descends to where it started.
The second movement ‘Capricious’ is very fast, in strict time but with no clear time signature, and apart from a few contrasting chords played on the lowest two open strings, and a central pesante section, the melody is played in high position on the upper strings, giving a fleeting and evanescent atmosphere.
The final movement, ‘Pensive’, begins in what is perhaps a more traditional way – melody in the upper strings while the thumb picks out isolated bass notes or chords. Within that texture there is a big range of colour, though, and gradually the melody takes over and develops into a dramatic unaccompanied section moving across all the strings, returning, in the final section, to the opening texture, and moving to a coda which emphasises the pull between major and minor third which characterises the motivic units used in all three movements.

For me it’s been really interesting to revisit a piece that I wrote more than 25 years ago, and I hope you enjoy it too!

You can hear it, played by its dedicatee, on YouTube.  The work isn’t published (or even computer-set) but you can get very legible hand-written copies from me, and I’d be happy to send a pdf to any guitarists interested in playing it.