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.

Piece of the week – A Summer Garland

As we approach the Summer Solstice, I’ve chosen A Summer Garland for this week’s piece. A suite of songs for SATB unaccompanied, it was commissioned by The Waltham Singers in 2002 as part of a project designed to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – as well as writing the piece I also led composition workshops in Essex schools, and the resulting student compositions were performed alongside my piece, in concerts in Great Waltham and Dedham.

A Summer Garland has five movements, which can also all be performed separately.
The first, May, Queen of blossoms, sets a poem by the early 19th-centruy poet Edward Thurlow: it anticipates Summer with blossom, bees, and bird-song.
It is followed by The Rose in June (poem by Thomas Howell, 17th cent.) – rich harmonies depict the ‘mildest month of June’ which is also the ‘lustiest time’ – and a final key-change introduces the ‘beauteous red rose’.
I had a lot of fun writing the third song, Busy Fly, and the words of the 18th-century William Oldys gave rise to many effects and buzzes!
Calmness is restored in the expressive July Evening (Lewis Carroll), ending with the words ‘Life, what is it but a dream?’.
Finally, Summer Queen brings celebration with a poem by Thomas Dekker (17th cent.) in which a country fair welcomes the holiday season with dancing and singing.

A Summer Garland has been performed by quite a few choirs, and this summer they include The Kelvedon Singers (Essex) and Capella Nova (Bath).
Here’s a link to the first performance on YouTube  I hope you enjoy it!
And here’s a link to the publisher

Piece of the Week: Three Blues for clarinet and piano

I wrote Three Blues over twenty years ago for three clarinettist colleagues at Colchester Institute, all of whom taught clarinet to the degree and post-graduate students at that time, and they attempted to capture something of the character of the three performers:
Carefree Blues is designed to capture the easy-going character of Stuart Allen: Meditative Blues shows Charles Hine in reflective and sombre mood, and Agile Blues depicts the late Angela Fussell, who was always rushing from place to place in her busy life, and very keen on her students playing scales!
They are not really blues in the traditional sense, but they feature much of the characteristic blues harmony with the occasional hint (in Agile Blues) of the 12-bar blues shape.
I had a lot of fun writing them, and they are quite often performed. In fact the next performance is Saturday 17th June, 3 pm., Castle Methodist Church in Colchester, alongside a number of other works by Essex composers.

Here is a link to a performance on Youtube

And here is a link to the publisher, Spartan Press, who also publish a version for Eb saxophone and piano.

A new choral work for Lent

Last year The Waltham Singers approached me for a new piece for their Lent concert this year in Chelmsford, Essex, followed by a Belgian tour. The Waltham Singers, based in the Chelmsford area, and conducted by Andrew Fardell, are an excellent amateur choir who have performed several of my pieces and who commissioned A Summer Garland from me some years ago.
As it was for a Lenten work, the request was for a setting of the Penitential Psalms lasting about 15 minutes for choir and organ – and my challenge was to energise a work of this length, with the necessary contrast and drama, while using texts which were very focused on penitence – no ‘Glorias’ or ‘Alleluias’ allowed! I decided to use the Latin version of the Psalms, choosing extracts from three of them, to make three main movements.
Within each of these three movements I made short references to the plainchant antiphon for Maundy Thursday, Ubi Caritas, and then I made the Ubi Caritas melody appear complete four times – each time arranged differently – to make a prelude, interludes, and postlude. So the shape of the work is as follows:

Psalmi Penitentiales (originally titled ‘Psalmos’)
1. Ubi Caritas (Where charity and love are, God is there)
2. Domine, ne in furore tuo arguas me (O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger) – from Psalm 6
3. Ubi Caritas
4. De profundis clamavi ad te (Out of the depths I have cried to you) – from Psalm 129 or 130
5. Ubi Caritas
6. Domine, exaudi orationem meam (O Lord, hear my prayer) – from Psalm 101 or 102
7. Ubi Caritas

I hope that by framing the music in this way I have achieved the focus on penitence while also communicating the caring aspects, and the joy, of the Christian message. I went to a rehearsal last week and it was an uplifting experience to hear the choir responding to my music, and I am looking forward very much to the first performance!

Psalmi Penitientiales was commissioned by the Waltham Singers with a generous bequest from Peter Andrews. It is planned to be published by Oxford University Press later in the year.
The first performance is at the King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford, on Saturday 18 March at 7.30.

POSTCRIPT
The first performance, to a packed house, was most successful – the performers gave a wonderful interpretation and the composer was very pleased! Please contact him if you would like to hear a recording. The choir are now taking the work on the Belgian tour.

The piece, under its correct title, is now published by OUP – please follow this link for details of the score and to listen to the recording.

Twelve or Thirteen Preludes, Set 1

About four 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, on 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!

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: a lively D major, a simple and repetitive F sharp major, a quixotic F major, and a mysteriously floating B major, for instance. There has been much written about the association of colours with particular keys in composer’s minds – usually different for each composer – and actually I think my views on key and colour relationships has moderated and changed over time, particularly as, due to sometimes playing in baroque performances at A=414, my sense of absolute pitch has become a little less reliable.

To take one example, my view of the key of E flat was often associated with something martial, military, and ‘valiant’ – possibly because of the decisive E-flat-ness of the hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ (tune: ‘Monk’s Gate’) much sung in my youth. And yet, when I came to write my prelude in E flat, it turned out to be reflective and calm, with lots of rubato – the furthest from a military march that one can get!

The sheet music of Twelve or Thirteen Preludes, Set 1 is available from Spartan Press:

And you can hear me playing them here:

 

 

 

The ‘Thirteen’ simply refers to the fact that if played complete you can round them off by repeating the first prelude!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve really enjoyed writing these preludes, and I hope you enjoy listening or playing them too. In fact I’ve started another set – in minor or modal keys – and I hope it won’t take me as long as four years to complete them!