Black Blog 2

The Aldeburgh Festival 2023 begins tonight (with a performance of the new opera, Giant, by Sarah Angliss) so the premiere of Quartet Black by the Heath Quartet is now only just over two weeks away…

The colour of the piece: I’ve received a number of questions about the title-word ‘black’ – mainly whether it accounts for something specific or if it does, in fact, just means the colour, black – and then whether black as representative of sadness and sorrow (like in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets) or a comforting, enveloping, magical colour (as is revealed in various chapters of The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark…)

Or a smart, slick modern one like evening dress…

Or any combination of these…

The music doesn’t represent a specific, physical colour – but rather a mental sorrow and sort of, well, horror.

Time, and What to Do: a distinguished composer and close friend is visiting Southwold from out of town. Discussions over coffee turn to ‘what happens’ in a piece music. How does a composer ‘decide’ what is going to ‘happen’ in their piece – and do they indeed decide this at all, or does it come down to the brief, context, instruments, or indeed the initial energy and character of something they have written. And does what one decides in this regard on one day mean the piece cannot be another way on another day.

Readers of my writings here and elsewhere will know I am inherently suspicious of the language of music ‘going’ somewhere, or ‘moving’ from one place to another, or such and such ‘happening’ in a piece. I am not sure I really believe the word ‘happening’ can be used to describe the unfolding of music in time – yet it is frequently described in this way.

Except to say that, in Quartet Black (and in a massive majority of other pieces, by anyone) notes are arranged in a left to right reading score, ordered to occur in a systematic division of time (known as ‘rhythm’) and the pages are fixed in a certain order. So in that sense one thing happens before/after another.

But this sequence of events/occurrences/sounds are organised by me, the composer, purely by instinct. I do have a certain sensation of what a Quartet should feel like and which musical events, and the order of those musical events, will lead to a sense of a complete piece having been performed. I don’t call this structure – the only structure I care about is the roof over my head. I prefer the word ritual.

Instincts: instincts are often highly prized these days – some sort of ultra-pure thought, or supernatural inspiration which we cannot account for. However my ‘instinct’ tells me that my instincts are more often than not likely to get me into all kinds of trouble.

If a good instinct is treasured for its purity and magical unaccountability, is not a bad instinct something to be taught or trained away – and therefore is not the praise of instinct in general the criticism of established wisdom and learning? We are often encouraged to be ourselves and find out who we really are – and rightly so – but it is not a good idea to assume that such an approach will unleash universally positive forces.

I recall an almost uncontrollable sense of anger and injustice when my teachers (or one teacher in particular) would say ‘be yourself’, and ‘express yourself’, or ‘find some passion’, and then criticise (or worse, mock) me for doing so in the completely ‘wrong’ way. Fortunately I had another teacher who taught me a better way, which is to train one’s instincts – to be aware of them, accept them, and follow them positively and creatively – and, yes, change and mould them over time.

One could say I have used my instincts in writing Quartet Black, in so far that I have no justification as to what I have written other than it is what I wanted to hear. So yes, pure instinct, except to say that my musical instincts are the most worked, refined, trained, exercised and focussed part of my mind.

The Sequence: the events of the piece, arranged instinctively, could be rearranged to create a different sequence. Or could they? What is the difference between me, as the composer, hearing the sequence of the music playing in my ear, and you, the listener, hearing the music in performance? I wonder if the only thing which really fixes a work’s sequence is the fact that it has been heard successfully like that before – but sometimes it might benefit from cutting or re-ordering or changing that sequence for a different context. Musicians used to undertake this sort of adaptation a lot more than we are accustomed to these days – and not just with their own music either…

This is the kind of thing composers think about. Not so much ‘what the notes are’…

Quartet Black

‘Quartet Black’, will be premiered by the Heath Quartet at the Aldeburgh Festival on Sunday June 25th 2023, at 11:30am.

‘Quartet Black’ is the colour of the piece.

We relate to colours personally and refer to them playfully, often giving them evocative names and connecting them in our minds to objects, scenes, or contexts.

But colours are abstract, created scientifically, manipulated and copied via forensic chemical analysis.

‘Quartet Black’ is similarly abstract, on one level simply analysing how a quartet ‘works’ or what it ‘does’, how these four instruments work together… Yet it is a completely personal statement, by turns lyrical and aggressive, extreme in its harmonic language.

At the conclusion of the work the music fades to a lighter colour blue, like the description of a dawn in The Great Gatsby – ‘blue enough outside to snap off the light.’ It remains suspended there.

More details and bookings here.

New commission for Aldeburgh Festival 2023

Nathan’s new String Quartet, a commission from Britten Pears Arts, will be premiered by the Heath Quartet at the Aldeburgh Festival 2023, on Sunday 25th June.

Nathan introduced the work in conversation with Roger Wright, chief executive of Britten Pears Arts, at the launch of the Festival programme in December. He describes the piece as ‘a deeply personal work, juxtaposing consonance and dissonance, darkness and light, tenderness and rage, in a heady cocktail of extremes’.

The work will be heard in between wonderful music by Fanny Mendelssohn and Benjamin Britten. Click here to learn more via the Britten Pears Arts website. Click here to find out more about Nathan’s previous commissions and compositions.

New commission for Aldeburgh Festival 2023, 

Christopher Brown’s 24 Preludes and Fugues

In November I spent three days at Wyastone Concert Hall recording the second part of Christopher Brown‘s 24 Preludes and Fugues for Lyrita Recorded Edition. The work is a two and half hour magnum opus for solo piano, containing a huge range of styles, moods, colours and musical references – not to mention every fugal and contrapuntal technique under the sun. Chris’ several decades experience teaching counterpoint and compositional techniques at both the Royal Academy of Music and Cambridge University shine through in spectacular fashion. To learn more about his work click here.

Preparation for this project went back to before lockdown, and the initial pieces were actually premiered online. Now the whole work is ‘in the can’ and we begin the editing process with a great sense of anticipation. The complete release is scheduled for latter 2023, to coincide with Chris’ 80th birthday celebrations.

Congratulations, and thank you, Chris!

Christopher Brown’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, 

Thomas Pitfield’s First Piano Concerto

Research, arranging, editing – not to mention musical preparations and rehearsals – of Thomas Pitfield’s First Piano Concerto came to a conclusion a few weeks ago with the performance of this largely unknown work in Aldeburgh with the Prometheus Orchestra and conductor Matthew Andrews.

Thomas Pitfield was born in Bolton in 1903 and died in 1999. Alongside his composing career he was a professional artist, illustrator, and teacher of handicrafts. His education was unusual to say the least – removed from school (illegally) aged 14 to be apprenticed to the engineering firm Hick Hargreaves, he painstakingly built up savings to undertake a single year of tuition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, aged 21. This course gained him no paper qualifications, so in a further bid for independence he trained as a teacher of art and cabinet work at the Bolton School of Art.

In his early career he taught these skills at various institutions in Lancashire and the West Midlands, also performing as a freelance cellist, organist and pianist – and composing, a lot. When some of his pieces were accepted for publication by OUP, Pitfield illustrated the covers himself, making such an impression that he was subsequently commissioned covers for many other composers’ works, most famously Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony.

The full orchestral score of the First Piano Concerto is dated 1946-7, which was something of a pivotal year in Pitfield’s life. He was invited to join the composition faculty at the Royal Manchester College in 1945, but the offer was withdrawn after what Pitfield later described as ‘backstage machinations’. Did this snub lead to a need to prove himself as a more ’serious’ composer, and so the composition of this ambitious Concerto? It seems likely – in the same year Pitfield submitted 147 works to publishers and fulfilled a commission for 100 piano pieces for use in the Royal Academy of Dancing’s examinations. Such industry may well have succeeded – the College reinstated its offer in 1947. Pitfield served on the faculty until his retirement in 1973, remembered with great affection by many distinguished students, including Ronald Stevenson, John McCabe, John Ogdon and Max Paddison.

The First Piano Concerto is certainly one of Pitfield’s finest achievements. Premiered in 1959 by Stephen Wearing and the BBC Northern (later the BBC Philharmonic) Orchestra, the piece remained high in Pitfield’s estimations: having completed the work the year he joined the College faculty, with uncanny symmetry he made extensive revisions to the score the same year as his retirement.

The work is an excellent example of Pitfield’s exquisite, trademark balance of the personal and heartfelt which somehow manages to not take itself too seriously. Most striking musically is the range of character Pitfield can conjure – one finds oneself casting around for references and bringing images, even storylines, to mind. There runs throughout a lightness of touch which, if not exactly unique to Pitfield, is certainly highly unusual amongst 20th Century composers of major orchestral concert works.

The first movement is of very free structure – it begins like a Sonata Form, with two distinct subjects, but following the apparent ‘development’ and a truncated statement of the opening theme, it simply stops with an abrupt cadence. The second movement combines a slow, funereal chorale and a quirky, rather spooky Scherzo in a Rondo-like exchange of ideas. The brilliant finale is (in Pitfield’s own curious description) a ‘gay and impudent Rondo with a fugal appendage’. He employs a technique found in several other of his larger-scale works of bringing back themes from previous movements at its conclusion – material from the first movement forms the basis of the final fugue, which is in turn combined with the second movement’s Chorale, now played by the full brass section in heroic style. Its a thrilling denouement and a powerful climax, followed by a brilliant virtuosic coda.

Pitfield’s music has long fascinated me, as does the man behind it, and having the opportunity to study and perform this work fulfils a long held ambition, and I am immensely honoured to have been asked to perform the work. I strongly recommend the superb recording on Naxos by Anthony Goldstone, the RNCM Orchestra and conductor Andrew Penny. Also on the disc is the Second Concerto, as well as several solo piano pieces and a Xylophone Sonata, all performed by Peter Donohoe.

Thomas Pitfield Composer, Thomas Pitfield Composer, Thomas Pitfield Composer, Thomas Pitfield Composer, Thomas Pitfield Composer

The Big Sing at Britten Pears Arts

THE BIG SING at Britten Pears Arts is one of the highlights of my whole year – this year conducted by Nicholas Chalmers and Ula Weber. Several hundred children filled Snape Maltings Concert Hall and a couple/three thousand more were watching online.

On this most hallowed of stages, rather than performing to a hushed packed hall, having a very loud packed hall sing AT you – surely this is the greater honour.

Later that day it was then back to Southwold Primary School to accompany the children at their annual St. Edmund’s Day service – more singing! A whole day spent helping hundreds of children to SING!

Nathan is the director of Southwold Music Trust, a community music organisation. You can find out more about Nathan’s work in the community here.

The Big Sing at Britten Pears Arts, 

United in Music

When considering the recent political troubles and instability in Britain, it is reassuring and sobering to remember how only a very short time ago the nation was broadly united in marking the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Events surrounding her funeral and the period of mourning projected British culture and society across the globe. Alongside the tributes paid to the late Queen, many (including those more sceptical about the monarchy) commented warmly on the dignity, nobility and integrity of wider British society and culture at a time of national significance and change.

Such qualities, along with a deeply heartfelt but restrained emotional expressivity, are often praised in the music of British composers – particularly those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We can also be proud that a significant number of works by British composers, from Purcell to the current Master of the King’s Music, Judith Weir, have played a significant role in the events surrounding the period of mourning for Elizabeth II, consequently being heard by millions, if not billions of people across the globe. In fact, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the number to listen to a work performed at the late Queen’s funeral might be greater than the number who will ever hear it again for several hundred years – and possibly all time.

Despite this, those British composers of sacred music who also enjoy success in other performance contexts, such as the concert hall and opera house, are rare exceptions. Of the composers performed at Her Majesty’s funeral, only Purcell and Elgar are regularly heard outside the Church. Britain is not individual in having a sacred musical tradition somewhat separate from the secular – think of Russian concert works and music of the Russian Orthodox Church, for example – but surely a nation whose vocal and poetic achievements are not only widely celebrated, but have accompanied with such aplomb one of the most widely scrutinized global events for decades, might anticipate other music by its composers, not least artsong, to be more widely known and more frequently heard.

#queenelizabeth #funeral #Britishcomposers #Purcell #JudithWeir #Elgar #artsong #sacredmusic

Two Southwold Spring concerts!

I’m delighted to be involved in two concerts this spring, staged by the Southwold Music Trust in the magnificent St. Edmund’s Church in my hometown of Southwold.

On Tuesday 22nd March at 1pm I will join the distinguished baritone Robert Gildon, who lives in nearby Walpole, and will give a recital of Schubert, Gurney and Finzi’s classic ‘Let Us Garlands Bring’, which sets some of Shakespeare’s best-loved texts.

On Monday 2nd May, also at 1pm, I will give a solo piano recital of two sublime piano Sonatas from the Classical repertoire: Mozart’s F major K.533 and the great Schubert B flat Sonata D.960.

Both concerts will last around one hour. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Both concerts will also be live-streamed on YouTube. Visit the Southwold Music Trust website for details – links are sent out to the Trust email list and posted on the website a couple of days before the concert.

I’m also really pleased that the Southwold Music Trust able to provide the live streams free of charge to a number of local care homes.

The long-awaited ‘Emperor’ Concerto

After a long hiatus, the Prometheus Orchestra and I will perform the final concert in our Beethoven 250th Anniversary series on Sunday 20th February, featuring the Fifth Piano Concerto, the ‘Emperor’.

In pre-pandemic 2020 we performed the first four Beethoven Piano Concertos over one weekend, with this final concert scheduled at Snape Maltings in October 2020. Obviously this was sadly postponed.

So it is with great anticipation that we will be returning to the Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall stage – and because of ongoing audience restrictions we are performing the concert twice, at 3pm and again at 5pm.

Further details can be found in the flyer below and you can book tickets here.

In Memoriam Edmond Fivet:

This concert has taken on a particular poignancy in that the founder and conductor of the Prometheus Orchestra, Edmond Fivet, whose brainchild was the complete Beethoven Concerto cycle, passed away only a few months ago.

Edmond was a major force in British music over several decades, serving as Director of the Royal College of Music Junior Department and Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for eighteen years. He founded the Prometheus Orchestra in 2008. He was appointed CBE in the Queen’s 2008 Birthday Honours for services to music and education.

The magnificent, vociferous energy of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto is the perfect piece to pay tribute to a man who was such a dynamic force for music both locally and nationally.

Please join me for what should be a truly memorable and uplifting occasion.

A Bonus Track…

Here is a video of me playing my own ‘Intermezzo’ in recording sessions for the third and final volume of ‘100 Years of British Song’. This solo piano piece is as a little ‘bonus track’ on the CD – the remainder of the CD is of British song written since the late 19509s, including works by John Woolrich, Geoffrey Poole, Peter Dickinson, Madeline Dring, and my own song cycle ‘The Little That Was Once a Man’.