- Online Store
- Musical Works
- YouTube Videos
- The Snowman
Howard Blake is that rarity in the contemporary music scene, a genuinely popular composer. If he has a recent parallel, it is probably Leonard Bernstein, though he is an altogether more ‘natural’, less troubled composer than Bernstein even at his gentlest.
Blake’s reputation rests very squarely on the success of ‘The Snowman’, adapted from a story by Raymond Briggs and particularly on its haunting theme ‘Walking in the Air’. Since its first performance in 1982 the piece has become a Christmas stand-by in its animated form on British television. It is ironic but also inevitable that the popular and commercial successs of The Snowman, together with Blake’s background as a journeyman composer of television and film music, has tended to compromise his critical reputation. However, its merits and those of its successor Granpa are the classical merits par excellence and are clearly audible in Blake’s concert music.
The purity of line and lack of clutter that make ‘Walking in the Air’ so utterly and immediately memorable, is also what animates the Clarinet Concerto and a remarkable overture The Conquest of Space, in which Blake’s use of unusual sonorities (ondes martenot or synthesizer, and a choir) complements his apparent conviction that imaginative composition is still feasible within a constantly renewing harmonic tradition. At the end of the 1970s he retreated to the country to work again at the basic pillars of harmony and counterpoint, slowly refining a technique and language that have little in common with most contemporary academic music. Blake is hostile to avant-gardist gestures, and to serialism. His most obvious (distant) influence is Mozart, but there is also something of his one-time teacher Howard Ferguson's neo-classical idiom and a strong sense of music as a cultural adhesive, rebonding a society fractured by civilisation and its discontents. His major work to date, Benedictus, is a powerful and humane expression of faith in the transcendent power of imagination.
Though undoubtedly conservative, Blake is no reactionary. His lyrics are often wryly ironic and his scoring subtly inflected. A background in jazz is evident in his firm, but not mechanical rhythm: the 1984 Concert Dances, in both its piano concertante and wind-band versions, is an unstuffy set of exercises in popular forms, ragtime, jump, boogie, rock, cha-cha, but if the names unavoidably suggest the ‘rhythm selectors’ attached to cheap electric keyboards, there is nothing mechanical about Blake’s variations on basic signatures and pulses.
Not the least significant aspect of Blake’s recent career has been a recording contract – and personalized ‘HB’ index number! – with CBS Records, a company noted for occasional but imaginative experiments of this sort. Blake is unembarrassed and unhindered by his popularity. It is, as it was with Mozart, simply a response to a spontaneous melodic gift underpinned with considerable technical skill. (Pamela Collins)