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Howard David Blake achieved the sort of popularity most composers only dream about when in 1982 he composed the music for the innovative animated film 'The Snowman',with its much-loved song 'Walking in the Air'.
Such is the power of the screen that, for a while the name Howard Blake became synonymous with 'The Snowman', as if he had never written anything else.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as any member of a good choir will tell you. Choral societies across the world have performed his dramatic oratorio Benedictus and the cantata for chorus and orchestra, The Song of St Francis.
Both works were composed in the late seventies, and Benedictus was later championed by Sir David Willcocks, who described it as as 'a work for all centuries'. He conducted the recording at Abbey Road for Sony Classics with the tenor Robert Tear, The Bach Choir, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and boy choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The work's drama and devotional intensity never fail to enthral audiences, and Benedictus has become a standard work in the choral society canon.
Blake's special affinity with choral music has led to many further commissions: Festival Mass for the opening of the Three Choirs Festival in 1987; Four Songs of the Nativity for the Bach Choir in 1990; Charter for Peace in 1995, commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations and performed at Westminster Hall in the presence of the Royal Family, Prime Minister, members of The Houses of Parliament and of United Nations Organization. More recently Songs of Truth and Glory was composed as the Elgar Commission of 2005.
A younger parallel are some outstanding choral works for children and orchestras. The Bells (1991), a cantata on Edgar Alan Poe's fantastical poem, graphically summons up his strange world of 'mystery and imagination' (for which Howard has also created an animation script.)
All God's Creatures, premiered in the 1995 Guildford International Festival, draws together ten great poems about the animal kingdom. These deftly characterised settings are linked to form an extended choral cycle, packed with memorable melodic invention around which a film is presently being constructed.
The Land of Counterpane (1994), is a cycle of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson from 'A Child's Garden of Verses'. It is a work of haunting beauty which celebrates the innocence, joy and unfettered imagination of childhood. It was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of The Mary Erskine School Edinburgh whose choir recorded it with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2008 with a view to an animation film for which Howard has written the script.
While Blake's choral scores are spiced with cross-rhythms and a broad palette of colours, they nevertheless can be seen to have their roots in the English choral tradition. On the other hand, his purely orchestral scores have tended to defy categorisation. 'Neo-classical' is one label which had been used. Pamela Collins in 'Contemporary Composers' quoted Christopher Palmer's phrase,'the classical merits par excellence' mentioning in particular the 'purity of line', which he saw as an aspect of all his scores. 'However, the description neo-classical does not begin to convey the lyricism and passionate intensity of Blake's musical language. Each of his concert works has something to say, and says it intuitively in the most bold and direct way.'
The establishment of his style did not come easily. When at the age of 18 Blake won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, he found himself at odds with his contemporaries, and in the early parts of his career had to turn his hand to every sort of music imaginable; as pianist, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, as well as composer. But in the early 1970s he decided to retreat to the country to work again at the basic pillars of harmony and counterpoint, and after a period of rigorous study and contemplation, he began to write for the concert hall. From 1973 a constant stream of works has been produced, many of which have since been published or recorded.
Diversions for Cello for instance, was composed in 1973 and welcomed some 12 years later by the great French cellist, Maurice Gendron, who edited the work for publication. It was then premiered by Steven Isserlis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves, and later recorded by Robert Cohen for CBS/Sony.
Ballet became a major interest, with new works for: The Sadler`s Wells Royal Ballet - The Court of Love, with Dame Lynn Seymour, commissioned for HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee: The London Contemporary Dance Theatre (Meeting and Parting, Diversions, The Annunciation, ); Ballet Rambert (Reflections) – all with choreographer Robert North; for TV BBC Omnibus’s Leda and the Swan. These experiences of ballet were later to produce both the large-scale three-act ballet for Swedish Ballet ‘Eva’ (1996) and the full evening ballet/stage show version of ‘The Snowman’ which has been a triumph for Sadler’s Wells at London’s West End Peacock Theatre over a period of 12 years (1998-2010).
Almost simultaneously to the above activity Howard’s interest in film was rekindled when Ridley Scott and David Puttman invited Blake to compose the score for The Duellists with Harvey Keitel, which in 1977 won the Special Jury Award at Cannes. This led to a spate of invitations to score other feature films, such as Agatha with Dustin Hoffman (1978) `The Riddle of the Sands’ with Michael Yorke (1978), `Blood Relatives` for Claude Chabrol, (1978), The Odd Job with David Jason (1978) an invitation to Hollywood to score `SOS Titanic` for CBS (1979), The Changeling with George C. Scott (1979), Dino de Laurentiis’ Flash Gordon (1980), Tony Scott’s The Hunger(1982) and The Lords Of Discipline` at Paramount (1983).
However at that point in 1983 the overwhelming success of Howard’s ‘music film with a song but no dialogue’, The Snowman, became self-evident. He was signed first as a recording artist with CBS Masterworks (1983) and secondly as a serious classical composer with Faber Music, the ‘doyen of contemporary classical music publishers’(1983). One or two films were fitted in over the next couple of years: `The Canterville Ghost` (1986) with Sir John Gielgud and 'A Month in the Country' (1986)with Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth, which gained him the Anthony Asquith Award for musical excellence. However his schedule had become so busy with serious commissions, recordings and concerts that it was hard to find the time for film and ballet. (He was also invited to open the Royal Shakepeare Season at Stratford in 1984 with music for the new star Kenneth Branagh in Henry the Fifth at Stratford, and As You like It the year following)
The animated film, The Snowman, was first shown on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve 1982 and acclaimed as a masterpiece. The film, based on Raymond Briggs' picture book, has been shown on television every Christmas since; the video and CD are perennial best-sellers; the concert work for narrator and orchestra has become a Christmas classic, performed world-wide, and there is now, in addition, both a full length stage show and a ballet. Also popular in concerts for the young have been The Snowman's successors, Granpa (1986) (with Peter Ustinov and Sarah Brightman)and The Bear (1998) (introducing Charlotte Church) and a ‘Nursery Rhyme Overture’ (for orchestra, also used as a guessing-game.
The Clarinet Concerto was a commission from Thea King in 1984. 'The composer exploits the clarinet's capacity for quietness and sustained lyricism in the slow movement, while the two outer movements are dominated by ebullient cross-rhythms.' The concerto was premiered and recorded on Hyperion by Thea King and The English Chamber Orchestra in 1985.
The Piano Concerto was commissioned in 1990 by the Philharmonia Orchestra to celebrate the 30th birthday of its patron Diana, then HRH The Princess of Wales, and the premiere given in her presence at the Royal Festival Hall with the composer as soloist. Edward Greenfield welcomed it in The Guardian as a 'concerto which should be agreeable in any programme…elegant, with enough salt in the orchestral mixture to give it flavour. It is good to find a composer looking to the Ravel concerto as a model…' A CD of it was released in 1991, again by CBS/Sony.
Blake has written numerous songs, including the memorable Shakespeare Songs, a cycle for tenor and string quartet, commissioned by the Chester Festival for Martyn Hill and the Medici. A hilarious one-act operatic spoof, The Station (written back in 1975) was given its first London performance in September 1995 and gave rise to a spate of operas about airports and stations by other composers. There is also a body of piano music which includes the highly-entertaining Dances for Two Pianos, and the collection of 24 pieces in all the keys titled 'Lifecycle'.
Blake's largest-scale concerto is the Violin Concerto of 1993, commissioned by the Leeds City Council to celebrate the centenary of its charter, and named 'The Leeds'. A magnificent performance of it by the German violinist, Christiane Edinger, with Paul Daniel conducting the English Northern Philharmonia is recorded on ASV on a CD which also presents the suite for strings, A Month in the Country and Sinfonietta for brass. The Strad hailed the Violin Concerto in the most glowing terms possible: 'If Gorecki and Tavener have given us back tonality, then Blake - especially in his splendid Violin Concerto - has added melody, piquant but always tonal harmony, and traditional structures to the list of boons from the past…This is unequivocally great music, accessible, expressive, ravishingly beautiful.`
In 1993 Blake worked in Gothenburg, Sweden with the choreographer Robert North to develop The Snowman Ballet, a one-act work based on John Coates' cartoon film lasting about 55 minutes, which proved successful. However, having just completed the music for this, Blake was approached by Bill Alexander, the director of Birmingham Rep, who asked if it could be developed further. With North's permission, Blake and Alexander extended both score and scenario to 84 minutes and a production opened 4 days later than the ballet in Sweden. It was given the title 'The Snowman Stage Show' ,choreographed by Pat Garrett and directed by Bill Alexander.
In 1996 Howard was invited to compose and collaborate with Robert North on a 3-act ballet `Eva` for the newly-built Gothenburg Opera House for which he also conducted the first performances. Music for the Royal Shakespeare Company`s film of Midsummer Night`s Dream followed and shortly after that a set of 24 piano pieces in all the keys entitled `Lifecycle`, given its premiere in December 1996 in Gothenburg Opera by the composer. For a while Blake moved to the countryside of Sweden which he found inspiring, producing a Flute Concerto, a choral work for Chester Cathedral to Edith Sitwell's Still falls the rain, and a new animated film `The Bear` for Channel 4. This featured the first film recording of Charlotte Church, and Channel 4 filmed a one- hour documentary to couple with the film`s TV release on Christmas Eve 1998.
When asked permission to stage a revival in 1997 Blake invited North over to re-create and extend his choreography within 'The Snowman Stage Show' and this fusion of ballet and theatre received huge acclaim, being filmed the following summer in the Birmingham Rep by Reiner Moritz and shown on BBC TV at Christmas 1998, at the same time transferring to Sadler's Wells' Peacock Theatre in the West End.
But after two seasons at the Peacock (1998/9) Blake decided with Ian Albery, the Artistic Director of Sadler's Wells, that the second act needed to be rewritten with a stronger narrative. The characters of Jack Frost and the Ice Princess were added, the order of the musical numbers relocated and the previous 'divertissements' taken out. This version has since proved its lasting worth, remaining unchanged up to the 2007/2008 seasons and signed on till at least 2011.
There was a sort of 'interim' version created by North for the Scottish Ballet seasons of 2001/2 which took considerable materials from the revised stage show but did not conform to the new shape of the second act nor subscribe to the all-important central concept of casting a small boy to play the main role. In Blake's view this version was artistically flawed and reinforced his decision that The Snowman Stage Show was the definitive version and that future theatrical versions should correspond with it.
In late 1998 Blake scored the feature film `My Life so Far`, produced by Lord Puttman and directed by Hugh Hudson, starring Colin Firth, and released by Miramax.
After completing that in the summer of 1999 he began work on 'Stabat Mater', a choral and orchestral work commissioned by The Lady Digby on behalf of The Summer Music of Dorset. It featured roles for solo soprano and treble and several spoken roles. The premiere was given in Sherborne Abbey on May 18th 2002 with the soprano Patricia Rozario, the Winchester Cathedral Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. In 2004 Blake revised the work to be fully sung and rechristened it 'The Passion of Mary', a first performance of which took place in Stockholm in October 2007. A London premiere celebrated Howard’s 70th birthday at the Cadogan Hall and a brilliant recording made at Abbey Road was issued by Naxos at Easter 2010 which featured Howard’s own son, Robert William as the boy Jesus, Patricia Rozario as Mary, Richard Edgar-Wilson as Jesus the Man and David Wilson-Johnson as Prophet/Satan. The choir was London Voices directed by Terry Edwards and the orchestra the RPO conducted by the composer.
In June 2003 the celebrated organist Dame Gillian Weir gave the first performance of 'The Rise of The House of Usher', a solo organ work commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council for the Usher Hall Edinburgh. 2004 saw the release of a CD on ABC Classics of 'Lifecycle' recorded by pianist William Chen in Sydney, Australia with the subtitle 'piano music of imagination and reflection'. On August 8th 2005 the first performance of 'Songs of Truth and Glory' a song-cycle of 5 poems by George Herbert was given by The Elgar Chorale as part of the Three Choirs Festival, who commissioned it as 'The Elgar Commission' . Recent works include 'Winterdream' for children's choir, 'The Enchantment of Venus' for Basset-Clarinet, and a setting of William Soutar's poem 'Scotland' for chamber choir and organ to inaugurate the new West of Scotland University.
In 2008 Howard completed his passionate 'Violin Sonata' and recorded it for Naxos with violinist Madeleine Mitchell and himself as pianist. He is currently hoping to record the Edinburgh Quartet in a complete CD of his string quartets, featuring the new ‘Spieltrieb’ (the urge to play) specially composed for the 50th anniversary of the quartet.
Howard Blake was an executive director of the Performing Right Society (1978-1987), was co-founder of the Association of Professional Composers in 1979, and was awarded the OBE for his services to music in the 1994 New Year's Honours list.