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It’s that time of the year again, mistletoe in the office, boozy Christmas parties, piped seasonal tunes in the shops and the humming of Walking In the Air from The Snowman, writes Stuart Higgins.
With its wonderfully uplifting music and lyrics, Howard Blake’s Walking In the Air raises our spirits, melts our hearts and momentarily transports us to another world devoid of economic doom and gloom. This year marks the 30th anniversary of its demo in a small Charlotte Street film studio.
Blake says he ‘heard’ the tune as he walked gloomily across Perranporth beach, Cornwall in 1970 during a reassessment of his life and career. The enduring and mesmerising appeal and success of the music, the words, the film and even the stage show – now in its record-breaking 14th year at Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre in London – is a matter of enormous personal pride.
‘I am often asked whether I feel The Snowman has typecast me and I have to admit that, of course it has. It’s like a big placard around my neck saying “Snowman”, says Howard, now aged 73, from his artist’s studio home in London’s Kensington Square.
‘I have written so much other music that I am equally proud of, but I suppose it is much better than being recognised for something which I am not proud of. I cannot possibly complain about the success it has brought me.’
His vivid recollections of difficult times as a classical music student are a far cry from the global fame he now enjoys. He is forthright and candid in his views and pleased to give advice to budding composers and writers.
‘I am a composer,’ he asserts robustly. ‘I am not a songwriter. Because the musical world has been so massively hijacked by big business we tend to see the single pop song as the all-important unit. But there is so much more to music than that, and while I have always taken a wide interest in every sort of music whatever its origins, the wonderful possibilities of extended music, of concertos and symphonies and opera and ballet and film and instrumental music in all its myriad forms – this is what I am interested in and what I both listen to and continually attempt to create.’
Blake started playing the piano aged six and liked to pick out tunes by ear, having a gift for music from an early age. ‘I sang in the church choir and took lead parts at school in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. I was also assistant organist at the parish church.’
He wrote his first extended piece of music aged 12; a march in D major. ‘My local piano teacher didn’t believe I’d written it but then he took my under his wing and undertook to teach me harmony and counterpoint. I think I was very fortunate to receive that grounding so young.’
In 1957, at 18, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music as a classical concert pianist, taking serious composition as a second study. In his first term he composed an ambitious tonal piano work called 'Variations on a theme of Bartok', which was very well received by his professors. But the climate of opinion suddenly shifted in that year towards atonal music and this outlook started to actively discourage the writing of melodic music.
Blake found it difficult to fit in and began to turn towards the idea of writing music for films, which seemed to offer far more freedom of style and expression. His musical head was turned one day when he watched the film The Battleship Potemkin. ‘I was knocked out by the combination of image and orchestra. It was an overwhelming emotion which made me want to study it as an art form, but no course of such study existed at that time.’
Leaving college in 1960 not knowing how he might achieve his aims he saw an Evening Standard advert for a projectionist at the National Film Theatre (NFT) and applied for the job. This allowed him not only to make a living but to see and study all the great films and listen to their music. He was also able to make his own film and write the music and this was shown at the NFT while he was still working there.
After two years he needed to move on. He had had great exposure to film and film soundtracks but began to greatly miss playing. ‘I was 23 years old and I decided that I wanted to play music and if I was going to do that perhaps I should just start at the very bottom. I got a job playing piano at a pub off the Edgeware Road in London called The Lord Chancellor. It was the best thing I ever did, despite someone emptying a pint of beer over my head one night because I couldn’t play the tunes they wanted me to, like Sinatra or the Top Ten. I learnt about audience reaction and participation!
‘In order to play the tunes they wanted I learned ten or so a day and the pub became so popular that the police had to be called one night because the pub was so busy. I met a drummer who knew a nightclub in Bayswater so we played pop in the pub until 11pm and then went to the nightclub to play jazz.’
One night he was discovered by an EMI talent scout and whisked off to become staff pianist at the famous Abbey Road studios and work alongside the famous four, Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard and Tom Jones.
‘What happened in the 60s was a phenomenon, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing The Beatles, into a shop on a bus or anywhere and I had to think seriously about whether I should be writing two and a half minute pop songs because that was the unit of currency and I had a go at it. I wasn’t very good at it! I started to discover that, apart from Bill Evans and Miles Davis, I much preferred Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev – music that flowed for an hour not a formula with a guitar, bass guitar and set of drums. All music has its place but that wasn’t for me.’
But playing piano at Abbey Road led Howard also to play for film and television recordings. He played on the hugely successful 'Avengers' series for Laurie Johnson who one day in 1967 asked if he would take over scoring the whole show. This led to an immensely busy period as both composer and conductor on projects up until 1970.
‘I was staggeringly busy,’ he remembers, ‘but even though I was now making a lot of money from all of this commercial media work I still hadn’t really found a way of writing the music that I felt was inside me and which I more and more wanted to write. This started to produce serious tensions and I started to become ill. A doctor advised me that I must take time off and I decided that I must in some way re-evaluate my life. I drove off to the farthest point I could think of away from London and rented a tiny beach hut near Perranporth beach in Cornwall. It was here that the embryo of The Snowman showed first signs of birth.
‘I was rethinking and reassessing my career and this tune came into my head and my mind. Its voice was all about innocence and purity and was something different,’ he said. ‘This was the inspiration for what was to become 'The Snowman' but it took another 11 years to be born', (perhaps the longest gestation period in history for a tune to come to life?)
‘In Autumn 1981 I went to the studios of an animated film company called TVC run by a man called John Coates and he showed me an 'animatic' - an eight minute filmed pencil sketch of 'The Snowman.' John had had a temporary track added but felt it wasn’t right. He asked if I would look at it. It included the boy flying with the snowman and the moment I saw it I said, “You could make a film without dialogue where the music is the entire script”. John wasn’t sure at all about this so I said I would make a demo, adding that I happened to have a tune that would be perfect.’
‘Several days later I recorded the eight minutes of film on piano, which included the whole of what was to be 'Walking In the Air'. Some sort of synchronicity was happening'. The film was made by Channel Four for Christmas 1982.
His income through PRS for Music has risen dramatically through the success of 'The Snowman' and he adds: ‘It is played and performed in every country and I only really know what is going on when I see the read-outs of royalties from PRS for Music four times a year.
I also have a huge catalogue of music on top of that with 65 cinema and TV films contributing to a current total of 633 titles and counting. Of course some of the money doesn’t filter through for years and some of it may be for a very small amount – 0.0265p from Patagonia!’
Howard has a strong recollection of his first ever PRS for Music royalty cheque: ‘I had this lovely girlfriend in Brighton and she told me, “You are never going to make any money from music,” and in 1958 I got a cheque for £7 and you can imagine I was thrilled to bits and I wanted to put it in the bank but thought I should treat my sceptical girlfriend to a slap-up dinner. We had the dinner but when I showed her the cheque she laughed and pointed out that it was only for seven shillings not £7 – I was distraught at the time but I laugh about it now.’
We also asked Howard Blake some specific questions:
Why do you think The Snowman has become such an institution?
''I think it’s because it’s neither pop or classical. It’s both. It has its roots in popular culture. The whole idea is about transcending, it’s about love and opening the world of imagination and it appeals to many different people on many different levels. People love to hear the tune because it makes them feel warm. At the stage show they cheer and they cry when the snowman melts. It unlocks something in people which makes them feel better.”
You’ve composed music for orchestras, solo works, film scores, how does your approach to each differ?
''Music is music. Mozart always wrote to commission. I have always worked on the basis that I should write the best thing I possibly can. I am part of the process whatever the genre. It is a kind of bond between the composer and the public. I am driven to write something that I believe will connect to the public''.
What are you working on at the moment?
'I am overseeing the production of The Snowman at the Peacock Theatre at Sadler’s Wells in London. It’s the longest-ever-running Christmas show with 14 years and we have just committed to another 10 years. There will be 66 performances in London through December and January, it is due to go to Korea and Finland and we have just done the show at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, Manchester.
Has the way you work changed since you first started composing music?Are there many opportunities for composers these days?