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Jack and Peter were surprisingly enthusiastic about the proposed all-Howard Blake chamber-music programme. Jack asked me for a violin sonata, Peter asked for a set of cello variations, and I decided I would write my own full-scale Piano Trio, if only to dispel my obsession with Schubert's. Jack had other ideas about the piano trio however and explained that his great friend Kenneth Essex loved trout-fishing almost as much as playing the viola. Couldn't I possibly make it a Piano Quartet rather than a Trio? Then he could come down to the mill, spend some of his time fishing and some of it rehearsing. In his time Kenneth had played viola with the Hurwitz, the Gabrieli, the Georgian, the Haffner and the Aeolian - a marvellous and very experienced player. There was really no answer except to make it a piano quartet, since they were all playing for love rather than a fee. Starting in October 1973 in quite rapid succession I completed three chamber music pieces, the first one for Peter:
My house was named Highbridge because there was in fact a splendid but ancient high bridge supporting the road from Ansty to Cuckfield which crossed the tributary of the river Ouse which had once powered the mill and lay at the top border of my property. It was rumoured that a local council surveyor had tested the strength of the bridge by having some holes drilled into the brickwork. All seemed well and the holes were sealed up but unfortunately they had drilled through a mains water supply pipe and water spread rapidly within the structure, causing it to collapse. It was decided to create an embankment with a tunnel to replace the bridge and the roads all around had to be diverted. A large sign said 'Major diversions' and it suggested an amusing title to me: 'Major Diversions on a Minor Road'. Why not write a minor melodic theme and then compose various highly contrasted diversions from it, eventually returning to the original theme, splendidly reinstated. When the work was finished I tried it through with Peter Willison who seemed very pleased with it. I had no idea that the piece would change and enlarge and transmogrify in the extraordinary way it did. The second piece was for Jack:
The first draft of this piece was not nearly as satisfactory as that for Diversions. In the years to come I quite frequently revised it but mainly kept it out of sight. Twenty years later in 1994 the distinguished Berlin violinist Christiane Edinger wanted to try it and we half-heartedly played it through Violin Sonata - only to put it back in the cupboard. In 2007 I happened to be invited to a drinks party at Chester Music where I met the violinist Madeleine Mitchell, who had played for me on the film 'The Hunger' in 1982, years before. She asked if I'd written any violin music and I told her about the sonata (sitting there now for some 34 years!)
'Can we try it?' Madeleine said.
'I'll do some work on it and call you' I said.
I wrote a new slow movement which was much stronger. I wrote a new Coda for the third movement featuring an intriguing, close-together canon, and I brushed up the writing from beginning to end. We recorded it at Potton Hall for Naxos in May 2008 and it was well-received.
But it's progress still hadn't finished. In November 2010 I went with my son Christopher to Bratislava to witness the finals of the EBU young musicians prize. The 22-year old Benedict Kloeckner had decided to play my 'Diversions for Cello and Piano' and with them he won the prize. I was so delighted both by his brilliant playing and the fact that he had revived the work, that I transcribed the Violin Sonata onto cello, rather as Cesar Franck once did. Benedict was delighted with it and we unveiled it at a concert in Schlangenbad (nr. Mainz) quite soon after.
But back to 1974 where the third work for Forsyth's Barn Ansty was to be:
This work has always been very close to me. It made me so happy when I was writing it, as if all the troubles of the world had somehow been solved or forgotten. The writing of the slow third movement was a magical experience. I was busy but felt that for some reason the time to write it would be around 5pm on a particular Saturday. It was a fabulous sunny afternoon and at 5pm very silent. The idea of four ascending notes in E major sprang from nowhere and the movement seemed to develop of its own accord. I was in a trance. My Canadian neighbour Jerry Walls told me later that he had come round to ask me about some gardening problems, but he could hear me playing and he thought he should just wait until I stopped playing. When I stopped playing I had virtually completed the movement.
STANLEY KUBRICK AND BARRY LYNDON
Somehow I didn't want any commercial work to 'impede the flow' whilst completing this piano quartet. I felt that if I stopped I would lose it. Sidney Sax rang me one morning and asked if I'd like to do some Schubert arrangements. I told him that I didn't really do arrangements any more and that I was immersed in writing a piano quartet.
'Well I've spoken to the director and he'd really like you to do it.'
'I'm sorry Sid, I'll have to pass on this one.'
The director was Stanley Kubrick and the film 'Barry Lyndon'.
Once again I'd passed on a mammoth project no doubt worth a great deal of money just to follow my own inspiration, where no money was involved at all, no fame, no celebrity - a tiny insignificant concert in Forsyth's Barn. Yet I 'd been so extremely happy that Rosemary Forsyth and the good people of Cuckfield had asked me to compose an entire concert. An entire concert of brand-new music! I was determined to complete it and complete it I did.
I added 'Suite the Up and Down Man', and May 11th in Forsyth's Barn witnessed a complete concert of four world premieres!
MUSIC IN MAY - a programme of new, melodic music by Howard Blake
Two members of the audience were remarkably struck by the new music: One was the editor of 'The Up-and-Down-Man', Jack Dennis, who proposed a recording of the Quartet and Diversions and released it with vast enthusiasm on a specially-created label, Firecrest, later in the year. The other was an eminent local choral director, Janet Canetty-Clarke:
'Your music is like a breath of fresh air! Would you consider composing a work for my choir?'
'Well that's very kind.'
'I conduct The Ditchling Choral Society and we put on regular concerts- 'Matthew Passion', 'Dream of Gerontius' and so on. I know you could write something wonderful for us.'
'What would be the text?'
'You choose a text. What I have in mind is putting on another concert of your music but with the new choir-piece as the main item, but we must do this Piano Quartet too. It's just marvellous! The Norman Hay Hall is very good, part of St. Francis Hospital, we could put it on there.'
I sent Marlene a copy of the Piano Quartet disk and she rang me:
'Wouldn't it make wonderful dance music?'
'I had never thought about it.'
She went to see The London Contemporary Dance Theatre at Sadler's Wells one night and gave a copy to Robert North, the principal dancer and choreographer. He made both works into ballets: Diversions (Ballet) in 1974 for LCDT and Reflections (to the music of the piano quartet) for Ballet Rambert in 1976. There was also 'Meeting and Parting' (Ballet)(to the music of the 12 Piano Pieces), The Annunciation (to music from Stronger than the Sun in 1979. The 3-act ballet for the new Opera House in Gothenburg, Eva (to music from the Violin Concerto, Benedictus, and Toccata and the Piano Quartet) in 1996, and most famously The Snowman Ballet (in Gothenburg, Verona and Scotland) and The Snowman Stage Show(Sadler's Wells, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester, 1997-2008).
Gerry Potterton was directing one of the Oscar Wilde series himself and to make up for the loss of 'The Happy Prince' offerred me 'The Remarkable Rocket', a parable about vanity, the rocket thinking himself the most important firework of a royal display but being so self-obsessed that he misses the moment and goes off unheeded long after the event. Timing is everything.
David Niven was the narrator and the many character voices were all taken by Graham Stark, but it was over-wordy and sly satires on social pretension are not for the very young. However, I had scored my first cartoon film and the experience proved invaluable when I came to 'The Snowman'.
The flamboyant David Kingsley was a man who had worn many hats: President of the London School of Economics Debating Society, media adviser to both Indira Ghandi, President of India, media adviser to Kenneth Kaunda, President of Zambia, sometime speech writer and media-adviser to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, founder and director of the advertising agency Kingsley, Manton and Palmer, instigator of the Social Democrat Party and vice-chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He asked me to look at a book he had produced called 'The English Difference'. It was a book more-or-less about 'what makes the English different', written largely by the humourists Paul Jenkins and John Gorham, but with innumerable contributors to the lavish art-work: Michael Foreman, Bill Tidy, Richard Usborne, David Gentleman, Anna Pugh, a huge list. I suppose one should call it a 'coffee-table book', very 'sixties' and very pop-art and very flippant and very iconoclastic. An establishment friend of mine from schooldays took a huge dislike to it. But I liked it and when David asked if I could 'set it to music' I jumped at the idea. That night I had booked to hear Beethoven's Ninth at the RFH conducted by Rudolf Kempe, but he had gone sick and the last-minute conductor didn't appeal. I went next-door to the Purcell Room and saw that Tristan Fry was playing percussion with a vocal group called 'The Scholars'. They were an absolutely top-class 5-singer vocal quintet but they sang a rather wacky crossover programme veering from Gesualdo to 'West-Side Story' and I started to imagine 'modern madrigals' for them. Arriving home I sketched the first three of a collection, both words and music. David named it 'The New National Songbook'. and they recorded it with me, performed it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on BBC Radio 3, on the Esther Rantzen TV show and in numerous concerts.
'We were watching the birds...'
For Christmas 1975 I wrote words and music for Lullaby, a Christmas narrative. Perhaps I could launch my dormant song with an a cappella vocal group? Enshrined in the work was the song, on this occasion to the words: 'Sleep my little child'. The work was well-received but nobody offerred to record it or perform it again. 'Walking in the air' went back in the drawer for a second time. The following year I knocked up a Scholars Christmas Medley, with 'early music' vsrions of 'I saw mummy kissing Santa Claus' and such like. Rather ghastly but it went down rather better!
Paul Hamburger at BBC Radio 3 programmed a live concert of 'The New National Songbook' with The Scholars and commissioned a new song for the occasion. I wrote a very dark political lyric in a song for 5-part vocal group and ensemble called [op.275]'From the Cradle to the Grave'[/0p.275]:
From the cradle...
On another occasion one of the girls in the group was wearing a T-shirt which read:
oh please do not kiss me oh please do not kiss oh please do not oh please do oh please oh
which I set as a 5-part a cappella glee, Oh please do not kiss me or 'T-shirt slogan'(1978).
Michael Leighton Jones, the baritone in the group was a friend and supporter and asked if I could write something for baritone and harpsichord. I responded with an 8-minute scena to words by Robert Browning: 'A Toccata of Galuppi's', which we performed in a BBC Radio 3 recital along with some jolly Warlock and some very gloomy Pfitzner, perhaps my only appearance as a concert harpsichordist!