*SYMPHONY NO. 2 - 'TOCCATA' op.386 (May 1988)

A 'concerto for orchestra' commissioned for the 30th anniversary of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an extended one-movement form consisting of a toccata, fugue and finale. aka 'A celebration of the orchestra'.'
Published by: Highbridge Music Ltd
Commissioned by: The Royal Philharmonc Orchestra for their 30th anniversary in 1976 (extensively revised 1988)
Instrumentation: 3(III=picc+bfl).2.ca.2.bcl.2.cbsn - 4331 - timp - perc(3): xyl/glsp/crot/SD/TD/BD/cyms/susp.cym/tgl/claves/tamb/mark tree- cel- pno- harp- strings
[Key to Abbreviations]
Duration: 22 mins
First Performance:
Recording by The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by the composer November 1991 at Sony Studios Whitfield Street London

Sheet Music Available
Full score for hire
Study score for hire
Orchestral parts for hire
Recordings Available
Concerto for piano and orchestra; Diversions for cello and orchestra; Toccata
Recorded: 1991
Artists: Howard Blake (piano), Sir David Willcocks (conductor); Robert Cohen (cello); Howard Blake (conductor); The Philharmonia




  • 1: Theme - Woodwind
  • 2: Horns
  • 3: Trumpets, Trombones, Tuba
  • 4: Strings
  • 5: Celeste and Percussion
  • 6: Fugue
  • 7: Theme - Finale


A 'Toccata' was originally commissioned from Howard Blake by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for their 30th Anniversary in 1976 and the first performance conducted by Hans Vonk at the Fairfield Hall in September of that year. A review by Hugo Cole in the Arts Guardian Sept. 17 1976 states: 'Howard Blake's newly commissioned Birthday Toccata was almost as tuneful and harmonious (as Sibelius' The Swan of Tuonela, which it followed) - a sort of orchestral sampler showing off the instruments section by section and even working up to a final fugue. But the work is not reminiscent of any previous composer except possibly Malcolm Arnold and is highly succesful taken on its own terms. It falls back perhaps too often on cheerful syncopated rhythms to keep it going, but very skilfully allows instruments each to have their say in their conventional characters yet without reminiscences of famous conventional roles'.

Note by the composer: At the concert it seemed that guest conductor Hans Vonk was somewhat less than comfortable with the work, throwing the score onto the floor at the conclusion and apparently stamping on it! But such a view was by no means held by either the orchestra or the audience, who applauded it enthusiastically. Disappointingly no further performances were given and in 1988 I decided on an extensive revision of the work in preparation for a recording with The Philharmonia, which I myself would conduct. The CD would also contain premiere recordings of Diversions for Cello with soloist Robert Cohen and the Piano Concerto with myself as soloist. How did this happen? In fact a soloist had been engaged - no less than the Russian virtuoso Evgeny Kissin, but nearing the concert date, when he saw the difficulty of the work and assessed the time it would take him to learn it, he backed out of the whole date. In some desperation Philharmonia orchestra manager David Welton rang me saying 'the orchestral players believe you would play it magnificently yourself' and begged me to clear the decks and learn the solo part. This was no easy task. I needed not only to learn the solo part but also to rehearse it with a second (orchestral) piano part. By some sort of divine piece of fortune I had just inherited my parents' house in Preston Park Brighton which housed a grand piano, a Baldwin, and I now transported a second piano, a Kawai, down from London. By another divine act of fortune I had just married singer and pianist Helen Glover who was happy to accompany me and see me through to the recording for Sony and on to the concert premiere for Princess Diana at the Festival Hall. I asked my friend and colleague Sir David Willcocks to conduct, which he was most happy to do. The CD was issued in 1991 as Sony CDHB3

On the original score a dictionary definition of the word 'Toccata' had been written:


                A PRELUDE OR OVERTURE


                A FANTASIA

                A PIECE IN WHICH THE NOTES ARE JUST 'TOUCHED AND LEFT (NOT DWELT ON) - from the Italian past participle of toccare 'to touch'

This piece however is far longer and far different from any other Toccata previously written and at a length of 22 minutes falls more into the category of a symphony. The form of the work is determined by a sort of 'gematria' or talmudic mathematics, here applied to music. The numbers that have great magical significance are 12, 7, 4 and 3; 12 apostles, 12 months of the year, 12 hours of the day, 7 days of the week, the addition of the magic numbers 4 and 3 signifying the human being and the Trinity. The theme of the work is 84 bars long, 7x12, divided into 4 sections of 26,16,16 and 24 bars each. The 84 bar unit is repeated 7 times with some extension to the 7th which forms the recapitulation of the main theme plus the coda. A single-sheet key to the work A chart of the work ('TOCCATA '76) was created by the graphic artist and animator Tony White, available on request from Highbridge Music,

The music critic Christopher Palmer wrote about the work in his sleeve-note to the Sony recording entitled 'Triple debut, an appreciation':

'What is particularly unusual in Howard Blake’s case

is that, far from disowning his alter ego, the kind of

musician he was and the kind of music he produced

for the first 25 years of his professional life, he has

found in them the mainspring of a remarkable personal

renaissance. Much of the raw material of his most

significant recent works – particularly the Toccata

for Orchestra and the Piano Concerto – derives

from this source, but so refined, processed,

enhanced, even sublimated, as to be scarcely

recognisable. This is particularly true of the remarkable

Toccata for Orchestra which is a kind of all-embracing

creative synthesis of everything that

featured in Howard’s musical landscape in the

formative years of his life – the music he heard and

played, the techniques he learned and practised.

It is also much more. Its official title is Toccata – a

celebration of the orchestra and on the title-page of

the score there follow five definitions of the term:-

1. a piece requiring brilliant execution

2. a prelude or overture

3. a composition written as an exercise

4. a fantasia

5. a piece in which the notes are just ‘touched’ and

left (not dwelt on) – Italian past participle of

toccare ‘to touch’.

Each of these definitions applies in some degree to

the present work, whose form may be described as

an extended melodic sequence of 84 bars, the

whole of which is played seven times. This

sequence itself divides into four sections, in each of

which a new instrument or group of instruments

appears in the following order:

WOODWIND: flutes and bass flute, bassoons

and contra-bassoons, oboes and cor anglais, clarinet and bass clarinet.

HORNS: 1, 3, 2 and 4

BRASS: trumpets 1 and 2, trumpet 3,

trombones, tuba

STRINGS: violins, violas, celli, basses

PERCUSSION: celeste, harp and string quartet,

xylophone, glockenspiel and piano

– which is as far as the kitchen department gets

before the onset of a fugue. Side-drum, tenor-drum,

claves, finger-cymbal and above all timpani all

perform their turns in an intensely busy, even

hyperactive, contrapuntal context. The last full

statement of the 84-bar, ‘theme’ (or ‘thematic

sequence’) takes the form of a climactic finale-plus-coda

in which everyone in the orchestra participates.

It’s difficult to find a precedent in orchestral literature

for Toccata. Just calling it a ‘showpiece’ or even a

‘concerto’ for orchestra won’t do because (a) it’s too

long, (b) it’s too sophisticated in content (in most

showpieces it is manner rather then matter which

counts) and (c) its difficulty is such that it can really

be performed only by orchestras of the highest

professional calibre in which almost every player is a

soloist. Further to (b) Toccata is, in fact, a tour-de-force

not merely of modern orchestral virtuosity but

also melodic construction and of contrapuntal savoirfaire.

It is a piece HB himself seems slightly surprised

at having written – ‘not really planned, it just

happened’, not specifically designed as a platform for

his technical accomplishments although it has turned

out to be one, and in a spectacular way. It is an

unapologetically exhibitionistic piece and one which

was, I suspect, a kind of catharsis for the composer, a

milestone in his composing career; as if the

composer has said to himself subconsciously, ‘There!

Now everyone knows what I’m capable of technically,

so I don’t need to go on demonstrating it over and

over again!’ Toccata is indeed this kind of

demonstration par excellence, and it is significant that

Howard Blake has never attempted anything quite as

complex or elaborate since. In fact later works – the

Piano Concerto is a prime example – have reverted to

an almost neo-classical simplicity in which there is no

exploitation of technique for it’s own sake (although of

course the simplicity is masterminded by technical

knowledge: otherwise it would come across as

commonplace or simplistic). As I’ve already pointed

out, much of Howard’s technical knowledge was

acquired in recording studios rather than in the

context of live concert performance and the

orchestration of Toccata contains a number of

inspired eccentricities which can only be explained in

terms of the close-microphone recording system,

which enabled the balance to be adjusted artificially

where necessary. Multiple re-takes are of course

available to correct mistakes, for the making of which

Toccata, with its procession of cruelly-exposed solos,

offers many possibilities. But Howard knows exactly

how far he can go with impunity. ‘Impossible!’ a

know-all might say, looking at the lone piccolo which

soars way above the strings in the great melodic

apotheosis which launches the finale and coda (one

of the works’ greatest moments). The timpanist is

expected to play the actual notes of the fugue’s

subject when his turn comes to go on stage, not just

a rhythmic outline – ‘impossible’! And what about the

violas, who in their solo spot are sent climbing way

into the upper reaches of their compass without

support? A pedagogue would probably red-pencil the

entire passage, and a good many others besides. He

should listen to this recording to hear how utterly

unmerited his strictures would be.'

[Christopher Palmer 1946-1995]


14th May 2016
- 7th February 2018
Full-evening ballet 'Eine Frau Ohne Namen' (A woman without a name) has music by Howard Blake, the score consisting entirely of excerpts from his choral and orchestral works, particularly the oratorio 'Benedictus' (opus 282) Ballet choreographed and directed by Robert North., First performance Monnchen Gladbach Opera 14th May 2016 Final performance Krefeld Opera 7th February 2018
May 2004 Philharmonisches Orchester des Staatstheaters Mainz, conductor Sebastian Hernandes-Laverny, Mainz Opera House, Germany

A concert with a birthday theme, with works by John Adams, Stravinsky, Handel and Howard Blake

September 2003 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nicholas Cleobury, St John's Smith Square London
November 1991 Recording by The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by the composer Sony Studios Whitfield Street London, Sony Studios, Whitfield Street, London


"Eine Frau ohne Namen" - ein Ballett von Robert North mit Musik von Howard Blake.

Das Leben einer Frau von ihrer Geburt bis zum Tod ist Thema eines neuen Ballettabends von Robert North. Im Theater Mönchengladbach wurde die Uraufführung dieses Werkes vom Publikum begeistert gefeiert. Dass der Abend zutiefst berührt ist neben der eindrucksvollen Choreografie vor allem der Musik zu verdanken. In enger Zusammenarbeit mit dem Ballettdirektor hat der britische Komponist Howard Blake verschiedene Teile aus seinen Werken zu einem faszinierenden Klangteppich zusammengefügt. Neben großem Orchester mit ausgedehnten Streichersoli kommt im letzten Teil auch ein Chor zum Einsatz.

Der Abend beginnt musikalisch mit einem Sopransolo (Sophie Witte), das sich von zarten Tönen zu ausdrucksvollem Gesang steigert. Die Sängerin steht am linken Bühnenrand und begleitet gemeinsam mit den Streichern der Niederrheinischen Sinfoniker den Prolog. Vor einem roten Hintergrund, auf dem als Sinnbild des Lebens eine Kreisform zu erkennen ist, erwachen die Tänzer zum Leben. Sieben Männer und Frauen, in schlichte graue Trikots gekleidet, tanzen gemeinsam, dann in Gruppen getrennt und schließlich wieder zusammen. In einer für North charakteristischen klaren Ausdrucksform, in der sich stets klassische und moderne Elemente des Tanzes mischen, wird vom Ursprung des Lebens erzählt. Männliche und weibliche Gene ziehen sich an, vereinigen sich, Leben entsteht.

Wo Leben ist, ist auch der Tod. Farbe und Licht wechseln in tiefes Blau und in einer kurzen Sequenz wird der Tod einer männlichen Figur betrauert. Am Ende des Prologs erscheint ein kleines Mädchen aus einem Tunnel heraus, den die Tänzer gebildet haben. Mit seinen Eltern läuft es im Kreis, ein größeres Mädchen wir eingewechselt, schließlich richtet sich eine in Rot gekleidete Frau (Karine Andrei-Sutter) im Zentrum der Bühne auf. Sie ist von einem schwebenden Metallkreis umgeben, der im Verlauf des Stücks noch eine wichtige Rolle spielen wird. Das Leben der Frau beginnt. Sie ist als allgemeines Sinnbild zu verstehen und bleibt daher namenlos. Auch bei den weiteren Figuren wird auf individuelle Namen verzichtet.

Da sind zwei Freunde (Takashi Kondo und Guiseppe Lazarra), die sie durchs Leben begleiten, eine Freundin (Elisa Rossignoli) taucht auf, die später zur erbitterten Rivalin wird. Vertrauensvoll und von einer zurückhaltenden Zuneigung ist die Beziehung zu dem Jugendfreund (Raphael Peter) gekennzeichnet, heftige Leidenschaft charakterisiert die Begegnung mit dem ersten Ehemann (Alessandro Borghesani). Kinder werden geboren und bald verlässt er sie wegen der Freundin. Eine banale alltägliche Geschichte, die allerdings sehr dicht und emotional erzählt wird. Das Bühnenbild bleibt bis auf wenige Farb-und Lichtwechsel abstrakt, die Kostüme sind der heutigen Zeit angepasst (Ausstattung Udo Hesse).

Zwei Sätze aus Howard Blakes Violinkonzert bieten den perfekten musikalischen Rahmen dazu. Unter der Leitung ihres Kapellmeisters Alexander Steinitz spielen die Niederrheinischen Sinfoniker hoch konzentriert und engagiert. Im hoch emotionalen Violinsolo (Philipp Wenger) spiegeln sich die Qualen der verlassenen Frau wider. Innerhalb des Metallkreises agiert sie wie eine Gefangene, die keinen Ausweg findet. Nicht nur in dieser Szene beeindruckt Karine Andrei-Sutter mit ihrer feinnervigen und zugleich so intensiven Körpersprache. Die langjährige Solistin des Ballettensembles feiert mit dieser Rolle, in der sie alle Facetten zeigen kann, einen glanzvollen Abschied von der Bühne. Aus der Krise führt der Weg zur Kunst. Gegen Ende des ersten Teils wird die Frau eine gefeierte Schriftstellerin, der Jugendfreund zum zweiten Ehemann. Der erste Mann und die Freundin tauchen als schmerzhafte Erinnerungen immer wieder auf. Der zweite Teil zeigt die Frau bereits am Ende ihres Lebens.

Der Dynamik des Lebens folgt eine eher elegische und versöhnliche Stimmung. Jetzt mit grauem Haar bekräftigt das Ehepaar im Tanz noch einmal seine Zuneigung, gibt es auch die Aussöhnung mit der Freundin. Der Tod erfolgt plötzlich am Schreibtisch, was den Abend aber noch nicht beendet. Denn in einem an den Prolog anknüpfenden Schlussteil wird der Übergang vom physischen Tod in ein anderes Leben thematisiert. Robert North’ Überlegungen sind hier eindeutig vom christlichen Abendland geprägt. Nach einem Zwischenzustand in Leere und Dunkelheit begleitet ein Engel (Viktoria Hays) die Frau in eine andere Sphäre. Die reduzierte Architektur eines Gewölbes mit Empore sowie die in Pastelltönen gehaltenen, schlichten Kostüme lassen an Renaissancebilder denken. Darauf abgestimmt ist auch die Musik, die mit einem wunderbaren Viola-Solo (Albert Hametoff) beginnt und dann Teile aus Blakes Oratorium „Benedictus“ verwendet. Der lateinische Gesang des gemischten Chores (Einstudierung Maria Benyumova) verbreitet eine feierlich-sakrale Atmosphäre, zu der die wieder sehr dynamische Choreografie einen spannenden Kontrast bietet. Mit Drehungen und Sprüngen und in unterschiedlichen Konstellationen scharen sich achtzehn Tänzerinnen und Tänzer als Himmelswesen um die jetzt weiß gekleidete Frau, die schließlich Teil von ihnen wird.

Die einfache Geschichte bekommt so einen überzeitlichen Charakter, Musik und Tanz verschmelzen zu einen eindrucksvollen Gesamtkunstwerk. Dass das alles nicht in Kitsch abdriftet sondern sehr berührt, ist der Kunst von Robert North zu verdanken. Er versteht es, mit Tanz Geschichten zu erzählen, prägnant und voller Poesie

Stück Das Ballett „Die Frau ohne Namen“ mit Musik von Howard Blake wird das nächste Mal am Donnerstag, 19.Mai, um 19.30Uhr am Theater Mönchengladbach an der Odenkirchener Straße 78 gezeigt.
Musikalische Leitung Alexander Steinitz
Choreografie Robert North
Choreografieassistenz Sheri Cook
Bühne und Kostüme Udo Hesse
Dramaturgie Regina Härtling

Michaela Plattenteich, West Rheinischer Zeitung, 16/5/2016

Howard Blake's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1991 to celebrate the 30th birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was given its premiere by the orchestra, conducted by David Willcocks, with the composer playing the piano part. The work had been recorded by Sony prior to this performance and this recording was reissued by Sony in 2008.

It is a substantial work lasting over 26 minutes and cast, as you might expect from Blake, in traditional form. Blake's career as a composer has been spent mediating between the traditional and more contemporary elements in the 20th century classical style.

The opening movement starts with an evocative and wistful Lento, a movement to which you might give the adjective filmic. Blake's concert music is fascinating for the way he does not turn his back on his film music but absorbs it and develops it. The music then gathers momentum, and the solo piano part become more strenuous as the Allegro bursts onto the scene.  The writing is tonal, but complex and requires something from the listener. The piano writing is quite strenuous, but the soloist is rather part of the texture in the baroque or classical manner, rather then in combat with the orchestra in the Romantic tradition.
A hushed orchestra introduces a slow, evocative piano in the Andante espressivo. The movement develops with piano running passages through the orchestra texture, which culminates into a rather wonderful, big romantic moment  The final Vivace wonderfully perky with the busy piano part loudly interrupted by the orchestra, and some lovely jazzy moments.

When I interviewed Howard Blake, he talked about how he had to re-learn his piano technique to play the piano part. The results are impressive and confidently fluent. It is piano writing which is probably difficult, but not always showy and Blake shows himself a sympathetic soloist, finely supported by Willcocks and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The companion works to the concerto are two more of Blake's large scale orchestral works. His Diversions for Cello and Orchestra were written in their final form in 1985, with the cello part edited by the cellist Maurice Gendron. It started out life as a set of pieces for cello and piano, but the involvement of Gendron led to a considerable expansion of the piece with a commensurate increase in the virtuoso bravura of the solo cello part. Blake has recently started playing this bravura version with cello and piano and plans to record it with cellist ????

This recording of the orchestral version was made with Blake conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, with cellist Robert Cohen as the soloist. The work is a sequence of relatively short movements which hark back to the suites of the past. The opening Prelude is melancholy, with the cello singing in the alto register at first unaccompanied and then with just high strings. A perkily busy not quite Scherzo leads to a melancholic, rather dramatic March. The rather busy Waltz has some rather skittish, skittery playing. The Aria is the longest movement, it is slow and dark, with a sense of sustained intensity. Serenade is a rhythmic and melodic dance, and here the solo cello part starts to get rather busy indeed.  The Sarabande and Cadenza provides the solo cellist with some wonderful virtuoso display moments, with quite a spare and dark accompaniement from the orchestra. The Finale is fast and furious with a wonderfully bravura end.

Blake's Diversions is a terrific work which combines an element of bravura with just the right element of fun and Robert Cohen is suitably dazzling in the solo part.

The final work on the disc,Toccata (A celebration of the Orchestra) was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the 30th birthday season (1976/77). The version performed on the disc was revised by Blake in 1988/1990. The work is a large and complex piece designed to show of the orchestra, but allied to a quite sophisticated structural imagination. All based on an 84 bar theme, Blake plays imaginative games in the way he shows off the orchestra and demonstrates his ingenuity. The joy of the piece is that none of this really matters, as when you listen you are carried away. The first section of the work displays the various sections of the orchestra, with the music having a quiet sense of steady overall progression. Blake uses a lively imagination in the way he gives each section of its orchestra its moment. And then the piece concludes with a wonderful jazzy fugue.

None of the works on this disc is well known, and the disc itself is slightly tricky to obtain. But I rather like Blake's imaginative re-working of contemporary style. The music here doesn't seek to re-define or push boundaries, instead it builds intelligently what has gone before. The results are neither simple nor simplistic and fascinating in their combination of wit and complexity.

Elsewhere on this blog:

Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill, 16/8/2014

'...but the orchestra did not quite succeed in conveying the subtleties of the composition in the areas which are partly film-music influenced, and also failed to point up the dynamic contrasts in this richly motivic and well-constructed arch of excitement.'

Mainzer Rhein Zeitung, 25/4/2004

..the composer Howard Blake from London, who travelled over for the concert, charmingly explained in German his 'Birthday Toccata', which he wrote as a commission for the 30th anniversary of the Royal Philharmonic in 1976. Blake showed a supreme craftsmanship in tone-painting. His Toccata began with with music as sweet as the elf-music of Purcell, but then broadened out into the delicious late-romantic sonorities of an Elgar...

Allgemeine Zeitung, 24/4/2004

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