Among those teachers to whom I owe gratitude is the late Ken Naylor. His teaching career was largely at the Leys, Cambridge, where he taught for 27 years, but the autumn of his career was spent at Christ's Hospital where he was manager of the Arts Centre. This was a terrific boon to the Music Department: Ken was a superb additional organist to the community, but he was also a wonderful arranger. I understand that he provided the fledgling King's Singers with some of their early arrangements; it was the elaborate, many-voiced arrangement of 'Lullaby of Broadway' which became a favourite with our close harmony Male Voice Choir (a curiously named ensemble in - as it was then - an all boys school!). I was very fortunate to have Ken teaching me the History of Music when I was in Year 12 (or the 'Deputy Grecians' as we were known in C.H. lingo). It was only when life had moved on and I was into my career that I first came across Ken's wonderful tune 'Coe Fen' which he wrote to John Mason's hymn 'How shall I sing that majesty?'. Choosing Eb major and triple time is always a good start for a hymn tune, but Ken was on top form the day he wrote this tune: the way the highest note of each phrase creeps ever higher until the top Eb at the start of line 7 (after an exquisitely prolonged last note of line 6) is masterly, and there aren't many hymn tunes that start their second half on a half diminished 7th! The finest hymn singing I have ever heard was by Downside School at the memorial service for their Christ Hospital educated Director of Music, Chris Tambling: Coe Fen in truly monumental guise, and a wonderful tribute to a special man. Now that composing has become my own career, I was asked to work on a hymn for communal singing during a local church event. With this occasion and Coe Fen in mind, it seemed to me that the one thing that Ken Naylor's great hymn tune lacked was a thrilling descant. So I set to work. http://www.coefen.org/ It was only on completing my attempt and sharing it with other Coe Fen admirers that I discovered that Ken had written a descant to his tune. Had I known this, I would not have trodden upon such hallowed ground: it seems like disrespect, even at this distance down the years. I requested that the master's own descant be scanned and sent to me. At least there was some affirmation: like my descant, Ken had started his in bar 2, imitating the congregational tune one bar later at a higher pitch; but then, shock! I realised that Ken had committed one of those grave sins of good part-writing: on beats 2 and 3 he had his descant moving in parallel octaves with the bass line! Perplexed, and - if I'm being honest - a little smug, I shared this discovery with a musical colleague. A day later he returned to the topic and gently pointed out that in my descant beats 2 and 3 moved in parallel 5ths with the congregational tune. Time for a quick revision and a portion of humble pie… Download score here - How shall I sing that majesty
October has offered me many diverse perspectives on singing – that wonderful activity which we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone (well, within reason). At the start of the month, I was at King’s Place, London, for a day focussing on the remarkable (and still not well known) tradition of Bolivian Baroque music. In 2008 I had the privilege of touring the Jesuit Missions in the Bolivian lowlands of Chiquitania. Here in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuit priests not only built churches, but – to my mind, rather miraculously – instructed the local folk in the arts of music: instrument making, composition and performing. And here – in another miracle – the tradition was kept alive for over two hundred years after the expulsion of the Jesuits by the Spanish monarchy in 1767. Here is a photo of the beautiful Santa Ana church from my travels in 2008: The music from this tradition was a secret until the inspiring Priest and musicologist Pyotr Nawrot arrived in the region half a lifetime ago. In King’s Place at the start of October, he gave a fascinating presentation about the repertoire, full of his wonderment and excitement for the tradition, mixed together with a beautiful modesty. In the evening, the excellent Florilegium, led by charismatic recorder player Ashley Solomon, gave a fine recital of the music. On the platform with the players were Bolivian singers performing items of their home repertoire. The whole experience was fantastic; one of the striking things to me was that for these young Bolivians, it was their singing that had allowed them to travel, with their music, to a faraway land where they performed to the likes of me. Singing was very much the catalyst to my experience of the following weekend. My friend, Jamie Lonsdale, presented a soirée in his beautiful Oxfordshire home in aid of Sobell House Hospice. There were some wonderful young singers taking part: Alexandra Kennedy, Mary-Jess Leaverland and Jennifer Clark (some fabulous coloratura Strauss). The main star, though, was Jamie himself. Jamie has told me that he came to singing somewhat late, but what joy he is having – and giving – through his newfound love of song from the inside. Among his items, he gave a most tender and warm-hearted première of my ‘Lullaby’ which I wrote for him, and ‘Fifty Shades’ (a combined Lonsdale/Knight number that links to a well-known bestseller) went down a storm! Best of all, Jamie’s singing habit led to the raising of a handsome amount for a wonderful charity. A third singing-focussed weekend on the trot took me to the beautiful church of St.Mary-on-the-Bridge, Putney, where my new friends of the 1885 singers were performing a concert of tango-inspired music, including Palmeri’s Misa a Buenos Aires. They kindly opened the event with a performance of my La Vida de Tango (written in 2015 for Malvern Festival Chorus). There was no doubting the joy that this team of enthusiastic singers, led by their choir-founder Alison Hunka, conveyed to their impressively large audience. There was little doubt that their singing created a strong community spirit and focus. They made my evening by inviting me to conduct the final movement of the cantata as an encore at the end of the concert. Reflecting on these three October weekends, I recalled a poster I saw a few years ago in a school in Oxford: I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing. It is my guess that the Bolivian singers at King’s Place, Jamie Lonsdale and his guest soloists, and the good folk of the 1885 singers in Putney all finished their performances with a strong sense of happiness. Their faces certainly suggested this. And then I turn my thoughts to our schools and ponder: why is it that singing is not more celebrated and promoted among our children? You would have thought that an activity that offers such inter-cultural connection, community cohesion and charitable benefit might be seized whole-heartedly by headteachers, and that the happiness it brings to those who participate might be so valued that there was none of the reluctance, sadly so often experienced by music teachers, to afford music departments ample time for the rehearsals that allow choirs to flourish. After all, it’s not just the singing that would be flourishing … it would be the happiness too. Surely we can’t have too much of that?
New York, they say, is ‘the city that never sleeps’, and modern life seems to be ever more 24/7. I have on occasion made use of the one 24-hour shopping opportunity that is now a feature of life in the UK. This has usually involved having a guest to stay and realising, too late, the paucity of my breakfast supplies; my guest wends their way up the stairs (the guest bedroom is on the 2nd floor) and, after a discreet pause, I’m out the front door to the local 24-hour Tesco. I find it a depressing (if face-saving) experience: a netherworld of cluttered aisles, bored shelf-stackers and insomniac shoppers (sometimes with insomniac baby in tow). Thus it was recently that another 24-hour shopping experience gave me pause for thought. I had left my Taipei hotel by taxi at 11.30pm, and a short while later entered a remarkable establishment: the all-night bookshop. I sense that the British bookshop has been under threat in recent decades, much of their business drained by the Amazon basin and the competition from the Waterstones chain. The Eslite Bookstore, founded in 1989, has 48 branches throughout Taiwan and recently opened two branches in Hong Kong. My first encounter, a few days earlier, had been a branch in Tainan which was open until 10pm and full of people every evening. The Dunhua branch in Taipei is something else. Firstly, there is the stock of books – Chinese and English. So many enticing titles with particularly fine sections in Philosophy, Architecture and Design, Art and Photography, and Music. It is a terribly sad state of affairs that even in the largest Waterstones store in the UK books about the great composers are essentially no longer stocked. Clearly there is a market for them in Taipei – I saw many such titles on Bach, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns and Wagner, to name but a small selection. More remarkable is the clientele: dozens of people, many young adults, eagerly filling the shop after midnight. Some were browsing books, others were sat at communal tables working, a few were sat on steps having a chat. I am lost in admiration for this intelligent culture of the Far East: the work ethic, the respect for culture, the thirst for learning. It leads to some very awkward questions for those of us from the West. I made my purchases and headed back to my hotel just before 1.00am. As I left, a few fellows (very un-tramplike chaps) were having a nap in the foyer. Outside a line of 8 taxis were queuing for custom from bibliophile shoppers. The drivers were going to have to wait a while yet: inside the shop there were books to be read, knowledge to be learned, and ideas to be pursued. The night was yet young…
I recently composed a piece called The Elephant and the Mouse. The title appears in a specimen examination paper of ‘Briefs’ in the new A’ level specification from AQA, and my piece is intended as an example of how a candidate might go about the challenge. [soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/275736868" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /] It took me back to my early piano lessons with the wonderful Vera Crawford-Phillips. A typical piano lesson (as I remember it) would end with her saying ‘Now dear, I’m just going to write what you need to do in your practice book, and whilst I do that, why don’t you play me what an elephant sounds like’ and – as a happy 6 year old, gloriously losing myself in the moment, I would go thump, thump, thump in the bass, the connection between the slowly lumbering beasts I had only ever seen in Bristol Zoo and the sounds I was making being (to my mind) patently clear. When, next week, the challenge was to play like a mouse, my hands would stretch in the opposite direction and go scurrying around the upper keys. Children today typically spend far more time looking at a screen than I ever did (there was only grainy black and white television). It concerns me how an invitation to compose is met with an almost instantaneous desire to sit in front of a computer and have the focus of their brain dominated by the visual impact of the illuminated screen. The frame of the screen seems to imprison the reach of the imagination, and more often than not the only place to insert notes is on the stave (perhaps we need a NSPLL – a Notational Society for the Preservation of Leger Lines). It is as though they compose visually. Yet children in their creative play, be it outdoors or on the stairs, are just as imaginative as they ever were. I used to dream of playing cricket for England, flying to Mars with my teddy bears or constructing elaborate mazes. And my wonderful piano teacher took that imagination and encouraged me to respond to it with musical invention. Of course the elephants went thump, thump in the heavy tones of the bass whilst the mice scurried lightly around the tiny strings at the top of the piano, but she made my brain make that connection and be delighted (as only a 6-year old could be) in the results of my creativeness. So when I compose The Elephant and the Mouse today, little has changed. I now know that elephants can ‘trumpet’ – the ones in Bristol zoo never did that – so the trombone takes the elephant theme, but the bass still thumps in the cello, and the scurrying mouse is portrayed by the piccolo. Yes, I have more technical know-how these days, but that imagination is key, and I am so grateful that my piano teacher turned it on for me. I believe we should be doing far more to encourage today’s young children to be thinking in similarly imaginative ways, not because the results at GCSE composition will improve (though that would be welcome) but because it is such a vital skill to ‘think outside the box’ – the box of the computer screen. Oh, and we do not need to assess and measure the results with all the trappings of targets, assessments and statistics, we just need to encourage them to be imaginative. Who knows what then they might be able to imagine in whatever area they subsequently gain the technical know-how, musical or otherwise.
I had the pleasure recently of re-visiting ‘La Serenissima’ – Venice – for the first time in many years. Staying in a wonderful bed and breakfast near the Rialto, it was difficult to avoid posters for the frequent (seemingly nightly) concerts of Vivaldi. And so, one evening, I found myself in La Chiesa de San Vidal listening to the Interpreti Veneziani. It was not difficult to enjoy: a stunning Venetian church, some fine playing by a small group of vibrant string players, and an almost exclusively Vivaldi programme. One of the things that struck me was just how full was the church. Presumably, this must be the case night after night. Of course, it would be possible to rail against this: the commercialisation of fine music, packaged to furnish the tourist industry. The conversation of two ladies in the row behind me after the final piece tended to suggest a different mindset to mine: ‘I rather enjoyed that – very good value for money, I thought’, ‘Yes: they played a lot of notes’. Reflecting on the experience, I thought differently. Where else but Venice would you be able to perfom a concert of Vivaldi to a full house, not just as a one-off, but night after night, giorno dopo giorno? This points to some of music’s wonderful truths. In our globalised world, with our homogenous high streets and plagiarised television, music still offers individuality, and away from the synthesized sounds of commercial music, we are the inheritors of so many unique ways in which music has reflected societies and people through the centuries and across the world. What could be more Venetian than Vivaldi? In this unique place, one of the best ways the tourist can escape the usual perspective of looking at other tourists looking at Venice, is to sit and listen to those sounds that were first heard in that city back in the first half of the 18th century. Those fresh, eager ritornelli, those excited rising sequences, those incisive chords on the harpsichord. Whether it’s Vivaldi in Venice, or Tango in San Telmo, let us delight in the extraordinary kaleidoscope of unique musical styles – a kaleidoscope that merely reflects the myriad styles of society and types of people that we meet in life. Let us steer away from globalised homogeneity and encourage, through our music, diversity, authenticity and mutual respect and acceptance.
Sunday evening I fulfilled one of my long-held ambitions: I attended the opera at the Teatro Colón. For those who have not had the privilege, this is one of the great opera houses of the world. Opened in 1908, the theatre was closed for major renovations when I was last in town, and re-opened in 2010. There is a sumptuous interior with no fewer than 6 tiers to the horseshoe galleries, and a capacity of nearly 2,500 seated and a further 1,000 standing. The performance was Don Giovanni, and very fine it was. Erwin Schrott was an excellent Don, and ably supported by Simon Orfila’s Leporello. María Bayo as Donna Elvira was the pick of the female singers. There was a dazzling set, with much gold paint, not least on the wide picture frame which defined the proscenium arch. If the staging of the final scene was a little low on visual impact with the ghost of the Commendatore singing from the orchestra pit, this did little to dilute the power of the performance. Occasionally the orchestra was a little lacking in refinement, but it was great to see the onstage players at the end of Act I getting caught up in the action, some hiding behind double basses. The whole experience was wonderful to witness: a capacity audience who were engrossed in the piece, and a theatre that offered everything you could want – comfy chairs, wide open sight-lines (I could see much of the orchestra too), and a wonderful acoustic. The ambience in the foyers and bars was friendly, unpretentious and elegant. I already am looking forward to my second visit – opera in the Colón very much remains on my ‘to do’ list. Buenos Aires is, of course, the city of Tango. The night before I was at a small-scale tango show at the charming Café Tortoni. A famous venue in the centre of the city, the main room is all art deco and very atmospheric. As to the show itself, there was an ensemble of three musicians (piano, bandoneón, and bass guitar), a singer and a dancing couple. It was undoubtedly authentic and without the trappings of the bigger touristic shows; on my first visit to Buenos Aires my enjoyment of a tango show was curtailed when they struck up with ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina’. On this occasion, much as I respected the playing of the three highly experienced musicians, I confess I was a little underwhelmed by the performance. Fluent and stylish, yes, yet there virtually no eye contact between them – not that they needed it, so many times had they shared the repertoire, but that was perhaps the problem. The spirited (formidable, even) female singer belonged to the same tradition and delivered rather too many songs in full chest voice, further amplified by the PA system. It was left to the young dancers to inject some charisma; it would have been good had the programme featured rather more of them. In fairness, the previous evening had raised the bar astronomically high. On this occasion I was at the wonderful Torquato Tasso Club to hear the Tango-Fusion group Escalandrum. They are a line-up of six musicians: two saxophonists, a bass clarinet, piano, string bass and drumkit. They gave one of the most memorable performances I have ever attended. To select individual members of the team would be unfair – they are all fantastic musicians and a brilliant, creative group. Gustavo Musso on soprano and alto saxophones was simply stunning with his dazzling solos, often traversing the full range of the instrument in passages of breath-taking virtuosity at break-neck speed. There were some sensuous solos on tenor sax from Danián Fogiel, and the most amazing bass clarinet playing (including extraordinary heights and some highly colouristic ‘shronking’ sounds) from Martin Pantyer. Mariano Sivori (bass) and Nicolás Guerschberg (piano) were also utterly brilliant as the bedrock of the ensemble. There was a star, however. At the drums was Daniel Piazzolla – grandson of the mighty Astor, whose music I have loved and admired for many years. He was so absorbed in his playing, always creative in rhythmic invention and palette of timbres, and it was clear that he was savouring every moment of the interaction of his band. And the thing that was simply wonderful (and unforeseen) was that the entire programme was his Grandfather’s music, re-worked with such imagination to twist rhythms, harmonies and textures in fresh, piquant and witty ways that I can only imagine the great man would have himself been delighted, notwithstanding the lack of any bandoneón (which, strange to say, seemed not to matter at all). What a wonderful tribute from a highly talented grandson and his amigos. I have always loved Buenos Aires, but these three consecutive evenings took the love affair to new heights. What a wonderful city to provide such musical riches: from a confident production of one of the great European operas in a decidedly marvellous opera house, to its own special voice of tango in guises both old and new. On my final night before flying home, I walked at a late hour through Plaza Dorrego – the heart of tango. It was Monday, and San Telmo was stangely empty; a new week had begun, perhaps even the Porteños needed a few bars rest. But in one corner of the square a small group of players were having a gentle practice. The tango goes on… I shall have to return.
Driving into Trevelin the day before, the sign had said ‘Bienvenidos a Trevelin. Croeso I Drefelin’. It is a small town of bilinguality: Spanish and Welsh. The story of Welsh settlers in Patagonia will be known by some. 153 sailed on the Mimosa in 1865 from Liverpool to the Chubut valley: a place now called Puerto Madryn. In 1891, one of their sons, John Daniel Evans established a flour mill at Trevelin. Here I spent Easter Day. Much of the day was spent taking in the stunning scenery of the Parque Nacional Los Alerces, its crystal clear lakes and Andean backdrop. Back in town at the end of the afternoon, it seemed time to take tea in one of the ‘Galles’ tearooms. Scones, cakes and fine tea – very reminiscent of Sunday afternoon tea of my childhood. The tearoom had various display cabinets of the town’s Welsh forbears: school photographs, birth registers, teacups. It occurred to me to ask the waitress where one could find the nearest Welsh Chapel. ‘Ten blocks down the main street, turn right, three blocks and behind the school’ she said. And so it was. There, in the middle of an open piece of undulating ground, incompletely fenced off, was a brick building with pitched red roof. It is not the original chapel of the Trevelin people, but it has stood there for over 100 years and must have witnessed so much of the Welsh community’s comings and goings. Behind was the old welsh school – a cottage dwarfed by the mountains behind. Of course the chapel was locked and it was not possible to look through it windows, three on each side of the building, as they were set too high in the walls. It felt a little anticlimactic: missing some spark of connection to bring story of the pioneers to life. It was then that a figure appeared from a house to the side of the chapel land. I wondered whether he was about to say visitors were not allowed there. I could not have been more wrong. The man was Ellis Williams, a true Patagonian Welshman, senior in years, bringing the chapel key with him. Sadly, I had no Welsh to share with him, but he was only too delighted to unlock the door. Almost the first thing I spied inside was the harmonium, and Ellis was quick to find another key to open it up. And so it was on Easter Sunday evening I sat down to play Ar hyd y nos in a Welsh chapel in Patagonia. My limited Spanish, even my native English, cannot explain how the music filled the small chapel, the way Ellis produced books of music from yesteryear for me to play, or how it felt to be one of an unknown number that have sat and played hymns in that humble chapel, and – alas – I have no Welsh at all. But this I know: music has a unique power to change the ambience of a room and connect past and present. In those chords on that harmonium Ellis and I became friends.
One of my favourite maxims : ‘You’re born with a million lives; you die having had one’. Some of the lives I might have had, I am sure I will never be able to imagine; but when – as sometimes happens – I am asked ‘if you hadn’t done music, what would you have done instead?’, my answer is always the same: architecture. Like many boys, a favourite toy was Lego, but in the late 60s this wasn’t a case of sets of specific bricks that made one particular thing; rather it was lots and lots of square and rectangular bricks, a few windows and roofing tiles. I made buildings: houses, castles, churches. These were not to some set picture on the box (actually the Lego was stored in old biscuit tins, I seem to remember), but each time different – products of my imagination. My favourite thing was doing the roof when there were gables with gulleys and subsidiary ridges. When I was at school, my best subject at O’ level (as it then was) was Mathematics, closely followed by Geometric and Engineering Drawing. Now there’s a subject! Strangely, I didn’t do O’ level Music, just lots of practical music: piano, organ, violin, singing and keyboard harmony every week, and orchestras and choirs each day. In a different school, maybe the Music would not have been so encouraged, and then what? I suspect the answer would have been architecture. Curiously, architecture is in my family: it was my father’s creative skill, and it is my nephew’s career (Simon Knight Architects) – very talented he is too. Thinking it through, I see the two as very similar: both fill a space – architecture’s space is physical, music’s temporal; both need a structure to make the edifice work, and both have a surface above that structure which is received by the passer by (architecture through the eyes, music via the ears). Each can be savoured much more deeply by the committed admirer, both are dependent on manipulating with technical knowledge wedded to creative imagination conduits for the architectural / musical concept – architecture via materials such as concrete, timber and glass, music with instruments such as strings, winds and brass. Both have to be realised by other specialists – builders and performing musicians. One can draw further parallels with aesthetic and style, commissioning briefs, site / performance venue, budgetary constraints, etc. Sometimes the two get very close: Bruckner’s symphonies come to mind – one can almost see pillars and arches as you listen to them, and symmetries in his love of inverted motifs. Next time I meet up with my nephew, I must ask him which architects design buildings that are most like music.
I was playing at a school Chapel this morning; sadly, St. David’s Day was unmentioned, but I didn’t let it pass: Vaughan Williams’s Prelude on Rhosymedre before, and an improvisation on Men of Harlech as afters.
I sometimes ponder how much of my musical instinct comes from my Welsh genes: my maternal grandfather’s father came from Montgomeryshire and my mother has often told me how they both would ‘naturally sing in harmony’. I feel harmony is probably my strongest musical instinct too; I often improvise on rising and falling chromatic scale.
[caption id="attachment_936" align="alignnone" width="261"] My Great Grandfather: Albert Joseph Owen
b.30th July 1884, Rock House, Trelystan; d.1965[/caption] Of all hymn tunes, Cwm Rhondda is just about the best known and most lustily sung. I recall with some profound echo within the singing of this hymn at my Great Aunt Dorothy’s funeral a few years ago. Not only were my siblings and I giving it our lustiest 4-part harmony, but there was everyone else too: for years Great Aunt Dorothy played the piano for a Male Voice choir, and they had turned out in force. At the end, the Priest gently rested her hand on the coffin and said with a sense of joy: ‘Oh Dorothy! Can you hear us? The singing’s amazing!’ The fulcrum of Cwm Rhondda is, of course that dominant 7th, the one that all Welsh men linger over, stretching out that inevitable need for fulfilment until everyone has felt the pull and can then savour the arrival in the promised land of the tonic. What a glorious, thrilling sound to grow up with; what an inspiring example to have the men around you creating this for you with nothing more than their combined voices. How this tradition should be sustained and valued. Hapus dydd Dewi Sant!