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Howard Blake talks to Bob Briggs: The composer of Walking In the Air turns 70 this month. Bob Briggs discovers more about an extraordinary musician. (BBr)


At this point, where we have Blake firmly established as a concert composer, I felt that I had to ask about the music which he would be conducting in his forthcoming 70th birthday concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in London on 28 October. The programme consists of the Piano Concerto, the British première of a new oratorio, The Passion of Mary (which was given its première in Sweden last year) and starts with the concert version of what is his most famous, and popular, work, The Snowman.

I started by asking if he found that as he got older more people wanted works from him, and again he felt the need to explain the composer's lot.

”No. Not at all. I think that the opposite’s true. People nowadays want to commission people who are 18 years old. Like they want pianists who are 12 years old [Here, I imagine that Blake is thinking of people such as Kit Armstrong from Philadelphia and Sasha Salomina from Harrow, North London]. Sopranos who are 11 years old. I’m thinking of Charlotte Church who was 12 when I asked her to sing the song in the animated film The Bear. It’s gone back to like it was in 1800, when there were child prodigies all over the place. I don’t get offered much in the way of commissions because people think ‘He’ll be too expensive’, and ‘I’m sure he won’t want to do it’. That sort of thing. I have always kept busy but then again, I’ve always been selective and I’ve turned down many things. Of course you only turn down an area once and nobody then ever asks you again. So turning down Barry Lyndon was seen as being “He must be insane”. Films are an area where they will pay a lot of money for you to write a score, but you’ve got to start on Monday. If you’re not prepared to do that, you just don’t do it. But as to getting serious commissions, I would love to have a proper commission to write a Symphony. I would adore to. But that is never going to happen.

I couldn’t write a Symphony unless it was commissioned by an orchestra because it wouldn’t be played. It would take you two years, more like three, to write a proper Symphony. Think of a Symphony like Beethoven Eroica. That’s what I mean by a Symphony, something which is really meaty. There is no market for that. I think that’s very sad. There’s no audience for it either. Would anybody come and hear
Symphony No.1 by Howard Blake?

I pointed out that he had one big thing on his side – The Snowman. When I saw the film for the first time I was struck at how symphonic the score was.

“Well Bob Matthew–Walker thinks that the full length theatre show of The Snowman is like a symphony. You see that’s a 90 minute work and it’s scored for full orchestra. I’ve done three animated films and they are all written like that. They’re fully worked out orchestral pieces and match exactly to action. I don’t quite know what genre that is but I’m very fond of it.

I pointed out that one of the great things about those scores was that nothing got in the way of the music – such as words.

“Well that’s really the great thing about The Snowman. If I take up what we’ve been talking about all afternoon, you say, ‘You’ve done films, what’s that like?’ I always go right back to the vision I had as a student of this possibility of music and image working together. As one could see in Russian films (Prokofiev and Eisenstein). And certain key films of other countries. There’s a marvellous mixture if you get it right. You really have to make the film yourself in order to do that, and I don’t have that capacity. So I got into writing every other sort of film. As I found with feature films, they’re really basically acting vehicles. All my life I was looking for a way of getting rid of the dialogue, of just working with images absolutely tied together with music.

“I happened by chance to go into an animation studio in Charlotte Street, in 1981, and the producer there said ‘I’ve just done this little sketch for a film called The Snowman, would you like to see it?’ And he showed me this pencil sketch and I thought, ‘This is it! We can do this with no dialogue.’ I said, ‘I can do this and I can make every action so riveting because I will tie in the music to it and you won’t need a single word.’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and I said, ‘Would you let me do a demo?’ and he said, ‘OK’. I did 8 minutes and the producer took it to Jeremy Isaacs next door (Channel Four had just opened and Jeremy was the Director of it). He said, ‘That’s a brilliant idea’. I was able then to develop my idea and make a complete score developed from the song, so that it all worked like a symphonic piece. It’s a half hour symphony.

Blake has said that when the tune which became Walking in the Air, he thought that he had created the opening of a Symphony.

“In the full length theatre show of The Snowman that theme runs upside down and backwards, it invades the entire score. It’s a huge piece of work – nearly ninety minutes. I then did two other films which were follow–ups. Granpa is also the same idea but I wrote it as an animated opera. The third one I did was called The Bear, which is like The Snowman but is also operatic. It’s got parts for a tenor and a bass and a girl soprano. But it caused great animosity in the film world. People think that I’m trying to upstage their films and I certainly have done that with Snowman and it’s upset a lot of people who’ve had to move over.

I did wonder if perhaps because of the immense popularity of The Snowman it had become a millstone round Blake’s neck, as the C sharp minor Prelude was for Rachmaninov.

“Well it’s close. It’s my calling card. It is so successful that people always say, ‘Have you written anything else?’ But I always say, ‘I’d rather have a calling card of Walking in the Air than not have a calling card at all! "

I have always been of the opinion that unlike the C sharp minor Prelude, which stands alone and leads nowhere, The Snowman clearly points the way to some of Blake’s later works like the Violin Concerto, and the Piano Concerto, which is the central work in the birthday concert.

“When the Philharmonia said ‘would you like to write a Piano Concerto?’ I said, ‘I’d love to!’ It was just before Christmas ’89. The Chairman of the Philharmonia rang up and said, ‘do you want to write a Piano Concerto for Princess Diana’s birthday to be done at the Festival Hall?’ I said, ‘terrific, marvellous. Who will you get to play it?’ and they said, ‘we’ll get Kissin or someone like that. We’ll get the best.’ I said, ‘so I can write anything I like, a really big Concerto.’ So I wrote this Concerto.

“It’s an unusual Concerto. I’ll tell you how that opening came to me. When I started writing, I felt it was a terrible nerve competing with all these Concertos written by all these wonderful Europeans, and I thought what a terrible liberty! I had a dinner party, on Valentine’s Day, 1990, and somebody asked ‘How are you going to write to Concerto? I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was going to write at all! I said I’d like to start with a very, very, simple theme that was innocent and happy and I went over to the electric piano and played the opening phrase of the work as we know it, having invented the idea en route across the room!. And I said, ‘I think that’s it!’”

Blake excused himself from the dinner table, rushed into his work room and immediately wrote down the musical idea he’d just created, with a continuation. But then, as can so often happen when a composer gets a good idea, doubts set in.

“I thought, ‘that’s not a big enough idea for a Piano Concerto. I mean, what will I do with it? Where does that go?’ And I tried all sorts of things. And for some weeks I didn’t get any further and then one day after lunch I had a little snooze, and I dreamt that over that idea was an impossibly high line, so far up that you couldn’t possibly get up there! I heard this and I thought ‘that can’t be right’ I put the line on very, very, high strings, as a countermelody to the original piano idea. And the minute I’d done that I thought ‘That’s it. The combination of those two lines can interweave and create a whole Concerto.’ Which it did.

“And then I was talking to the Philharmonia and they said, ‘It’s very difficult, everybody’s busy, Kissin’s tied up for five years. Nobody’s got the time to learn it!’ I’d virtually finished it and David Welton said, ‘All the boys in the orchestra say you can play it.’ I said ‘I’m not doing that, you’re kidding, I’d rather drop dead!’ ‘No, everybody says you’re a terrific pianist,’ I said, ‘Well I suppose I could play the piano. I’d have to really practise hard though' – I got talked into it!

“In a way, it was perfect the way it happened because I wrote it for somebody else, and I thought, ‘I’m bloody glad I don’t have to play this!’ And when they did it to me, and said, ‘we’ve put you down for it’, I thought, ‘OK, what the hell, I’ll do it!’ and I then thought I’ve got to learn it and practise just like when I used to do concerts with a violinist, all those years before at college. I realised I had to master the technique of it before I could play it. I had to create my own exercises to learn my own Concerto! I thought, ‘I am not going to make a fool of myself, because people might say “Howard Blake, you know he’s the guy who’s done all this, he’s worked playing pop music at Abbey Road, he’s done films, he’s got some cheek…’’ so I thought if I’m going to do it, I’ll do it bloody well’. It was actually like training for the Olympics!

“And then I thought I’m going to have to start practising Cramer exercises, bloody scales, I’m going to have to work four, five, six hours a day to get back into practice. So I did. And in about three months I got it back and I got to the Festival Hall and there I was, in the star dressing room, with the best orchestra in the world sitting out there, and Royalty, an absolutely packed Festival Hall and I thought, ‘You’ve got some nerve, Blake!’ Although I had given quite a few recitals in my life and recorded a good deal I had never actually played a Piano Concerto in my life! And there I was at the Festival Hall! I laid on a couch and thought I’d better think it through in my memory and I got half way through the first movement and I couldn’t remember how it went on. I got the score out and I thought, ‘what the hell, I just have to rely on God, or something, and I went out there, onto the stage, I shall never forget this moment, there was this brand new 9 foot Fazioli piano and I thought, ‘that’s a great piano! I’d really like to play that!’ And I sat down and looked at all the lads in the orchestra and I thought, ‘OK’ and the minute I started playing I thought, ‘this is great,’ and then 16 1st and 16 2nd violins came in on this high D, and I thought that this is the greatest thing you can do in the whole world. It’s like being supported by angels. I hadn’t wanted to do it, but when I did it I thought that it was a marvellous thing to do.


HB rehearsing his concerto with the Philharmonia ©Howard Blake collection

“Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the help of Sony. I actually persuaded Sony to allow me to record it before the concert – I would have been far too terrified to do it from scratch. Having recorded it I had found the “methodology” for the work and got it under my belt. The recording was conducted by Sir David Willcocks who had fairly recently conducted the Abbey Road recording of Benedictus”.

20 years later Blake asked Sir David if he would conduct the work at his 70th  Birthday concert but Sir David said that Blake should conduct the whole concert himself and he readily agreed, realising that he didn’t want to have to go back into another bout of heavy piano training! At the concert it will be played by the brilliant Chinese pianist William Chen, who has recorded Blake’s Lifecycle – a set of 24 pieces which, to quote from Robert Matthew Walker’s notes for the recording, “…is a brilliantly conceived piano cycle of ‘imagination and reflection’, combining teaching pieces (the Chaconne and Toccatina are from the Associated Board’s Diploma syllabus) with recital works ranging from the uncompromising technical demands of Scherzo and Oberon, to the outstandingly sublime yet musically powerful Prelude and Nocturne.”  The final work in the concert is The Passion of Mary, a dramatic oratorio for soprano, tenor, treble, bass, chorus and orchestra. This is a revision of an earlier piece called Stabat Mater.

“The Stabat Mater received its first performance in 2002 and initially it only had one singer in it, the soprano, and several speakers. It was actually a big success and got a standing ovation when we put it on in Sherborne Abbey, in Dorset, in 2002, but I felt that it would be much better all sung. So I revised and enlarged it and now it’s all sung. It’s a full scale oratorio. I added tenor and bass parts and we tried it out in St Göran's, Stockholm, last October and I think it really worked wonderfully. I’m really looking forward to that. When I’d written it I thought that Stabat Mater is not the right title because the whole work leads up to the Stabat Mater at the high point.  It is the whole story of Mary so it is better named The Passion of Mary. I changed the title once I had revised it and I think it is a far better and more appropriate title.

“With this birthday concert I’m trying to establish myself, I suppose, for the first time as a musician who both composes and conducts his own works and can sustain a full evening of his own music. I am doing this with a major symphony orchestra and maybe I’ll pull it off. I’m certainly going to do everything I can to pull it off!”

By now we’d been talking for some two hours and I still had much more to ask but thought that as time was marching on, and Blake should really have been writing music and not talking to me, I’d ask one final question. Blake’s catalogue consists of some 600 opus numbers and I wondered what was his next project.

“Funnily enough, I’ve just started a String Quartet. My first string quartet. It’s for the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh String Quartet, which was led by Miles Baster, [the violinist Blake worked with when they were students together.] They approached me and said, ‘We want something special for our anniversary so would you write a full scale Quartet?’ It’s called Spieltrieb. It means The Urge to Play. Or Drive. The drive to play. Urge to play. It’s a term invented by Schiller and I’ve got a theory about it that you need to play in order to reach the highest degree of concentration. Mozart said, ‘The verb that is connected with music is play and you should never forget that. It’s not work, it’s play.’ And Schiller said, ‘The highest form of activity is play’; which rather relates to the way people now talk about lateral thinking, and scientists having to look at, and play with, different ideas in order to make break–throughs. So I’m going to write this as ‘the urge to play’ and I’m just going to write whatever comes into my head. I think I’m old enough to do this, to write whatever comes into my head and see where it leads me.”

Blake showed me the two pages he had so far written of the new work. After a fast opening the tempo slows and a wide reaching idea appears in canon which looks, but doesn’t sound, to be atonal. Knowing Blake’s work I know that it never could be non-tonal.

“It’ll be for their 2009/2010 season. It’s going to be a good piece I think. I don’t know what form it’s going to be in. I went to hear the Quartet in concert in Edinburgh in the Spring. They did the Beethoven opus 131, and did it marvellously, so I just thought, Beethoven just forgot about form, he just had the urge to play so I’m going to do the same and we’ll see what comes out of it. That’ll keep me occupied for a little while.”

There was so much more I’d have liked to have asked, so much more which I knew Howard could have told me, and he could have told many more stories of music and musicians and the musical world. Later, over a couple of pints of real ale he recounted some of the more scurrilous ones.

So what next for Howard Blake? After professing, quite vociferously, that no–one would ever want an Howard Blake Symphony, within a couple of weeks of our meeting he received a commission for a Symphony!!

With typical humour, he e-mailed me, “…all sorts of stuff hitting me, not least the symphony and string quartet – it is most inconvenient that after years of humming not to mention hah–ing they should coalesce at the same moment.” And on a more serious note, he added, “I have now got openings for both, and openings are the hardest things to come up with”.

As far as the Symphony is concerned, all I can tell you at the moment is that it’s called Symphony for Selangor.  I know that a working composer gathers no moss, but was astonished to receive an e-mail only a week later telling me, “You may like to know that I finished the string quartet last night and am very pleased with it. It turned out to be in one movement lasting 16 minutes, but connected sections with different tempi.”

And as if that wasn’t cause for excitement, the lost score to Agatha might, at last, see the light of day and be heard. A Hollywood record producer has contacted Howard and asked permission to create an album of all the music from the film.  On top of that Sony is to film (for release on DVD) the complete Snowman ballet after its London run this Christmas, and as to the all the humming and hah-ing, over lunch recently cellist Robert Cohen asked Howard for a new piece so there’s no shortage of work for him.  It looks like the next couple of years are going to be busy ones.

Happy Birthday Howard Blake, and many more filled with much music.

Bob Briggs

A slightly edited version of this conversation can be heard on Howard Blake’s website

Part Two and Part One

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