Birthday Celebrations - 8 November 2008
It is seven years
since I first met the larger-than life composer Richard Stoker.
It was at a poetry society meeting in Blackheath where I was
delivering a lecture on ‘The Songs of John Ireland’. That is
perhaps appropriate, as Stoker is not a person to be typecast
into a single role. I had first heard of him associated with
music – in fact it was the score of his Partita for organ
that I found in the browsers at Biggars' Music Shop in Glasgow
– way back in 1973. Moreover, I had discovered the attractive
Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, which appeared on Chandos,
in the early nineties. Yet the Poetry Society event was important.
I suddenly realised that this individual has so many interests
that is difficult to imagine him finding time to achieve all
that he wishes to. In fact, Stoker is a poet, and a published
one to boot. His first volume of verse Portrait of a Town
reached almost cult status. It is a kind of Lowry-esque meditation
on Anytown in the West Riding –although it is actually based
He has written much
- about music and a variety of other interests - he edited the
Composer magazine for a number of years. Perhaps one
of his most interesting achievements is his autobiography Open
Window - Open Door, which was published by Regency Press
in 1985. I understand that Volume 2 is in manuscript and that
Stoker has sufficient material to write a third volume!
I guess that what
first struck me about Dr. Richard Stoker was the huge network
of people whom he knew or had known. It is possible to name
virtually any late twentieth-century composer or musician and
discover that he knew them, taught them, was taught by them
or at the very least had met them! I suppose I was most surprised
when he admitted to me that he had once sat beside Sir Noel
Coward during a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Also I
was fascinated to hear that he knew Muir Mathieson, the ubiquitous
film-music writer and conductor. I had seen Mathieson’s name
a hundred times on film credits before I had ever heard of Ireland,
Bax, Vaughan Williams and of course Stoker!
Richard Stoker was
personal friends with William Alwyn, Alan Rawsthorne, Elizabeth
Maconchy, Alan Bush, William Blezard, Herbert Howells and many
more. His early years had seen a glittering procession of teachers
including Arthur Benjamin and Harold Truscott. However, perhaps
the most significant influences on the young man were Sir Lennox
Berkeley, who encouraged him to go to France and study with
the amazing Nadia Boulanger. It is perhaps these last two individuals
who have had the most impact on the composer’s musical aesthetic.
One of the problems
that have beset Richard is the paucity of performances, recordings
and broadcasts. Although this is not a problem that affects
only Stoker - it is endemic throughout British music. At present
there are only two CDs of his music listed on the Arkiv website.
There are a number of other works dotted about in various recital
programmes – including his Polemics
played by Janet Craxton. It is often possible to find Eric Parkin’s
recordings of the piano music and Martin Vishnick playing the
complete guitar music in record shops. There are also two CDs
devoted to vocal music – yet I guess that these are harder to
come by. All the music on these discs is deserving of interest.
However, there is no substantial orchestral work in the catalogue.
I remember hearing a private recording of his Passacaglia
and Fugue written for orchestra and first performed by the
BBC Philharmonic in 1981. This was superb, moving music that
surely deserved to be part of the repertoire: I was reminded
of Kenneth Leighton and Samuel Barber. Yet I guess that the
two 1981 performances were its first and last outing in public
… so far. I know that Stoker has written a number of large-scale
orchestral works, including a Symphony and a Piano
Concerto that still await their premiere. It is a pity that
a retrospective of the composer’s music is still a desideratum.
His seventieth birthday would have been a splendid opportunity.
But who know what the future holds?
Yet it is in chamber
and instrumental works in live performance that Stoker is consistently
successful. Only recently, he had his massive organ Sonata
Symphonique played Kevin Bowyer in Glasgow University Memorial
Chapel. I was not present but understand that it was extremely
well received. He has composed two works for the flautist Rachel
Smith including A Garrick Round - possibly inspired by
his London Club and a Flute Sonata. John Turner, the
recorder player and the soprano Jane Rogers gave a fine performance
of This Green Pleasant Land in the Bridgewater Hall,
Manchester. In addition, a couple of Christmases ago I was
present at the premiere of his attractive carol – ‘I saw
a fair maiden’. This deserves its place in the next volume
of Carols for Choirs! His Three Chorale Preludes
were performed by Robert Crowley at Southwark Cathedral and
consisted of mature revisions of music from the composer’s entire
career. Finally there is a Trio for saxophone, clarinet
and percussion: this is for Sarah Field, David Campbell and
Yet it is not just
music that takes up so much of Richard’s time – at present he
is playing the starring role in a short film about King Arthur.
His resemblance to Bram Stoker, Edward VII, Sir Thomas Beecham,
Sir John Gielgud, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Harris and Christopher
Lee will ensure that he is never short of an acting role. Even
the briefest glance at his acting CV reveals a man who has tackled
many parts in a huge variety of media – both stage and film.
And then there is the painting. He is an accomplished artist
whose work can be seen gracing a number of his CD covers and
his paintings are displayed in a number of private collections.
He specialises in still life and abstract works.
As he enters his
eighth decade, Stoker shows no sign of allowing age to interfere
with his activities. The composer told me that projects include
the revision of his Folksongs for soprano and recorder
and his Six English Songs by Shakespeare. Then there
are three Symphonies that are presently in short-score
that need to be completed. They were originally composed, when,
as Richard told me, “people were not supposed to write symphonies”.
Lastly there is a huge project to complete his operas based
on the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin. Surely this will
be a masterwork that will complement the gothic propensities
of his relative Bram …