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A TRIBUTE TO CAREY BLYTON 1932-2002

IN PRAISE OF A LIFE

by Gary Higginson

Carey Blyton was a one-off. He hated political-correctness, loved a good joke especially if it were slightly lewd, told a wonderful anecdote, wrote tuneful, original, sometimes eccentric music and taught in an off-the-cuff seemingly light-as-air manner which was completely captivating.

His title at the Guildhall School of Music was ‘Visiting Professor of Composition for Films, Television and Radio’ (1972-1983) which he proudly hoisted at the top of his letterheads. As this heading took up so much room he announced that from now on his letters would have to be shorter to fit on one page!

From 1973 I had the great joy of being taught by him. But in his lessons we never really knew what would happen from week to week.

I realize now, but not then, how amused Carey was by bananas (he had recently written his very famous ‘Bananas in Pyjamas). At one ‘lesson’ he produce a new LP of John Betjeman looking very bemused on the sleeve, reading twelve of his poems on a disc called ‘Banana Blush’ The whole point of making us acquainted with it was the accompanying music of Jim Parker which was in a light-hearted sometimes jazzy style not unlike that used by Carey himself. My fellow students, some very serious, who really only wanted to put the world to rights with serial music, sat puzzled and cross as he enthusiastically led us from one track to another discussing style and instrumentation, but mostly laughing whilst we listened. On another occasion he made us sit through two complete Dr.Who episodes for which he had recently written the music.

He asked us one day to take a theme written by another composer and write three variations on it for ‘the most bizarre combination of instruments you can think of … oh and it must be played in one of these classes.’ I chose piccolo and tuba but the work he most enjoyed was from the student who chose claves and handbell as Harrison Birtwistle or Harrison Hairywhiskers as he called him had just produced a piece for a similar combination.

At one time he found himself too busy to give any time to some advert music for ‘Golden Wonder Crisps’ so he asked me to have a go, which I did with at first some success. When the project fell through his greatest concern was that I should be properly paid. Musically "it is absolutely no loss."

For a number of years we lost contact, but in the mid-80s I discovered his educational music and put on his ‘Three Food Songs’, ‘Three Bird Songs’ and the ‘Three Insect Songs’ then ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Dracula’. I asked him if there were any more such creations. He said that he had just finished a third, ‘Frankenstein’, completing his so called ‘unholy Trinity’. In 1988 whilst I was at St.Helen’s Abingdon we put on this ‘monstrous’ piece. Carey with wheelchair and his wife Mary came and the pupils, who had already got to know his music really well, had a chance to meet him.

At this point I should say that his music has hardly been absent from my working life. Many of the pieces mentioned I have rehearsed in class or put on in concerts time after time. They never fail to amuse and to be enjoyed. My youngest son now 14 must know a dozen works from memory and was quite shocked by Carey’s death.

Carey had a refreshingly un-pompous attitude to his work. Having put the final touches to my 2nd String Quartet I rather unwisely asked him why he hadn’t written one. He wrote back on 3rd January 1998 "The symphony, like the string quartet, is a musical art-form or artefact that has little, if any, relevance to the 20th Century … So many composers feel obliged to write symphonies still, which I find quite incomprehensible." He thought it "most amusing" when I told him that he therefore had something in common in Boulez. Although he added that another similarity was that they "both liked Tomato Sauce". Anyway that comment put me in my place.

In the ‘East Anglian Daily Times’ published on November 6th 1997 in an article about him Blyton is quoted: "I always thought of myself as a jobbing tunesmith not a great composer ….. with Advert music like Lux, Nimble Bread and Europlast."

He was not happy about the BBC and after I gave a good review to his guitar music CD (Apollo Sound ASD 203) he wrote to me on the 8th May 1996 " I do hope that it won’t do you any lasting damage with regard to the BBC music division." He never had anything played on Radio 3 to speak of and I think that it irked him that "they" did not take his work seriously.

Now and again I would ask him as to his health. On 24th March 1990 he answered this question for the first time "I think I am suffering from yo-yo Syndrome – I have good daze and bad daze"(sic) but he immediately added "I am going through a compositional splurge at the moment".

He master-minded, with the profits from ‘Bananas’ the production of six CDs of his music over a ten year period and only a few weeks ago I received a tape for a CD of choral music which is due out in the Autumn. Some scores arrived and a little note. His son Matt tells me that his doctor’s last words to his father were "Good luck" and Carey’s last words to me at the bottom of his sadly haphazard, cryptic last note dated June 20th simply says " Good luck". We shall all miss him.

Gary Higginson

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