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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

A Thumbnail Sketch of the Music of William Blezard

Part 1

Introduction


The life, times and music of William Blezard is a project for someone in the future. What I have tried to present here is an introduction to his music based on what is readily available on CD. I recall John Eliot Gardiner once saying to me (in connection with Patrick Hadley) that it is an impossible task to write about music that the critic has never had the opportunity of hearing. With this sentiment I entirely agree.

Fortunately there are a handful of orchestral works by Blezard available for the listener. His corpus of piano works is covered by two excellent recordings and will be the subject of a later article.

Of course Blezard is not in the front rank of composers. He is known to relatively few listeners and often not for his original compositions but for his work as an accompanist. Yet his pieces are attractive and do not deserve to sink into oblivion. The recent ‘revival’ of ‘light music’ by CD companies such as ASV and Naxos have led to quite a large number of discoveries of works by many composers that have languished unheard for many years. A number of William Blezard’s best are amongst them.

The characteristics of Blezard’s music are difficult to define. He is not a ‘light’ music composer in the vein of Eric Coates or Robert Farnon. He does not compose for the mass market: he would not be at home on ‘Friday Night is Music Night.’ What Blezard has done is to eschew progressive developments in music – we do not find the use of tone rows or set theory in any of the works recorded. Of course who knows what lies deep in the Blezard archive? The typical impression of his music is one of craftsmanship. Of course his melodies and harmonies are often quite traditional: he often nods to Delius both formally and harmonically. Blezard’s music can be quite sentimental, but never cloyingly so. There is always a freshness that stops it becoming melancholic. Perhaps his masterpiece (from the works we know) is the tone-poem The River. However for sheer inventiveness, craftsmanship and variety the Battersea Park Suite is hard to beat. The nearest he comes to a ‘popular’ work is the Overture- Caramba, with its distinctive and completely overt Latin mood.

 

Biographical Sketch

William Blezard was born in the North Country at Padiham in 1921. His parents worked at a local cotton mill. However there was much music in the household as William’s father sang tenor on a semi-professional basis. After some self taught practice on the piano and harmonium, Blezard was discovered whilst playing at a local cinema. Apparently a member of the audience was so impressed with his performance and recommended him to her brother, a local mill-owner, who paid for the young man’s lessons.

Later, he was then fortunate enough to win a Lancashire County scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. He studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and Frank Merrick and composition with Herbert Howells. A further study of orchestration was taken with Gordon Jacob. However his academic career was interrupted by five years of war service in the RAF. During the war he served in the North of Scotland as a Morse code operator.

After early success in winning the Cobbett chamber music prize in 1946, Blezard was appointed student composer at J. Arthur Rank’s Denham film studios where he worked extensively with the ubiquitous Muir Matheson. He married Joan Kemp Potter who was a fellow student at the Royal College of Music.

Much of his subsequent career revolved round the theatre where he was well regarded as an accompanist and musical director. Some of the big names he has worked with include Honor Blackman, Marlene Dietrich, Max Wall and Joyce Grenfell.

William Blezard died in Barnes in 2003 aged 81. His final musical performance was the night before his death.

 

A Brief Selection of Blezard’s Orchestral & Chamber Music

Battersea Park Suite Orchestra

Behind the Wheel 3 clarinets & bass clarinet

Caramba –Overture Orchestra

Duetto Viola, Cello and strings

Kensington Suite Flute & Strings

Little Suite Oboe & piano

Little Suite for Four Clarinets

River, The – Overture Orchestra

Scherzo Furioso Clarinet & piano

Short Variations on a Sea Shanty Clarinet & Piano

Small-Town Gladys Soprano & Piano

Suite Françaises Clarinet & piano

Three Cabaret Pieces Clarinet & Piano

Two Celtic Pieces Oboe & Orchestra

Two Contrasted Pieces Oboe (or clarinet) and Piano

 

The Music

The River (1969)

This is perhaps Blezard’s best known work – if it is possible to say that any of his pieces have really captured the musical public’s imagination. When I first heard this work I had not read the programme notes. I immediately felt that this was a perfect musical portrait of an English River. Of course I was wrong. It was actually composed after Blezard had returned from a tour of Australia in 1969. A certain programme has gathered round this work, which I feel is unnecessary. Apparently it is said to depict two lovers meeting by the riverside and going for a gentle stroll. Obviously the passion builds up a bit and the music swells, only to subside into a pleasant cup of tea and a scone at a riverside tearoom. I am afraid all this leaves me very cold. I accept that it is a romantic piece: I agree that the composer may have had a river in mind – be it in England or Australia. I will even concede he may have been in love. But the bottom line is that a programme like this spoils what is a very beautiful and quite moving piece.

This work is in the classic ‘Delian’ arch shape – beginning quietly, rising to a climax and then subsiding. I was reminded of Constant Lambert’s famous injunction about the only thing you can do with a folk tune is to play it again - louder. Blezard by and large uses just one tune – however it is not really a folksong. The subtlety with which he manipulates this basic material is perfectly satisfying. The orchestration of this work is excellent with exquisite moments for the harp and French horn. Most of the melody is carried on strings which gives this work its romantic feel.

All in all, I was reminded of Smetana’s Moldau as I was listening to this work: not in detail but just in the effectiveness of portraying running water in purely musical terms.

Duetto (1951)

A reviewer has said that this piece is an interesting way to spend six minutes. And I wholeheartedly agree with this. This is one of these gorgeous works that makes one wonder why it has hardly been heard over the last half century. How can it have been hidden away on the library shelves for all this time? It was written in 1951 as a response to Blezard’s friend and fellow composer Clifton Parker’s suggestion that he [Blezard] needed to write music in a more contrapuntal manner. Parker is noted for his work on film music including The Blue Pullman, Treasure Island and Sink the Bismarck! The Duetto is well scored for solo viola and cello accompanied by strings and makes extensive use of canon and other traditional devices. The work is pervaded by another of the composer’s lovely tunes that is quite spine tingling and stays with the listener long after the six minutes has expired. Of course, this is not really light music as such, but it is actually quite classical, if not baroque. I suppose the ‘light’ epithet is applied because of the high strings which often carry the tune an at times give it a sort of ‘Mantovani’ feel. Yet this work has some lovely reflective writing in the English pastoral vein that never loses interest for a moment. It is fair to say that this work is more ‘concertante’ than ‘concerto.’

Caramba (1966)

This is another work that was written when the composer was on the other side of the world. Apparently he began writing it during a tour of New Zealand. Yet the musical basis of this work is about as far away from Kiwi culture as you can get. Apparently the word Caramba is Spanish for ‘goodness me’ or perhaps more colloquially ‘golly!’ Of course it nearly rhymes with ‘Rumba’ which is what this work is more or less based upon. The ‘more or less’ includes the tango and the havanaise which, as Rob Barnett has pointed out has ‘a sultriness that has about it enough of the sea air to keep things falling into Siesta.’ The entire work has an exotic feel to it that is so suggestive of things Spanish or Latin American. This is helped by the extensive use of percussion and of course the brass is pure Latin American dance style. The demanding piano part features as an almost ‘concertante.’ Perhaps the obvious comparison would be to Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande. However on first hearing I thought of the first movement of Malcolm Arnold’s Fourth Symphony. For the life of me I cannot understand why this work is not a great ‘Proms’ favourite or regularly played as an encore. It has all the hallmarks of a great piece of concert music that pleases as well as excites.

 

Two Celtic Pieces

The Two Celtic pieces were originally composed for flute and piano. They were written for a friend who needed some material to help to learn the flute. However, after some thought Blezard decided that the Highland Lament would sound better on the oboe. The Irish Whirligig followed suit. I once wrote that the finest piece of Scottish music was written by Sir Malcolm Arnold – a man born in Northampton- when he penned the third of the Four Scottish Dances. Arnold seemed to have achieved what a generation of Scots composers had failed to do. He perfectly evoked the highland landscape in music. However William Blezard’s evocation of things Scottish in his achingly beautiful Highland Lament comes pretty close. It has been well likened to a piece that could have been written by Delius.

The nod to Ireland is equally impressive. The title Whirligig perhaps is misleading. Although there is much movement here there are also some quite reflective moments. In fact the orchestra gets quite aggressive in places becoming almost discordant before the oboe resumes with its slightly wistful theme. The work ends with a little flourish preceded by a short muse on earlier material.

Battersea Park Suite

This is a little gem. It is presented a being a ‘suite for children.’ I would only partially agree with this statement. I would suggest that it is really a Suite for those who are still children at heart! There is nothing trivial about this work: nothing that suggests immaturity or simplicity. Each one of these five short movements is a miniature tone poem that well complements their titles. ‘Walk up, Walk up!’ reflects the showman’s cry to the reveller to step up to the coconut shy and knock one off the stand or perhaps ‘roll a penny’ It is a cheeky cockney tune that convincingly depicts the fairground. The second piece is called ‘Boat on the Lake.’ It has a poignant clarinet solo that is heart achingly beautiful. This is no childrens’ messing about in boats. Rather, this is a wistful look back to a time when father was sat at the oars and we were sat in the stern imagining all sorts of romantic or heroic dreams. The ‘Little Merry-go-round’ is exactly what it says. We can almost hear the showman’s engine providing the power for the roundabout and the fairground organ. ‘Distorting Mirrors’ is a weird piece –exactly as it should be. All of us remember laughing at, or being scared of, our altered images. It lasts for all of 46 seconds. It opens with a naive brass tune followed by discordant crashes. Was he nodding to Webern with this piece? The flute comes to the rescue in ‘Child Asleep.’ All is calm as nanny pushes the pram past the tired holidaymakers and dreaming lovers.
It is hard to imagine that this is in the centre of London. The last piece is the best – and most effective. Those of you who know Battersea Park know that the Southern Region main line ran nearby with all those marvellous locomotives – ‘Battle of Britain’, ‘West Country’ and ‘Schools’ classes. But Blezard’s portrait is not of these giants of the iron road but of the miniature railway that was once found in Battersea Park. This is the complete ‘railway’ tone poem – complete with chugging sounds and whistles. Maybe not quite Pacific 231 or Coronation Scot, but this perfectly epitomises a miniature railway which must have been the highlight of many a school boy and girls day out back in the 1950. But do I perhaps detect a nod towards the giants on the British Railways viaduct high above the Thames?

 

Discography

British Light Music Discoveries 2 [The River]
Label: ASV White Line Catalogue No: 2126
Composers included: Butterworth, Warren, Lane, Croftm Hedges, Blezard, Lewis, Fenby and Arnold
Conductor: Gavin Sutherland
Orchestra: Royal Ballet Sinfonia review

English String Miniatures Volume 3 [Duetto]
Label: Naxos Catalogue: 8.555069
Composers included: Finzi, Holst, Blezard, Hurd, Wood, and Montgomery.
Conductor: David Lloyd-Jones
Orchestra: Royal Ballet Sinfonia Review

British Light Overtures Volume 1 [Caramba]
Label: ASV White Line Catalogue: 2133
Composers included: Pitfield, Monckton, Lane, Chappell, Dunhill, Langley and Blezard
Conductor: Gavin Sutherland
Orchestra: Royal Ballet Sinfonia review

English Oboe Concertos [Two Celtic Pieces]
Label: ASV White Line Catalogue: 2130
Composers included: Gardner, Hurd, Lane, Blezard and Leighton
Soloist: Jill Crowther
Conductor: Alan Cuckston
Orchestra: English Northern Philharmonia review

British Light Music Discoveries 4 [Battersea Park Suite]
Label: ASV White Line Catalogue No: 2131
Composers included: Hurd, Rutter, Lewis, Fanshawe, Blezard, Bennett, and Arnold
Conductor: Gavin Sutherland
Orchestra: Royal Ballet Sinfonia review

Oboe d'amore collection Volume II [Two contrasted pieces]
Label: Amoris Edition AR 1003
Composers include Carr, Schiffman. Salzedo, Rushby-Smith, Josephs, McCabe
Jennifer Paull (oboe d’amore); Read Gainsford (piano) review

 

John France

see also Blezard Piano music

 



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