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Robin Field: Lake District Composer
by John France

A few weeks ago, I received an interesting CD from the composer Robin Field. It contained music by him as well as works by fellow ‘Lakeland Composers’. Field’s contribution was an evocative song-cycle ‘When I was one and twenty’ which, as the title may suggest was a setting of six poems by A.E. Housman. Fortunately, the composer also included the vocal score, so I was able to study these in some detail.

I had not heard of Robin Field. In fact, of the eleven members of the Lakeland Composers group it is only the late Arthur Butterworth and David Jennings who are known to me.

There is little biographical detail available about Robin Field. He was born in Redditch, Worcestershire in 1935 and duly studied music with H P Allen (1868-1957?) (not Sir Hugh Allen) who was a fine pianist and composer and notable scholar in the field of Indian culture and spirituality. He was, says the composer, "a strange old man: very much a recluse, and as he had an almost unintelligible speaking voice I can’t say I learned a lot from him, though he did give me some idea as to how to write for the piano." Allen was based in Liverpool, he was among other things, an authority on plainsong.

Later Field had lessons with James Murray Brown (of A Handbook of Musical Knowledge fame) in Durham and in London. He was fortunate to study with the Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999). Field was not a ‘professional’ composer in spite of having begun writing music as a teenager (1). His occupation was that of an industrial chemist.

In 1962 he moved to the Lake District and has latterly devoted his post-retirement years to composition. In 1971 Field won a composer’s competition which had been organised by North West Arts with the winning piece being a Fantasia Concertante for oboe and string orchestra.

Robin Field’s webpage is a part of the Lakeland Composers site.

It is always very difficult to try to evaluate a composer when there is so little music available to be heard. The catalogue gives some clue as to the direction of Field’s interests, but clearly until at least some of his music (other than the Housman songs) is recorded it will be a very tentative conclusion.

Robin Field has written large and small-scale works. There are concertos for oboe, for clarinet and for violin. A tantalisingly named Far in a Western Brookland is a ‘diptych for orchestra which further explores the Housman theme (4). Then, one wonders about the inspiration behind On Seeing the First Swallows in Spring. Could this possibly nod to Delius? (2) I am not sure what Rohan rides to Gondor is all about: I assume that this is a Tolkien/Middle-Earth influenced piece (3).

As a pianist (amateur, Grade 6 and a bit) I always look at what a composer has written for ‘my’ instrument. There are three considerable Sonatas, an interesting sounding ‘Tunes from Arran’ (5) and Fliskwood (A Tay Side Suite). I hope to be able to see the scores for these one day. The Cumbria Suite for oboe and piano sounds as if it may have considerable ‘local’ potential. I notice that there is a Scottish interest in some of Field’s music – this includes the Three Island Sketches for violin and piano which has movements entitled ‘The Sound of Mull’, ‘Archie MacFadyen’s Ploy’ and ‘Tráigh Cadh’an Easa’ which is a lovely beach on Mull overlooking the Treshnish Islands (6).

Field has composed music for virtually every genre, including films, electronic media, songs, choral, liturgical and chamber. There are eight string quartets which could be an important cycle. Let us hope we get a chance to hear them.

I notice in his catalogue that many of these works have been produced on the ‘Sibelius’ music writing software package which means that it is probably possible to play-back using ‘Scorch’. Maybe this will be the way that Robin Field’s music will reach a much wider public.

I cannot at this stage know if Robin Field’s song-cycle ‘When I was one and twenty’ is representative of his stylistic achievement across the wide range of his catalogue of music. However, listening to these songs, I am impressed by the subtlety of his word-setting and the provision of an effective piano part that adds considerable atmosphere to each poem. His musical language (at least in these songs) appears to be largely tonal, but with occasional modulations into remote keys. The melodies of the songs are clearly attractive to sing and are typically memorable. The accompaniment is written in an effective and sometimes technically difficult pianistic style. Harmonically, there is little to challenge the listener, however there are a few moments where a bitter-sweet mood adds to the effectiveness of the setting. I have heard many of Housman’s songs over the year, some of which are excellent, a number that are derivative of much that has already been written and not a few that seem to miss the point.

Robin Field has created a fine cycle that is effective, original (but well within the fine tradition of English song) and most important of all able to move the listener.

In preparing this note I did a number of web-searches. Unfortunately, very little appears under the composer’s name. I would have liked to have read a few concert reviews: I can only hope that more material will become available for making an evaluation of Robin Fields music in the coming months and years.

John France
January 2015

Notes by Robin Field
(1) The issue of whether I could be called a professional composer is a tricky one. On one occasion somebody sent one of my choral works to John Rutter. He did actually reply, (which is pretty amazing). While admitting that “Mr Field is clearly very talented” he went on to say that “there is no place in the scheme of things for the amateur composer”. which put me firmly in my place. You will of course be aware though that many English composers have only been able to devote themselves solely to composition because they had private means. And I had to eat. Therefore, since I have always had a strong interest in science I worked as an industrial chemist to support myself and my family. I don’t think this was a compromise; I think it gave me a breadth of outlook perhaps lacking in some university-cushioned, and culturally incestuous, composers. But it would be true to say that composition has always been the lode-star of my life, and I have always brought to it the highest degree of professionalism of which I am capable. ‘Amateur’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘dilettante’.

(2) “On seeing the first swallows in Spring” has no musical connection with Delius other than cribbing his title. To me, seeing the first swallows (represented by two oboes in the string orchestra texture) is much more iconic than hearing the rather tedious call of the cuckoo.

(3) “Rohan rides to Gondor” came to me in a dream. I seemed to be at the centre of a vast grassy plain at night, under a sky glittering and crackling with vivid stars. I became aware of horsemen galloping and sounding horn-calls from all points of the compass, gradually coming nearer. When they reached me, they streamed all round me by which time all the horn calls had combined, Sibelius-fashion, into a big broad melody. It was only afterward that I was reminded of the scene in “The Lord of the Rings” in which the horse warriors of Rohan ride south to relieve besieged Gondor, hence the title. The piece was written for electro-acoustic equipment. My sound-world for much of my electronic music is not far removed from the symphony orchestra, but it is the sound of an orchestra as though heard in a dream. In this case the opportunity for stereophonic sound with images moving through space seemed irresistible. Only later did it occur to me that it might make a good conventional orchestral piece, so I decided to arrange it for large orchestra. This wasn’t easy because in my original conception I had been able to blithely ignore the limitations of human horn players and write parts with impossibly high tessituras, and I had to re-jig most of the parts to make the thing playable.

(4) “Far in a western brookland” takes two phrase from the poem as titles for the two orchestral movements, ie, “The Starlit Fences” and The Glimmering Weirs” .I found the poetic content of just these phrases very moving. For “The Glimmering Weirs” I took myself off to a waterfall on a stream in remotest Shropshire and by listening carefully I was able to pick out about seven distinct pitches in the sound. These formed the harmonic basis of the piece. There is no musical connection with the song.

(5) “Tunes from Arran” was a little suite of piano pieces written for my four-year-old daughter when she was learning the piano. “Fliskwood”, another little suite for keyboard, was written for a dear old friend in Scotland who had been given a little keyboard for her birthday. Neither of these pieces is likely to be of more than domestic interest.

(6) Traigh Cad’h an Easa is indeed a beach on the Isle of Mull but as it is on the south coast of the island it is impossible to see the Treshnish Islands from it as they lie to the west. I’m not sure if the word ‘lovely’ is right for this place. It is very remote, awe-inspiringly grand, and rather sinister. These were the qualities I tried to capture in the music. Certainly it is beautiful but it is not one of the Caribbean-style beaches of the Outer Hebrides. My wife and I have visited it several times over the years; this involves a 5-mile tramp over rough moorland followed by a scramble down a 600-foot cliff (possible but not recommended).Then there is a quarter mile trek along a shore littered with house-size boulders. When the beach is finally reached it is covered in black basalt cobbles, and among these are some exquisitely beautiful agate nodules. These were the object of our expeditions since, in another aspect of my life, I search for and cut semi-precious gemstones which Jean subsequently fashions into jewellery. I might add that my skills as a lapidary and my researches into chalcedonic igneous inclusions have brought me far more renown (and money!) than my entire endeavours as a composer.