An interview with composer David Jennings
by John France
David Jennings celebrates his 50th birthday on 30 May 2022. Highly regarded as both a composer and academic, he has made a considerable contribution to British music making throughout his career. His mind ranges beyond his chosen discipline and encompasses art, literature and a particular fondness for the English Landscape. I began my interview with him by asking about his early life in Yorkshire.
I know you were born in Sheffield. Please tell me a little about your childhood in Yorkshire and how and when you came to be a composer.
I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where music was very important, both at school and at home. My mother, Margaret Jennings, was a fine pianist - much better than me! My brother, Stephen, was Head Chorister in Sheffield Cathedral and my father, although not a musician, was playing records of the standard Classical Music repertoire all the time at home. I played violin in the Sheffield Youth Orchestra and took part in IAPS orchestral events. Being surrounded by music, it seemed natural to start composing my own pieces; I began to do this in earnest from about 1984. My first works were for solo piano or violin and piano, as I play both these instruments.
Which composers have most influenced you?
Initially I was very taken by the German romantic tradition; this was perhaps due to my father’s listening preferences. Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms were strong favourites, but it wasn’t long before I started to investigate music from my own country. I fell completely in love with Twentieth Century British music, especially Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Lennox Berkeley, Finzi, Rubbra and Alwyn. Non-English composers such as Sibelius, Barber, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel have also influenced me at various times. Medieval composers such as Perotin and that wonderful Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver made a considerable impact on me when I first discovered their music. I have a fascination for the Regency period and love the music of composers like Field and Hummel. Amongst contemporary composers, James MacMillan, John Tavener and Robin Holloway began to interest me in the 1990s. I found Holloway’s Serenade in C fascinating in the way it brought distinctive styles together, yet somehow felt all of a piece. It proved that contemporary music did not need to be repulsive!
Are there any composers or musical styles that repel you?
I can’t stand minimalism; it really is bread and water music. Music can - and should - express so much more than this. I struggle to see the point of Reich or Glass (though I rather like the latter’s Fifth String Quartet as it seems to have more substance than the usual minimalist piece). I used to hate Mozart. It always struck me as music that was as bland as a boiled egg; however, I have come to appreciate his Piano Concerto No. 23, especially the slow movement. I still feel that Mozart’s solo piano music is desperately thin, formulaic and not very interesting; if it were by anyone else it would probably have been forgotten years ago. (I sometimes wonder if Clementi’s Piano Sonata in F Sharp Minor might be better than all of Mozart’s piano music put together!). Bach’s choral music is so boring I can’t even sleep through it (but I do like Handel’s choral work, which is wonderfully vibrant). I tend to reach for the off button if Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter or Birtwistle are on the radio. The so-called “Manchester School” of composers have arguably received far more attention than their music warranted.
Have any musicians outside Classical Music influenced you? Does the pop music of your generation play a part in your life?
Yes, quite a few. The best music of Kate Bush and David Bowie shows a considerable knowledge of Classical Music and I feel it has benefited as a result. I’m very keen on the group And Also the Trees; they are sometimes described as a “Post-Punk Gothic Rock band,” but this is perhaps too much of a broad generalisation. Their music is intelligent and has a certain English melancholy about it that I find irresistible; their track “Blind Opera” is a miniature masterpiece. This fine band has been inexplicably ignored in the UK. The best music of Blur (such as “This is a Low”) and Amy Winehouse (particularly “Love Is a Losing Game”) has justly received acclaim.
I understand that the influence of the English landscape has been important to you: which localities are you thinking of and how have these landscapes inspired you?
Although I have lived in many parts of England, I love the North best. My favourite places are in Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire. There is a spaciousness in these landscapes and a lack of clutter; music should be like this. I hate music that has far too much going on in it, like the appalling “New Complexity” nonsense that used to attract so much attention. It’s extraordinarily simple-minded to assume that music must have more and more notes crammed into it just to evolve!
Your Harvest Moon Suite was inspired by six English watercolours. Please tell me about your interest in Art and how this effects your music.
I love the art produced by the so called “Old Watercolour Society” in the first half of the nineteenth century; artists like Peter de Wint and John Glover. Northumbrian artists are favourites; I adore the Richardsons of Newcastle and George Fennel Robson. These artists had a perfect balance of technique and expression which is truly inspiring; my aim is to recreate this equilibrium in my own creative endeavours.
I wonder if you have practised any of the visual arts?
I enjoy drawing occasionally, though not on a professional basis. I like to create portraits and seem to have a knack for doing this; I have a small pencil sketch of my mother I did back in the 1990s that is (by accident or design) a good likeness.
You are particularly interested in literature: which writers impress you and how have they influenced your music?
I love the Eighteenth Century Graveyard school (and can’t imagine why I am unable to pass this interest onto my wife, despite my best endeavours!). Poets such as Coleridge, Southey and Kirke White are constant favourites. I also admire Scottish writers such as David Mallet and Walter Scott and American poets such as W. C. Bryant and Longfellow. Amongst contemporary writers, I am attracted to the poems of Linda France, Katrina Porteous and the late great Andrew Waterhouse. His death at the early age of 42 was a tragedy.
Have you set texts by any of these authors for choir or solo song?
I have set four poems by Coleridge; these collectively form my song cycle Glide, rich streams away. The work is scored for mezzo-soprano, oboe and piano; the four poems I set are “The Knight’s Tomb,” “A Plaintive Movement,” “Limbo” and “Work without Hope.” This is one of my best works of recent years but, as it was not written to commission, this song cycle is currently unperformed. Sometimes a poem may trigger off a purely instrumental piece; the words may suggest an overall mood rather than a specific series of notes.
Have you written music using a Tone Row or Series? Is this methodology appealing to you?
My Prelude and Fugue for solo piano, op.5 is strictly serial, but this piece is very much the exception rather than the rule in my output. Serialism does not have the same appeal to me now as it did when I was at university in the early 1990s. I view it as one of many tools I can use, particularly if I am aiming for a darker tone. I rarely use this technique throughout an entire piece, but may employ it in short sections of music, such as in the first movement of my Piano Sonata or in my song “Limbo.” I think Serialism has probably run its course anyway; the future clearly lies with tonal music. Serialism has now had a hundred years to establish itself as a viable alternative to the tonal system and has evidently failed. I do enjoy certain serial works by Schoenberg and Searle, however.
In this era of hi-tech do you still use manuscript paper?
I always use manuscript paper for my initial thoughts. This helps me to feel closer to the actual material because I am using my hands to create it at a real instrument and not a computer. If it is a piano piece, I may write the entire initial draft on paper at the piano. I use Sibelius software to develop and edit my chamber and orchestral works. The editing stage can be terribly laborious, and the software can certainly help to make this process easier.
Do you consider yourself to be a Yorkshire composer? Which composers from this region inspire you?
I do see myself as a Yorkshire composer. Many people don’t realise how rich this county is musically. One of my favourite composers is William Baines; his musical endings are always intriguing! George Dyson’s Symphony is unfairly neglected; the Naxos version of this is an essential listen. Kenneth Leighton’s music is, at its best, inspirational; few English composers have matched the range and power of his piano works. Both my teachers have Yorkshire connections; John Casken was born in Barnsley and Arthur Butterworth spent the second half of his life near Skipton and was inspired by the surrounding countryside. I remember meeting the late Francis Jackson, who I admired greatly both as composer and performer. This was just after he had given an organ recital at the age of 93! I was left with the impression that this was a man of immense goodness, without a shred of ego.
Your CD of piano music attracted much attention; do you consider yourself primarily a composer for piano?
No, but I am aware that some people do. Today, record companies are more likely to produce recordings of piano music than large orchestral works. This is the reason my first recording was of my piano output. I feel that listeners will have a better overall grasp of what I am about as a composer when my chamber works, and orchestral music are commercially released. My Overture The Lincoln Imp is probably one of my best orchestral works.
How important has been your role as a teacher?
I enjoy teaching; my favourite area is (not unexpectedly) composition. Some pupils are astonished by how much work is involved. I remember one A level student being amazed that a symphony requires upwards of 200 pages to write down in full; they assumed it was half a dozen pages! It is wonderful when a student hits on good compositional ideas. I sometimes remember my own teachers’ advice when I am advising my students how to solve a particular musical problem.
Please tell me about a particular career highlight.
One highlight was when members of the Northern Sinfonia performed my Gargoyles for ensemble at Durham. The players were magnificent, and the work was very well received as a result. This was the first time I had heard a non-piano piece by myself, and I was a little concerned before the concert that it might not “work;” I was so pleased that the sounds in my head matched what happened in actual performance. More recently, a concert in Weardale (in 2019) that was entirely devoted to my music was a wonderful experience for me. Since then, we have had Covid and other troubling world events – it now seems like a lifetime ago.
Your teacher at Durham University and later Manchester University was John Casken; please tell me a little about the music life at Durham and what Casken was like as a teacher.
Durham University in the 1990s was a marvellous place to study music; we were very fortunate to have John Casken teaching composition. We could write something quickly and hear it played back in concert a day or so later; this is so important if you want to evolve as a composer. It was inspiring to be surrounded by other students, all of whom lived and breathed music. Occasionally we would all discuss the latest pieces for hours on end, blissfully cocooned from the outside world. Notable composers would come to see their music played as well; I remember Hans Werner Henze visited. He was very charismatic and had a wonderful old-school charm about him. (I must confess I found his music rather uneven, however). James MacMillan visited to hear a concert of his recent work; he was a former student of the University and of John Casken. I recall hearing Rumon Gamba, another Durham student, conduct the university orchestra; it was impossible not to be bowled over. By some mysterious alchemy, he made them sound like the London Symphony Orchestra! Other students who studied at Durham at this time included Jeremy Cull, who has made a strong impact as composer and organist; I was saddened to hear of his death in 2017 at a young age. As a teacher, John Casken tended to focus on how successful you were at realising your ideas on a technical level; he didn’t often discuss your actual style. In 2020, several of John’s students, including James MacMillan and myself were invited to compose piano pieces to commemorate his seventieth birthday. These were premiered at Manchester University, all together in one recital. What was really striking was how different each piece was stylistically; it was hard to believe they were by students who all had the same teacher. This indicates how we were all encouraged to find our own compositional path rather than producing carbon copies of our teacher.
You also received instruction from Arthur Butterworth; how was he helpful?
Arthur gave me valuable advice concerning orchestration; I sometimes think about a point he has made when I am working with my own students. My Neoclassical Symphony is dedicated to Arthur; he suggested thickening the orchestral texture in the first movement and I duly did this, which much improved the piece. I was thrilled when he praised the fugue in the last movement of my symphony as he could admittedly be quite blunt at times. I could take this, but other composers (and occasionally performers) sometimes found him a little acerbic. I remember finding an answerphone message from Arthur saying how much he had enjoyed hearing my Three Lyrical Pieces for piano. Praise from him meant a great deal to me; if Arthur did like your work, you knew there must be something right about it!
In the 1990s you lived in London for several years; how did you find the musical scene there?
To be honest, I found the London New Music Scene in the 1990s very narrow and cliquey. I attended some of the contemporary music concerts that occasionally take place at The Warehouse on Theed Street and found the atmosphere rather divisive and alienating. Contemporary Music shouldn’t be partitioned off like this anyway; it is surely better to programme it with more traditional fare and have an intriguing blend of old and new. Unfortunately, it still exists in a sort of ghetto culture.
You have been known to revise works over several years; why is this?
I’m a perfectionist! A composer should have the capacity to take infinite pains to get something right. Ideas for a piece don’t always conveniently come at once; I like to let a work mature over a long period (this can be years) and revisit it when something better occurs to me.
Do you have a favourite amongst your own works?
I am very fond of my Piano Sonata; although it was originally finished in the late 1980s, I did return to it several times afterwards. In total, it took twenty-one years to finish to my satisfaction! My A Weardale Rhapsody is another favourite amongst my own pieces; there is a DVD with the premiere performance included, but the work needs a new recording in slightly clearer sound.
How do audiences/critics react to your music?
I have been fortunate that I have not had any bad reviews or negative notices – yet! I really care what audiences think and always like to discuss their reactions to my music. It is fantastic when you have a piece played and you can see that the audience is really concentrating on the music. I know that, sooner or later, the time will come when there will be criticism of my work and I am prepared for that.
Compositionally, are there any long term plans? An opera perhaps?
I think it is highly unlikely that I will ever compose an opera, as the form is so outdated, and I am not primarily a vocal composer anyway. A new symphony would be an interesting prospect if a commission for one came along. I am more concerned now with bringing all my existing pieces to a state of completion and having them available in print (and, if possible, in recordings).
You are a member of the Lakeland Composers; could you tell me more about this group and their activities?
The Lakeland Composers are a group of composers who meet up in Kendal, Cumbria (though recent meetings have been via Zoom because of the Coronavirus restrictions). We put on regular concerts, often in Lancaster or in the Lake District. We have different styles, though it would be fair to say that most of us are sympathetic to the English Romantic tradition. The music of Robin Field and Chris Gibbs deserves to be far better known than it is; their songs are especially memorable. MusicWeb International regulars will doubtless be familiar with Gary Higginson as a reviewer but should not forget that he is also a fine composer, who studied with Edmund Rubbra.
What other interests do you have outside Music, Art and Literature?
I have always been interested in antiques, architecture, numismatics and history. When I’m not composing music, I might be found visiting a ruined abbey or old church - I adore lonely places. I am increasingly drawn to creative writing; it will be curious to see if I find the time to develop this further. The history of my own family is a more recent interest; this is probably because I will be fifty this year. I was curious to find that I have a connection to the Eighteenth Century Yorkshire composer, John Hebden. (No, I hadn’t heard of him either!) I think his music has much charm and personality. Research also indicates that I am a first cousin of Richard III (albeit nineteen times removed) and it is wonderful that he had such an affinity with Yorkshire.
Please tell me about the recordings of your music currently available.
There are currently three recordings available. There is the 2012 Divine Art CD of my piano works as played by James Willshire, a DVD of a concert of my chamber music (performed in Weardale) and a track on Duncan Honeybourne’s “Contemporary Piano Soundbites” CD. The Willshire disc has been well received and has had airings on Radio 3. I have had many emails from around the world from listeners saying how much they enjoyed this disc. The performances are exemplary, but it would be nice to hear alternative approaches as well. The DVD of my music includes the premiere of my A Weardale Rhapsody, and it is pleasing to think that this performance was recorded in the very area that inspired it. The “Contemporary Soundbites” CD was remarkable in many respects, not least the speed with which we were commissioned, then featured on YouTube and finally recorded commercially for the Prima Facie label. Duncan Honeybourne somehow got to grips with the widely distinctive styles of the featured composers and performed all the pieces equally convincingly.
What projects are you working on at present?
I am currently working on a Ballade for solo piano, prompted by a poem by David Mallet entitled “Edwin and Emma.” I am also spending much time editing several chamber and orchestral works with a view to publication.
How do you see Classical Music developing over the next few years?
I think that the commissioners and promoters of Classical Music at home and abroad have made significant errors of judgement over the last sixty or so years. By sidelining some of the most communicative composers (for example William Alwyn and Doreen Carwithen) on the grounds of being too traditional, they have driven a wedge between more recent tonally inclined composers and their potential audiences. These are the very composers that will reconnect today’s listeners to contemporary music. Mistakes are still being made today; universities sometimes pressurise young composers to avoid a more melodic style. Some contemporary works are promoted for reasons other than musical merit, and this does not help the situation either. The only reason you should play a piece is that it is good; otherwise what is the point?
What is your overall philosophy about what contemporary Classical composers should be aiming to achieve now?
Music should take you on a journey and reveal something significant about your own thoughts and emotions. It should harness melody and tonality in positive ways, not shrink away apologetically from these essential elements of music. So much late Twentieth Century music is what I would call “gestural;” it conspicuously avoids melody altogether and replaces it with an almost fanatical obsession with timbre and texture. The problem is that this approach is ultimately unsatisfying and rarely memorable. Composers need to communicate very directly and aim for individuality, which is far more important than originality.
David Jennings/John France April 2022