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Personal thoughts and memories


Dr David C. F. Wright

I first met Fricker at the London home of Humphrey Searle in the early 1960s. He gave me the impression of being a colonel in the army. He was very tall and had a straight back, as straight as a ramrod. He wore spectacles with thick dark frames and this gave the appearance of his being like an eagle about to pounce. His dark hair and chiselled facial features made him appear even more severe.

After a short while I grew to like him. Despite his severity he was softly spoken and very precise in what he said. He never rushed into an answer but always reflected on it first.

His musical tastes were far reaching. He admired Berlioz, Charles Ives and Stravinsky especially. Like Humphrey and, indeed, like me, he hated pompous music, the music of the grand but empty gesture as he beautifully put it. His own compositional techniques were based on those of the supreme master himself, Beethoven, who saw the outline and purpose of every work before it was written. Fricker would also agree with the poet Paul Valéry that an artist's inspiration was his own material.

He was very concerned with form. He used to talk to Humphrey and ask his advice about a piece he was writing and each time there was something wrong Fricker had to go back and where he went wrong was in form. Music had to be organised not just slabs of music. It had to follow a logical pattern of themes, links, development and exposition. The three of us used to comment on this. One example that was quoted was Tschaikovsky's first Piano Concerto. It was formless in parts. The first movement begins with that glorious theme but it is never heard again. The four minute introduction is better than all that follows. Fricker could not begin a work until he had its form clear in his mind.

He liked to walk to formulate his ideas but hated walking in the city and so would go off to the country and at the end of the day visit the local and drink. He was something of a toper but never emulated Mussorgsky.

One of the reasons that he was so fussy about through-planning was that if he did not do this not only would his music be formless (spineless he would say) but he feared it might come out as imitation Rachmaninov which so many Hollywood composers have achieved. His concern for originality and not to be like Rachmaninov caused him to experiment with twelve note music and compose some very lean pieces. But he would often say that a composer who changed his style violently over his creative years was guilty of having no individuality of his own. This is one of the reasons that he loved the music of Ives. He also strongly believed that if a composer's style did not change it may be due to stagnation - of having nothing new to say. He spoke of one British composer who wrote a symphony lasting an hour which symphony said nothing and took an awful long time to do so. Composers that were great (he quoted Stravinsky) had a constantly evolving style.

He hated plagiarism. We listed composers (some British ones as well) who, uncertain of themselves, have clearly stolen from other composers, and, sadly, the musical public are so uninformed that they do not recognise these criminal offences. It is theft. Peter said that composers are often inspired to write a piece after hearing a work by someone else and they may use the same texture. Rarely a composer can inadvertently make a reference in one of his works to something that exists elsewhere. Fricker, in imitating a woman laughing, used falling sevenths which he had forgotten Alban Berg had also done. But this is not plagiarism.

Peter was born in London in 1920 and studied with R.O. Morris before the war as, indeed, had Humphrey Searle. After the war Fricker studied with Matyas Seiber who, in turn, had studied with Bartok. This caused people to claim that Fricker's music was heavily influenced by Bartok whereas there is no real musical evidence to prove that.

Seiber was a brilliant musician, one of the best teachers of all time. Perhaps he taught Fricker the essential clarity needed in music. These grand big Edwardian orchestral scores can be so turgid and muddy Seiber once said and, of course, he was right.

All the books on Walton leave out the fact that Walton had music lessons with Searle for a couple of years after the war. Searle was the only teacher Walton had. Searle's influence was as vital as that of the Sitwells in the 1920s and 1930s and Walton learned from Searle the necessity for clarity. This is exemplified in Walter Piston's excellent treatise on orchestration which all composers should read and it is a great pity that some have not.

Fricker's experimentation in music was never extreme. In his Litany for double string orchestra of 1955 he used a plainsong melody with harmonies built on a twelve note series. The purists may think it is a conflict of styles yet it works in a very convincing piece largely because the note row has a feeling of tonality about it. It is what Berg did in his splendid Violin Concerto.

It has been foolishly asserted that the Litany for double string orchestra was inspired by Tippett's Concerto for double string orchestra. Of course, that is nonsense and the style that Fricker employs is quite different. Six years earlier he had written his Prelude, Elegy and Finale for string orchestra which is a very 'deep' work.

All his life Fricker was distressed about the lack of good advanced music teachers in this country and elsewhere. This judgement was partly formed because he had the best teacher of them all. He lamented that provincial cities were starved of new music and when a new work was to be premiered in London there was always excitement, enthusiasm and expectancy. It was always better than the FA Cup final. But now that does not happen. Apathy strikes and a new work may have one curtain call for the composer, the work will be lost in oblivion and the orchestra says, Why did we learn that new modern piece when we are only going to play it the once?

In the days when William Glock was at the BBC he championed new works and British composers had the best deal with the BBC ever. Yet, strangely Glock did not really like new music or the avant-garde yet he felt that the public had a right to hear current works. This helped to generate the enthusiasm that I have already spoken of, but today it is sadly lacking.

In the last twenty years there have been very few broadcasts by the BBC of Fricker's music and yet in his early career his music was played with great success. This highlights the vagaries of fashion and, sadly, the obvious truth is that the BBC seem to have a black list of composers they simply do not want to perform. Robert Simpson wrote extensively about this. One BBC producer said that that the BBC did not have black list but it did have a white list. If you were a composer in favour, whether your music was good or bad, you could have a premiere as soon as possible and a repeat. This brought out the worst in some composers who began empire building and, often, at the expense of more gifted composers.

As we have said, Fricker was born in London in 1920 and studied at the Royal College of Music with R.O. Morris and the organ under Ernest Bullock. Morris was an academic - very keen on form and formulae and the various species of counterpoint. He had the idea that unless you could write a complicated fugue you had learned nothing. It is a wrong attitude but Morris was a likeable man who relished working out how composers arrived at their respective finished products. To him analysing a Bach fugue was an obsessive hobby and always thrilled him.

Today many people say that Fricker was so obsessed with form and strict counterpoint that it meant that his music had little or no warmth.

He served in the Royal Air Force from 1941 to 1946, after which he studied for two years with Matyas Seiber. He had wanted to study with Searle as well but he was very busy and teaching Walton. Fricker worked with the Dorian Singers which choir was started by Seiber and Fricker spent a lot of time in copying and orchestration which was good practice for him.

The first work to gain attention was the Wind Quintet of 1947 largely due to the kind offices of the legendary horn player Dennis Brain who went to school with Fricker. It won the Clements Prize. While it has its serious moments it is a very witty work and hugely entertaining. Fricker also met Tippett who was musical director of Morley College and, in fact, succeeded him in 1953. Here he was encouraged by Walter Goehr and the Amadeus Quartet who premiered his First String Quartet in 1950 in Brussels.

He also met that wonderful violinist Maria Lidka, a truly astonishing player who seemed to premiere all the new violin works by British composers. His Violin Concerto no.1, Op.11, was written for her and was awarded an Arts Council Festival of Britain Prize in 1952. This was immediately followed by the Violin Sonata Op 12.

His First Symphony, Op 9, dates from 1949 and was awarded a Koussevitsky Prize. It is in four movements, the first being in sonata form, then a slow movement is followed by an anachronistic scherzo recalling a minuet and the work ends with a variation on the sonata form. It was played at the newly formed Cheltenham Festival in 1950 under Barbirolli, who was most inept at contemporary music, and, through the kind offices of Searle, was taken up by Hermann Scherchen. I am not sure that the work is completely successful. The legacy of tedious academia is there since the first movement contains a fugal section in seven parts. The music is trying to be so serious and therefore intellectually acceptable whereas music must have a heart as well as technical skill. The Symphony no.2, Op 14, fares better largely becomes it does not kow-tow to convention and is in three rondos. It is not bogged down by contrapuntal devices as is its predecessor and the texture is clearer. This time the orchestra is the usual symphony orchestra and the finale depends on a conductor to give it the driving impetus it requires. The work was premiered in July 1951 under Hugo Rignold, one of the finest champions of British music to come to our shores and, without doubt, the best conductor Birmingham has had to date (1960 -1968).

Fricker found Tippett to be so intellectual that he was unfathomable. Many of us felt the same. We would listen to Tippet reel off paragraph after paragraph of speech and then we would all look at each other and say, "What was he talking about?"

This lead Fricker to compose his Dance Scene Op 22. He wanted to write something that spoke for itself and did not need an encyclopedia or a Tippett to explain it. It is a compelling work, almost a symphony in three movements in effect, with a wonderfully bright and exciting finale. He was also trying to break from the rigours of conventional form as was also shown in his splendid String Quartet no.2, Op 20, also written for the Amadeus Quartet. The outer movements are both slow but never dull and he juxtaposes two rare keys, E flat minor and F sharp major, which enharmonically is G flat major - the relative major for E flat minor. This was a new departure and part of that quest to look for an individual style. He was tired of being referred to as a modern day Hindemith just as Walton hated the idea that he was Elgar's successor.

It is probably Fricker who wrote the first concerto for cor anglais although he called it a concertante. In the same year, 1951, he also wrote a concertante for three pianos, strings and timpani as a homage to Bach's concertos for several harpsichords and orchestra although Peter often said that he could not see the sense of three or four harpsichords in a concerto, an idea with which I agree. At this time Fricker was the great white hope of British music. Commissions came his way. He wrote his Viola Concerto for William Primrose who premiered in at the 1953 Edinburgh Festival. Among his favourite works was his Second Violin Concerto which he called Rhapsodia Concertante written for Henryk Szeryng and first performed in Rome in 1954.

I felt that Fricker was now momentarily considering jumping on the bandwagon and emulating such empire builders as Elgar and Britten. That is a little unfair I suppose because he was a far greater composer than either of these two and Fricker was very pleasant and kind man. But Maria Lidka had served him so well with his violin music that the Second Concerto, which is a superior piece perhaps should have been a thank you to Maria Lidka. Of course, that is merely my opinion. The second concerto is in three movements. The first is one of his multi-rondo movements, the second is an unaccompanied cadenza and the finale has a driving force second to none.

The Piano Concerto, op 19, does not fare anywhere near so well, in my view. It was written for Harriet Cohen who had been Bax's mistress. It is scored for a small orchestra and lacks some colour. The piano writing seems contrived. While there are some double octaves passages it is clearly written for a soloist whose technique has withered somewhat, whereas the short Toccata for piano and orchestra Op 33 of 1959 is a display piece and more effective but the burden of strict counterpoint pervades the central Adagio. I remember with affection a brilliant performance by Margaret Kitchin who, like Maria Lidka, seemed to premiere all modern works. I shall never forget an insolent audience at the BBC Maida Vale Studios booing her for a performance of Roger Sessions's Piano Concerto.

It is a pity when a composer is restricted in what he writes in order to accommodate the soloist as was Fricker in his Piano Concerto. Jacqueline du Pre was often asked to play modern works but refused simply because, as she admitted to me, she was not up to it and she was, undoubtedly, a cellist with a very limited technique. Walton wanted her to play his splendid concerto but she refused. Alexander Goehr wrote his Romanza for cello and orchestra for her and it was stipulated that the cello had to be playing all the time otherwise du Pre would not be able to play it or even follow it.

Fricker wrote an impressive Sonata for cello and piano, Op 28. His next work is his masterpiece and I do not use the term lightly. This is the 50 minute choral work The Vision of Judgement Op 29 commissioned by the Leeds Centenary Festival and completed and first performed in 1958. It is scored for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra, including organ, and is largely based on a poem entitled Christ by an Anglo-Saxon writer. It also includes parts of the Mass and the Requiem Mass. The chorus begins with the day of judgement but not like the noisy and entertaining passage in Verdi 's Requiem. Fricker is more honest. The music is stark and powerful not a jolly entertainment. There follows a setting of the Dona Nobis Pacem and a passage describing the angels blowing their warning trumpets.

The tenor sings the Agnus Dei and then we hear of a people sorrowing for their sins. The soprano sings of the glorious presence of Christ which is followed by a long choral setting of the cataclysm that is to destroy the world. The Roman ritual of the Libera me follows and this magnificent work ends with a vision of heaven. Fricker does not leave us in despair. The music is powerful and the tender moments are beautifully judged. It may not have the swagger of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast but is more controlled and powerful and not quite so exhausting. It is vastly superior to Elgar's Dream of Gerontius which suffers from a pomposity and some dreadful slow music as well as Newman's absurd text, ... holy hermits, indeed!

Fricker shares with Searle his Third Symphony as their respective Op. 36s, both completed in 1960. Both were conducted by John Pritchard and are splendid works. The stunning central movement of the Searle is one of the most brilliant. virtuosic and colourful pieces you will ever hear and Fricker's Symphony, while not having that excitement, is a rich, chromatic work derived from some rather basic material. Devices like canon are used in this four-sectioned work which begins and ends maestoso. The central Adagio is good but Fricker's slow movements always seem to be rather understated. It is as if he is still afraid to be become too emotional or sentimental, or like Rachmaninov.

Fricker had taught at the Royal College of Music from 1955 but his popularity was in decline. His music was deemed to be old hat and twenty years behind the times. There were other composers who were writing in a more adventurous style and Fricker was becoming a has-been. Musical fashion is so fickle. The music public is those days, forty years ago now, became like the modern business executive of today having to change his car for a new model every year.

Like Humphrey, Peter loved travelling. He had served the RAF with three years in India and was a frequent visitor to Europe. He was understandably concerned about the lack of commissions in Britain and that this country had no advanced music teachers of any note. He was disillusioned with the indifference being shown to him.

He received an offer from the University of California to go to Santa Barbara for a year as part of the music staff. Thinking that the Americans were keen on modern British composers and that he would have more success there than the existing sterility he was experiencing in England he was keen to go. He left England in 1964 and was soon working on his finest symphony, the Symphony no.4, Op 43, dedicated to the memory of Matyas Seiber who had been killed in a car crash in South Africa in 1960. It is in one continuous movement with ten sections. It was commissioned by the Feeny Trust who also later commissioned Searle's Fourth Symphony. Fricker's Symphony no.4 was premiered in Birmingham in 1967 under Hugo Rignold. Fricker makes reference to at least two of Seiber's works, the String Quartet no.3 and Permutazioni a Cinque. The symphony is a work of great feeling but is never dull, the expressive content is admirable and the final section is a controlled paean of praise for Seiber.

One curious feature of this symphony is the fact that much of the lamentation music is given to wind instruments - particularly the woodwind. Ten years later Peter wrote a Sinfonia for 17 wind instruments in memory of Benjamin Britten who died on 4th December 1976.

Fricker always had a love for the organ from the early Sonata of 1947 onwards. He wrote Choral in 1956, Ricerare in 1965, Six Pieces in 1968, a Toccata in 1968 and an extended Praeludium in 1970. Nine years later he wrote his Laudi Concertante for organ and orchestra (Concerto No. 1, Opus 80), commissioned with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It is dedicated to Gillian Weir, who gave the world première at the Royal Festival Hall on December 5th 1979 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen. The performance was broadcast live and also recorded by the BBC World Service. Between these works came the Symphony no.5 for organ and orchestra, Opus 74, a BBC commission for the 25th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall premièred there by Gillian Weir with the BBC Symphony [Orchestra] and Colin Davis on May 5th 1976 and also broadcast live. This work was repeated in the Proms in August of that year with different performers. The première performance has now been issued on CD by Lyrita. The author apologises for the incorrect information previously given here about both of these works and their performers.

Fricker was good at writing for the voice although in his early career his writing for voice and baroque instruments was, I think, misguided and shows the influence of Morris. A composer must belong to his time. His finest vocal work was the song cycle O Long Desirs which his wife Catherine Gayer premiered at a Promenade Concert in the 1960s a performance that I still treasure. He made a brief venture into jazz with The Roofs for coloratura soprano and ensemble, a work of great imagination and I feel this venture was somewhat inspired by Seiber's collaboration with Johnny Dankworth in his Improvisations for jazz band and symphony orchestra. But the vocal writing in both works is exemplary.

He spent the last twenty six years of his life in California eventually dying there on 1st February 1990.

Did he fare better in the USA than he did in Britain? Was his music successful? There is no real evidence to say so.

The death of his friend Humphrey Searle on 12 May 1982 deeply affected Fricker. A memorial concert was arranged at the Royal College of Music conducted by Christopher Adey in which Searle's entertaining Three Ages was performed as well as a work by Fricker. Peter made a moving tribute to Humphrey and said that he and Humphrey were together again united on the same concert platform; how Humphrey had an amazing capacity for friendship; how whenever they were together in some unknown foreign city and had to get back to their hotel Peter had no sense of direction but Humphrey did and knew exactly where to go.

Two years later there was the first performance of Fricker's largest work for 25 years, a setting for baritone, chorus and orchestra from the devotional sermons and prayers of John Donne. The work was entitled Whispers at these Curtains and was dedicated to the memory of Humphrey Searle. It dealt with the three main aspects of Donne's thought: life and death, sin and conscience and God's promise to man of future glory.

The dedication quotes from Donne at the top of the score:

I hear this dead brother of ours speak to me and preach my funeral sermon in the voice of those bells. He speaks to me aloud from that steeple and he whispers to me at these curtains and he speaks Thy words, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth.

The work is in five parts:

1. A Bridge to Heaven and how the temptations of life can be overcome by God's grace

2. God's voice and, in the Gospels, the whispers of Christ

3. Of sin, a prayer for pardon.

4. Of Bells and Death. The bell is the Voice of God and it tolls for us all.

5. Of Light and Glory

The work was performed by Stephen Roberts, who made an excellent baritone soloist, Choristers of Worcester Cathedral and the Choir of the Three Choirs Festival with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Donald Hunt and in the presence of the composer.

The work opens with the timpani playing heartbeats, a call to attention. The high violins' writing is very beautiful and heavenly as we wait for the mists to roll away. Sinister elements appear. The chorus sing in typical Fricker harmonies and a soulful oboe takes the stage and throughout the work reappears although sometimes as a cor anglais, The temptations of life can be overcome. There is a bridge to heaven but there is to be no turning back.

The second section starts in a more agitated fashion and, at times, the music has a lugubrious feel about it. There is the authority of the voice of God and the whispers of Christ in that still small voice. Some of the harmonies, particularly in the unaccompanied choral writing, are choice and they are never predictable, the sign of a great composer. The baritone enters and sings that Christ is with us in our darkness and in our fear.

The middle section has a brief scurrying introduction. The soloist sings of God and me at midnight. Listen to the superb choral writing here. This is a prayer for pardon. The writing is exemplary and the soaring violins of heaven make a great impact. A brief coda of joyous music seems to speak of the relief of sins forgiven.

The penultimate part has a powerful beginning. How Fricker depicts the tolling bell is nothing short of inspirational. The soloist and the choir integrate to great effect in some cadaverous music suited to the text. Some of the words and music combine with amazing force, for example, I humbly accept Thy Voice. I know this bell which tolls for another may take me too.

The final section begins with warm, mellow lowers strings and how well the chorus and brass blend. There is a controlled confidence. As in 'The Vision Of Judgement, Fricker does not leave us in despair. The soloist sings, Make me an angel of light, a star of glory.

The work shows the fundamental goodness of Fricker as well as Searle. They were never in competition. Competition in music always brings ill-feelings even if it is only a local music festival. Despite an earlier allusion neither were out to be a ruthless empire builder. They were honest, decent men and that, paradoxically, is why their music could be forgotten forever.

Musical fashion and opinion does not go in for quality. Absolutely awful music is available on disc, including British scores, while far better works await and may never have a commercial recording.

Five and a half years after the premiere of Whispers at these Curtains, Peter was dead. As far as I am aware the BBC did nothing to pay him tribute, no more than when Iain Hamilton died in 2000. Does the BBC's black list, or white list, exist? Does the BBC support British composers or only those they choose?

Fricker did not have the originality of Searle but he did have a breadth of vision and a sincerity which real musicians everywhere will acknowledge.

© Dr David Wright 2001


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