PETER RACINE FRICKER
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This article, nor any part of it, must
be copied in whole or in part in any form, nor stored in any retrieval
system or reproduced in any way without the prior written consent and
authority of the author
return to index page