Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
How does a composer become a public figure ? Is it sufficient to devote your life to writing film music and a wide variety of chamber and vocal works for professionals? Is it sufficient to teach at a top musical institution and have hundreds of students go through your hands over many years? Is it sufficient to have your major works played and broadcast all over the world? Supposing you achieve all of these things, what else needs to be done to bring your name forward into the public notice? Something which, if you do not achieve it will probably find you languishing as a little known and peripheral figure.
The answer is recordings. Your CDs need to be in most retail outlet. They need to be seen, ordered and purchased. They need to get reviews in the prestigious magazines and on the BBC.
It seems a long uphill struggle for most of us and probably one with little remuneration, just a self belief that what you are doing is ultimately of value and importance and that it serves its purpose with professionalism and quality.
Buxton Orr has achieved all of the above and more and it is about time his work was recognised by the powers that be. Now, in his 70s he falls into that category of composers who was probably too modern and experimental when younger and now is too conservative when older. There has been a mellowing of his style and language which can only be appreciated when a long term view is taken of the man and his music.
Buxton Orr was a pupil of Benjamin Frankel, himself, until very recently, a forgotten figure in British music. Frankel was a serialist, openly so, yet he was a symphonist with a sense of melody and colour Worse still, however, Frankel, in the eyes of some, cheapened his creativity by writing film music, especially for horror movies. Orr has followed a very similar path with the exception, as yet, of any conventional symphonies.
Some years ago I put on a work which had been written when Buxton was in his 30s. This was a setting of Blake's poem The Echoing Green for unison voices and piano. Tuneful, tonal and effective with an appropriate sensitivity to the text. If Britten's name were attached to it, it would have been published and sung all over the world
Light-hearted brilliantly orchestrated, witty and tuneful music is an aspect of Orr's output which needs to be mentioned. The Carmen Fantasy for cello and orchestra, and the John Gay Suite for symphonic wind band. The Suite is soon to be released by Naxos.
I could have devoted the whole of this article to Orr's writing for wind and brass. It makes up a highly significant and important part of his not inconsiderable output, with, for example, concertos for trumpet and for trombone with brass band. It may well be this aspect of his work which most outlives him.
These brass band works are often performed and prove very challenging and effective. I shall never forget the sheer physical excitement of first hearing Tournament for ten brass players (1985) - an excitement created by fast, thrusting counterpoint, each line with its aim and purpose. Even in early works like A Celtic Suite for strings, based on original 'Scottish' melodies these characteristics are clearly seen in ever-present purposeful and excitable part-writing.
Scores of contemporary music can sometimes be difficult to obtain. A musician may not be able to walk into a good music shop and find a work of Buxton's immediately accessible on the shelves. His music is available from a variety of publishers but much of it has been computer set by the composer himself and his Gamber Press.
Orr worked at that venerable institution The Guildhall School of Music for 25 years. The GSM's external examinations have put some of Buxton Orr's songs on the Grade VIII Singers syllabus. These are splendid additions to the repertoire and should be looked at by students and teachers alike. They are the Songs of a Childhood (1967) and set Scottish poems. they are published by Gamber.
Like many professional composers, Orr's creative life is, of necessity, one of writing 'useful' music for films or brass bands or beginner pianists. Also there are the more personal and serious works. There are, as I have indicated, several points of contact, but there are also marked contrasts.
I am going to look more closely at the three Piano Trios (Marco Polo 8.223842 - see my review in the BMS newsletter December 1996), the six works called Refrains and the opera The Wager (1961) which has recently been revised in the hope that a more compact 11-instrument version will attract more performance opportunities.
In the 1970s, titles such as Space Play Ior indeed Refrains were considered rather trendy and suitably 'de rigueur'. Orr's title Refrains is quite simply an expression of the form and order of the music which in this case is a rondo, but a rondo with subtle differences and permutations from those of classical times. The recurrence of the 'A' idea is subject to considerable variation. Each episode may have certain formed connections with 'A' or may not. Refrains is a neater description of the actual 'events' of the music than any other available word.
Each of the Refrains is for a different instrumental combination:-
No 1 Cor Anglais or viola and piano
No 2 Clarinet, viola and piano
No 3 Improvising Jazz Orchestra
No 4 String Quartet (actually the composers 1st of 2)
No 5 Clarinet and piano
No 6 Chamber orchestra
To quote the composer"These are compositions in which a recurrent idea is used to bind together a total structure. The first in the series is virtually a simple rondo, the second had a more ambitious and complex structure, the third for 'The London Jazz Composers' Orchestra which includes the conductor as one of the different improvising groups within the total ensemble. The fourth is most closely related to the second in that it is through composed and is entirely based on a unifying twelve-note row. The most direct statement occurs at the opening and it exposes the inter-linked major and minor thirds which will characterise it on its reappearance when it functions variously as introduction, climax, transition, cadenza and coda in relation to the five principal linked movements in which the row receives a more elaborate development."
In other words the work is perfectly and clearly ordered in full accord with its title, with no wasted notes or ideas.
In my review of the CD of the Piano Trios, I commented that I felt that Orr is a composer who is not stimulated by programme, picture or autobiography but by melodic shapes, patterns, counterpoints. The above comments on the Refrains may aid in clarifying that point. I could comment similarly on the piano trios. Each tackles the medium from different angles. Each uses a subtle and various form of the tone row which is treated with freedom and musicality, but each tackles the form differently and therefore expresses an overall differentiation of mood.
The following details below may explain these differences more clearly:-
Piano Trio No 1 1982 duration c. 16-17 mins
Con moto,- moderato
Piano Trio No 2 1986 duration c. 20 mins
Piano Trio No 3 1990 duration c.25 mins
Tempo rubato, quasi improvisando
Each work is different in overall structure and in its individual character. Tone rows are used throughout these works. By quoting one I am, in a sense, doing the composer a disservice because at no time is he a slave to its inversions and retrogrades. Orr uses tone rows to suit his expressive and musical needs, in a way which he learned from Frankel. His approach is not unlike that of Alban Berg. To demonstrate this I quote the opening Clarinet part of Refrains V. The row, the melodic idea, is interrupted by repetition and rhythmic alteration to create a personal but exciting sound world. This is helped by the accented emphasis of the piano.
I cannot emphasise too much the phrase 'melodic idea'. From melody comes counterpoint. Buxton Orr is primarily a contrapuntalist of superb skill; lines and their development are his ultimate aim. His primary concern is line-melody not harmony-colour. It does not matter whether one is considering a light-hearted and tuneful work like Fanfare and Processional for string orchestra (1968) or the huge orchestral Sinfonia Ricercante(1987) the same principles apply: line and melody, logical development of counterpoint almost in a renaissance sense, clear form and expressive overall effect.
It will be interesting to see if any small company is prepared to take on The Wager now that it is in a clearer and more up to date format and now that the action is set in modern day Bosnia-type environment. In a full-length uncommissioned opera on which he is now working, each character has his or her own row/line and this is developed and reconsidered as the plot grows. The row is audible for each character through repetition but the plot dictates its immediate shape and flavour. As a sketch of this musical style Narration a sixteen work for symphonic wind orchestra, has recently been completed. It is based on an idea from the opera but named such without wishing to reveal the subject, which is a re-working of a classical black comedy.
Buxton Orr would have been 75 in 1999. Is there a chance that The Wager will be given another performance? Will any of the above works be recorded? Perhaps the B.B.C. will consider a memorial concert. I can only suggest to readers that they give Buxton Orr's music a chance. There are many riches and there is an individual style and expression that is immediate and richly rewarding.
All enquires to Dimitri Kennaway:-
E D Kennaway,
218a Finchley Rd,
London NW3 6DH.
( 0171 435 2897. Fax 0171 419 2404.