My first attempt at poetry was written in 1956 when I was eight years old. What is significant about it is that it was not just a poem but a song, sung by the character of the gangland boss in what I called “A Modern Opera”. Song was with me from the very beginning. Music has followed me all my life and through all my creative work.
The tragedy was that I did not have perfect pitch, and had poor coordination, which made it difficult to dance, type or play any musical instrument. This meant that I was not able to show the world the music that was in me, and received no encouragement to do so. When I was six I would walk the two miles to my grandparents’ house twice a week so I could play on their piano, but I received no instruction as to how to play, despite my grandmother having once been a first class pianist and harpist. My grandfather could not understand why I walked there so often just to play the same few notes. He could have no idea what those notes or those intervals meant to me!
It was only after continuous badgering on my part that I, the unmusical child, was allowed to take piano lessons, and so learn how music was written. This happened when I was fourteen and school exams in other subjects were looming. By then I had written large quantities of music which were stored in my head, often with orchestration and counterpoint. Even when I learnt to read music I had no piano on which to practice at home . I recently came across a note book which said I had raised 12 shillings and 6 pence towards acquiring one. All the same, I had never stopped composing since the “Modern Opera” days, although nobody knew I was doing so. The only evidence was that I was repeatedly singing melodies of my own, to get them into my head. I developed a huge library of them, and miraculously, they stayed there.
When I was twelve I decided to create a symphony, even though I could not write it down. My grandfather was always banging on about Beethoven, and I thought I would surely impress my father and my grandfather if I could write a symphony like one of his. My mother was a lost cause, as it had been drummed into her that she was tone deaf. A lie! She loved Gershwin, as danced by Fred Astaire, and the Schubert of “Lilac Time”.
Just prior to my thirteenth birthday I stood on the path leading up to Chanctonbury Ring in Sussex, and heard the first five notes of my symphony in my head, resounding on the brass. The work had begun. I preceded those notes with a simple but frenetic fanfare and followed them with an answering phrase. I was on my way, even though I still had to store all the melodies in my head, as I had with the “opera”. The main march of the symphony had a solemn funereal ring to it, and it followed me wherever I went. Before I went to sleep I learnt to do something I could never do now, and that was to keep three melodies going in counterpoint, one on top of the other. Curiously, even when I could write music, I wrote down almost none of the music for the symphony. By the time I was sixteen I had completed all the themes of the first movement in my head, together with most of their orchestration. The music had by then lifted itself out of its funereal beginnings, softened by a second theme inspired by a broken music box in my grandparent’s house from which a mysterious voice seemed to be calling to me from a great distance. I can still be moved to tears when I hear it. For some time this movement had the title “Funeral March of the Winds“. It is now called “Sprouting of the World Tree”, (or “Difficulty at the Beginning”!), after the „I Ching“, which supplied me with titles for the whole symphony.
Go and Catch a Falling Star
This setting of the famous poem by John Donne was the first song which I wrote down in full when I had learnt to write music. It was followed by a number of small and fragmentary Piano pieces.
The Orphan’s Song
This was a setting of a long poem by Sidney Dobell, which some would regard as over sentimental in the Victorian manner. That was not the case with me, as the poem related directly to my orphaned music which could then find no way of expression, and the feeling of painful loneliness which this situation created. Much music from this song found its way into the symphony, particularly the slow movement, “Darkening of the Light”.
Sonata for Violin and Piano
This was a piece written when I had developed a strong feeling for Russian and East European music. The opening march was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s „Little Russian (Ukrainian) Symphony“. The second movement came from my love of Borodin and the faintly eastern music of Georgia. The third movement provides a joyful East European „Gypsy“ conclusion.
The Vagrant Muse (Song Cycle for Tenor and piano)
These songs began as incidental music to a film about the harsh life of John Clare, the most English of poets. The film was never completed but the songs were collected over a long period of time until they told the story of a journey similar to the Schubert/Muller Winterreise, except that John Clare’s journey was a real event. In his journey home from the asylum, which occurred some fifteen years after the fictional “Winterreise”, he was searching for his first love, Mary, who had recently died, hoping against hope that he might find her still alive, and he wrote poems all along the way which reflected with terrible accuracy his state of mind.
Four Songs of John Clare (Tenor and piano)
John Clare intended the most part of his poems to be sung, and when finished he would sing them over himself using the folk tunes of the day. These settings of mine formed a sort of overflow of inspiration after “The Vagrant Muse”, and contain one of his greatest poems, “Remembrances”.
Pearl Cantata (Completed fragments)
This is a setting of what is probably the finest poem in the English language, “Perle” by Ralph Strode. Which is to say he is the most likely author of this anonymous poem, and also of „The Warres of Alexander“ and „Sir Gawain and the Green Knight“. I began to write a grand cantata for four soloists, choir and orchestra, but so far only fragments are completed and the bulk of it remains unfinished.
Symphony of Changes
The four movements of this symphony represent episodes in life, and although each can stand alone in its own atmospheric world, each links into the others through musical themes and ideas. In this way it resembles the hexagrams and changing lines of the ancient Chinese oracle, the “I Ching” (The Book of Changes).
“The Sprouting of the World Tree”
This movement is about youth, both its joys and its struggles. Significantly I was very young when I wrote it. It begins with a funeral march, which can be seen as the burial of the seed in the dark earth which has then to fight its way into life. The young tree grows and children dance around it, and the birds come, but it also suffers attacks from the bitter winds, and towards the end its fragile leaves become like tattered banners as the joyful music dies away.
“Darkening of the light”
Here darkness descends on the world, like a repressive tyrant who does not allow any form of self-expression. The music becomes like a cry in the dark reaching helplessly toward the light. Unexpectedly there is a breakthrough when the trumpets call to each other across the orchestra like the voices of sad angels. But the struggle is not over, and although the themes become more peaceful and resigned, it is still night.
Here the forces of liberation finally break free. The rains come, followed by the sweet fresh air of spring, and the music takes on a new energy and stretches out its limbs. The joy of deliverance and freedom becomes ever more ecstatic.
“Ascending the Sacred Mountain”
The fourth movement takes the drama to a higher plane. Like a giant bird freed from its imprisonment, the music rises through the fairground whirligig of everyday life, and begins to climb a majestic mountain. The ascent is sometimes lonely, but also exhilarating and invigorating. The music of the opening returns, but is completely transformed, as the climbers rise up into the mist,
Choral Works (The Cutty Sark, Joy in the Noonday, Die Engel)
These are three unrelated pieces for SATB choir. The first is a setting of my great uncle Harry Verdon Baines‘ poem about the Cutty Sark, a ship which I used to pass every day when I lived in Greenwich. He knew of it when he lived in New Zealand, where he used to go hunting with the Maoris. I wrote the piece to raise funds for the restoration when the ship caught fire. The second is a small fragment of a beautiful poem by William Blake, and the third is a Christmas Carol translated into German.
The Gothic Game Musical (Libretto available through epubli.de)
As a child I loved ghost trains, and the kind of theatre where people suddenly appeared out of cupboards, and spooks populated the stage, and frights and laughs followed each other. There were some good examples of this but nothing quite perfect enough. The writing of “The Gothic Game Musical” allowed me to make my childhood dream come true. It is an ensemble piece, and I used as my model the Shakespeare productions of Franco Zeffirelli, in which the stage is a hive of activity with never a dull moment, and where what quiet pauses there are become all the more effective. A wedding party is magically transported to a gothic ruin to play a game to the elimination and death, which allows the guests to give full rein to their dark sides. However the game cannot prevent the players from forming new relationships and after a long struggle, it defeats itself in the end. The guests emerge into freedom and truthfulness.
The Carrick of Whitehaven (Ballad)
A sad song for soprano and harp, recalling the fate of refugees lost off the coast of Canada during the Irish Famine. It was written for a proposed film, The Sligo Champion, about the life of Edward Howard Verdon, a relative of mine and an Irish Nationalist, who founded the newspaper of the same name.
Alexander’s Childhood (Opera in song line and piano score, approx. 3 hours 40 minutes in length)
The medieval poem of the life of Alexander the Great tells a different story from the one generally accepted today, but it is one of great psychological depth. My opera makes use of the text of this epic poem, “The Warres of Alexander”.
Snow Spider (Opera Libretto)
A modern telling of a beautiful and brutal Inuit folk tale about a young girl’s search for a husband which takes her to the moon and back. The story, which originated in Alaska, was first recorded by the Greenlander, Knud Rasmussen.