The ‘Raymond Variations for Piano’ (Set: 1) by S. G. Potts are based on the Andantino themes from the Raymond Overture of 1851 by French composer Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896). The work received its world premiere in London on 2nd December 2015 at the 1901 Arts Club, performed by Lorraine Womack-Banning as part of a concert in memory to her late husband Raymond Banning (former professor of pianoforte at Trinity College London)
The Variations are based on the three Andantino themes which form a central part of the Raymond Overture (although the third andantino theme from the overture is in itself a variant of the second theme). There are nine piano variations in total which include a mix of both full and short partial variations (including a very short declamatory two chord introductory variation). The variations are not numbered or set-apart in a conventional manner, rather they form part of a continuous whole, and are separated only by bridge passages and/or cadence points. They have been written for the most part in an easily accessible tonal style (with a passing nod to Messrs. Beethoven and J.S. Bach). A pdf perusal copy of the score can be downloaded from the British Music Collection at: http://britishmusiccollection.org.uk/… And a more in-depth analysis of the variations can be found at: http://open.academia.edu/StephenGPotts
The recording heard here in this ‘virtual performance’ has been produced through Sibelius 7.5, in anticipation of the next live performance(s) due to be filmed and recorded later in the year. In agreement with the composer, and until September 2016, Lorraine Womack-Banning holds exclusive performance rights to the Raymond Variations, after which time the sheet music will be published and made available for wider performance.
Lorraine Womack-Banning, who premiered the work at the 1901 Arts Club in December 2015, writes about the music:
In April 2015 I received an email from Stephen Potts asking me to consider giving the premiere and making a recording of his new composition.
I agreed to consider this project and Stephen then sent me the MP3 along with a couple of pages of the score to help me make my decision. I was stunned to open the title page ‘Variations for Piano on the Andantino Themes from the Raymond Overture (by Ambroise Thomas 1811-1816)’ as I had just arranged to play a Memorial Recital for my late husband the Pianist and Trinity College of Music Professor Raymond Banning; it seemed as if fate had sent this score especially as it transpired that Stephen had no knowledge whatsoever of Raymond nor my connection to him.
As soon as I listened to the MP3 I absolutely loved Stephen’s composition and it was agreed that I would premiere it at the Memorial Concert for Raymond at the 1901 Arts Club on December 2nd 2015, the 3rd Anniversary of Raymond’s death.
The longer I live with this work the more I love it: the opening Andantino theme is deeply romantic with little indication of turbulence to come later. I love the drive and dark energy of the Variations and the dramatic ending. It is a work of extremes and a great piece to play. I will always feel strongly connected to it.
The composer, Stephen Potts, kindly took part in the Meet the Artist interview series:
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
My first hearing of the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto when I was 14 sparked my interest in classical music, this inspired me to study music seriously, and in particular to take up composition.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I feel I have been influenced most by the music of Beethoven and J. S. Bach more than any other composers. I admire the raw passion and strength inherent in Beethoven’s style and the contrapuntal and fugal writing inherent in Bach. On a more personal level, I was helped early in my music career by Layton Ring (former harpsichordist with the Northern Sinfonia) who helped stage my first large orchestral work (Romanza for Violin and Orchestra) and who successfully conducted a number of performances of this piece in the Newcastle Chamber Orchestra’s 1992 season.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
The greatest challenge I usually have is in being satisfied with what I have written. I am by far my own most severe critic, this usually results in compositions taking an extremely long time to complete. Frustrations often include raising sufficient awareness of my music, which then leads to difficulties in finding performers to perform the music. I became so frustrated some 20 or so years ago at being unable to get much of my music performed and published that I gave up writing music completely; I instead concentrated on bringing up my young family and began a career in computing. In fact I have only just returned to composition some 3 or 4 years ago, and now that I am older and wiser, I don’t concern myself nearly as much about performances or publication. I am particularly less concerned with publication as there are so many other opportunities available today, especially with the avenues that have opened up thanks to digital media. It is also nice that publishing houses are not now monopolising (so much) what is delivered to an audience.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The pleasures of working on a commissioned piece include: dedicated performers; a guarantee of a performance(s); and payment. Although with payments currently being so seriously low for a commissioned piece (on average within the UK only £918, Source: Sound and Music Composer Commissioning Survey Report 2015), I feel commissions are a luxury I can ill afford! However, I am fortunate enough that I do not have to rely upon commissions, this also brings with it the advantage that I can write what I choose, whenever I choose.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
There is the opportunity to write to an individual musician’s strengths, and you are usually ensured of a very committed performance; also the opportunity to learn from individual performers and to receive their feedback during composition can be very valuable to a dedicated composer, particularly in my case, as I am not a performer myself. Therefore I find that not being a performer, I tend to have a very good relationship with musicians performing my music, they tend to trust me to write the music and I trust them to perform it.
Of which works are you most proud?
I am proud of all the work(s) I write, otherwise I wouldn’t class them as ready for release, (I have actually shelved many more works than I have released) this due to being such a stern critic of my own work. I am very proud of the Raymond Variations for Piano (Set: 1) which I have just recently completed, but also equally as proud of the piece I am currently working on, a mixed choir setting of Longfellow’s Christmas Bells, I am particularly proud of the melody I have written for this piece and I believe it captures the essence of the season in the manner of carols from the Victorian age.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Tonal, with occasional elements of advanced 20th and 21st century harmonies where appropriate. Uppermost in my mind when I write music is that it needs to be passionate and that I need to reach out and engage with the audience. I do not write for academics, critics, or academic/critical praise; with me it’s always the listener first and foremost. I like it if an audience can walk out of a concert whistling or humming one of my melodies, to quote Webern, I will know I am accepted as a composer if I ever hear a Postman whistling one of my melodies!
How do you work?
In many different ways, but the composition process is always very difficult for me, I think long and hard before I ever begin a piece. I have to be fully committed to the idea, and it all stems from an initial melody, motif or text; I won’t begin a piece until these aspects are clear in my mind. Tools I use are a piano for initial improvisation, and (nowadays) Sibelius software to notate and produce the score. The piano improvisation part usually comes first, (although I do often create melodies in my mind away from the piano) then I move onto notating with Sibelius, But once I have devised a theme or motif I am content with, (and this always goes through many changes) I develop that idea thoroughly in my mind and this is where the true composition process takes place. For example, once I decided that I wanted to write some variations on the Raymond overture, my mind couldn’t rest, I developed and mentally wrote the introductory variation in my kitchen while doing some cooking. But even after I have finished a piece, I invariably make changes: days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years later. I also find that if I am unable to sleep at night, that working on a piece as I am lying in bed can be very productive, it enables me to gather my musical thoughts from that day. I especially find the peace and quiet a perfect setting for creating some new snippets of music, and for developing and discarding other music that I might currently be working on.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Composers: J. S. Bach, Beethoven, and Janacek from the Baroque/Classical/Romantic periods, and Carl Vine the Australian composer, and Jennifer Higdon the American composer, from contemporary music.
Some favourite musicians include, pianists Andras Schiff, and Khatia Buniatishvili, and conductor Mark Elder.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The premiere of my ‘Romanza for Violin and Orchestra’ in 1992 at the Newcastle Gulbenkian Theatre, this was the first time I had heard one of my full orchestral works publicly performed, it was received quite favourably, and I went home that night very pleased.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
This is tricky…I think one thing I would personally raise to composers is: don’t feel pressured into writing atonal music (or ‘modern’ music) simply to try to impress academics, or to develop the cause of composition, or simply to write in an accepted contemporary style. This can be done in many other different ways (in my own personal opinion) which can incorporate tonal harmony and melodic motifs. Having written in both styles, I can personally state that I find it much more difficult to write in a tonal style, but ultimately it is more rewarding. However, this is not to say that I dislike contemporary art music written in the more ‘modern’ style, there are many pieces I could list that I really do like that are written in just this style.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Seated in a nice concert hall awaiting the premiere of my 9th symphony…So I’d better get started on those other 8!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
That’s easy, spending time in and around Southwold, and on Southwold beach with my partner Emma, then later relaxing and watching the sun go down with a nice pint of beer to hand.
What is your most treasured possession?
My late father’s watch, it reminds me just how important time really is.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Studying and learning, I particularly enjoy studying and listening to new pieces of music.
Away from music, I love to spend time with my two year old grandson Harry.
What is your present state of mind?
Hopefully it’s enough to say that I am an optimist.
Stephen G. Potts was born and lives in the North East of England. He has recently returned to composition following an almost 20 year period of absence from music. He has studied: Traditional and 20th Century Harmony; Orchestration; Advanced Composition, and holds a Master’s degree in music. Works in progress (during 2016/17) include: a mixed choir setting of H. W. Longfellow’s Christmas Bells, and Set 2 of the Raymond Variations for Piano.
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