Meet the Artist – Howard Blake, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

At 18 I was planning to go to Oxford to read history when I unexpectedly won a 3-year piano scholarship to the Royal Academy. On producing some ‘written work’ at my first interview, the Warden suggested I should also study composition

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Everything I ever heard but all in different degrees and for different reasons. Schubert, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Bach, Brubeck, Mozart. Handel, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Elgar, Delius , Warlock, Moeran, Butterworth, Franck, ,Orff, Prokofiev, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Bernard Herrmann, Bernstein, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gershwin, Malcom Arnold, Skryabin

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

In 1967 stopping my life as a pianist in order to take over composing/conducting ‘The Avengers’.

In 1971 abandoning a highly lucrative commercial career, not to mention a house in Knightsbridge and my first wife (!) in order to start again and learn to write much better music in the country (Sussex).

In 1981 abandoning a Hollywood contract in order to return to UK to finish my dramatic oratorio ‘Benedictus’, (which I consider my masterpiece) , although had I not done so I would not have then  been in London  to compose The Snowman!

Worst disaster for me professionally for me was in 1998 when my publishers issued a high court writ against me in an attempt to steal all of my music. It involved so many people I had trusted and been happy with and I was let down by them. This took me a very long time to recover from and the fact that they issued the writ on the day my son Robert was born was malicious! .In fact I fought the case and won, but it does illustrate ‘the price of fame in no uncertain way’. My frustrations and sadnesses have most often sprung from people’s envy of my success, which I find very difficult to deal with.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Everything one creates is a challenge whether one gets commissioned for it or not. I have 705 opuses listed but these include many false starts and rejects and disappointments. However a very great percentage were commissioned, sometimes quite handsomely, sometimes for nothing, but always because somebody really wanted me to write something for them. One needs to have a performance  to aim at and that won’t happen without an enthusiastic commissioner, nearly always just one person. For instance I remember the head of the Leeds Arts Council saying to me at a reception after the Paralympics: ‘Could you write the sort of violin concerto that would make everybody cheer at the end?’ I started immediately!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I always write with a soloist or a group or an orchestra in mind., because I ‘hear’ their sound as I write and often have a sort of ‘conversation’ with the player. For instance when Thea King commissioned a clarinet concerto I knew how much she  loved playing in the low chalumeau register but was not at all so keen on screechy high notes. I wrote for her accordingly and could always hear her playing it.. I would find myself murmuring during the composition process: ‘Oh, she’ll like that!’

Of which works are you most proud?

‘Benedictus’, The Snowman Stage Show, The Piano Quartet, ‘Diversions for cello’, ‘Speech after Long Silence’,  ‘Sleepwalking’,  ‘Elegia Stravagante’, ‘The Bear’, ‘Granpa’, The Flute Concerto,  The Clarinet Concerto,  The Violin Concerto, ‘The Duellists’  ‘A Month in the Country’.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Gapplegate Review USA 2015 wrote the following which  is very much how I’d like to be thought of, though am rather too embarrassed to express!

An English composer with a pronounced lyrical gift, In his latest album of works for cello and piano ‘Diversions’ the music is of a pronounced tonality but without anything in the way of a neo-classical glance at the past. The works hold their own as contemporary music with a pronounced Blakean signature affixed and the music is filled with inventive flourishes that evince a fertile creative mind at work. It is rousingly good music. It is not high modernist but it is thoroughly contemporary. It has a special quality to it that belongs very much to the musical personality of Howard Blake

How do you work?

I both live and work in a top-floor apartment consisting of two converted Victorian artist studios near Kensington Gardens. The studios are on two levels with balconies. In one there is a Steinway grand piano, a desk, a PC and audio equipment. This is my business office and Anna my PA sits opposite me when we do the accounts and correspondence on Tuesday mornings. Upstairs is a second PC housing a Sibelius music writing system attached to a Yamaha electric keyboard. These are linked to a state of the art Konica Minolta printer from which I can print and publish my own actual sheet music, or place it on my website to be downloaded by musician players or by the public. I write music when it comes into my head, which can be at 3.00am or 12 noon or midnight. I have to write ideas down as they come to me which I am told makes me a very difficult person to live with! But I shouldn’t exaggerate this too much. Mostly I wake early around 7am have breakfast and start working like everybody else. I usually work till about 3pm and then go and have some late lunch. I may have a nap and then start working again or in the evening go out to a concert.  Aside from travelling , I’ve lived like this more or less since 1981 when I bought the studio.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My cellist friend Benedict Kloeckner who now has his own International Music Festival in Coblenz. My great pianist and conductor friend Vladimir Ashkenazy who commissioned ‘Speech after long silence’ and recorded my piano music. My brilliant conductor friend John Wilson who was my protege in the nineties, currently conducting Porgy and Bess [at ENO]. Wayne Marshall with whom I performed concerts of my two –piano music with duo improvisations plus Rachmaninov. Fabulous Norwegian young violist Eivind Ringstad who is demanding a concerto from me. William Chen, professor of piano at Shanghai Conservatory, who made the first recording  of ‘Lifecycle’. Andrew Marriner, principal clarinet in LSO who introduced me to his father Sir Neville Marriner with whom we both recorded with the wonderful Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, not to mention Peter Auty, Aled Jones, Katherine Jenkins, Patricia Rozario, Madeleine Mitchell, Sasha Grynyuk and many many others

As a musician, what is your definition of success

When the public want to hear or  play your music

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

A musician must consider how he can most effectively serve the art of music, whether as a soloist or a member of an orchestra or a singer in a choir or a manager of music business. One should only go into a professional music life if one really loves music more than anything else in one’s life. Many become disgruntled when they cannot rise to the heights of virtuoso soloists, but many many others are happy to be one member in an orchestra, or a chamber group or play jazz or rock or electronic or who knows what?  There is a multitude of possibilities!  Every type of music has its own character and its own particular value in eternity. I often quote my name-sake William Blake: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Here

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being well and healthy and able to work and create whilst still having time for friends and family

What is your most treasured possession?

My children and good health

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing and performing my music with people who love it.

What is your present state of mind?

I am greatly looking forward to continuing my busy 80th year and packing it even further with concerts, shows, events and composing! First stop a commission just received for a viola concerto!

 

‘The Snowman’ for which Howard Blake wrote the soundtrack, is in its 21st season in London and 25th season overall – the longest continuous-running Christmas show in stage history.

A concert to celebrate Howard Blake’s 80th year takes place in St Alban’s Catherdral on 13th July 2019 as part of the 2019 St Alban’s Festival. Programme includes Songs of Truth and Glory (Op 546), Benedictus (Op 282) and The Rise of the House of Usher (Op 532).

Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that ‘Howard Blake has achieved fame as pianist, conductor and composer.’ He grew up in Brighton, at 18 winning a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music where he studied piano with Harold Craxton and composition with Howard Ferguson. In the early part of an intensely active career he wrote numerous film scores, including ‘The Duellists’ with Ridley Scott which gained the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Festival, ‘A Month in the Country’ which gained him the British Film Institute Anthony Asquith Award for musical excellence, and ‘The Snowman’, nominated for an Oscar after its first screening. His famous song ‘Walking in the Air’ was the chart success that launched Aled Jones in 1985, whilst the concert version for narrator and orchestra is performed world-wide and the full-length ballet for Sadler’s Wells runs for a season every year in London. Concert works include the Piano Concerto commissioned for Princess Diana, the Violin Concerto commissioned for the City of Leeds; the Clarinet Concerto commissioned by Thea King and the English Chamber Orchestra and large-scale choral/orchestral works such as ‘Benedictus’ and ‘The Passion of Mary’ both recorded with the RPO. He is increasingly adding to his catalogue of CDs which includes Sir Neville Marriner conducting the woodwind concertos with The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and ‘Walking in the Air’ – the piano music of Howard Blake – recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1988 and received the OBE for services to music from the Queen in 1994.

Read Howard Blake’s full biography