James Erber recalls Julian Silverman (5/12/1936-26/12/2016)

In my Meet the Artist interview posted here on June 13th 2018, in response to the question “Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and take up a career in music?”, I mentioned three teachers who had helped me during the years I was a pupil at William Ellis School in Highgate, North London. The third of these was Julian Silverman, who, I discovered recently, and to my immense shock and sadness, died on Boxing Day 2016, shortly after his 80th birthday.[1]

Julian Silverman

Julian taught me A-level Music, having been appointed as a part-time teacher at William Ellis School in 1967.  It soon became clear to me that he was an exceptionally gifted and knowledgeable musician. A superb pianist and a fine horn player as well as an accomplished composer, his musical tastes were exceptionally broad, and he possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire.

He was an inspiring teacher, and we immediately established a firm rapport. I was very pleased when he offered to give me private piano and composition lessons. After a while, the teacher-pupil relationship broadened into friendship, and I began to spend time at weekends and school holidays at Julian and his wife Erika’s large Victorian house in Kentish Town, a short journey on the Northern Line from my parents’ home in North Finchley. Surrounded by scores, books and instruments we would discuss not just music, but a wide range of topics, including art, literature and politics. I was a shy and somewhat awkward teenager, and very much appreciated the warmth and kindness shown to me by Julian and Erika. Sometimes, I would make music together with Julian and his friends, even giving the occasional concert. I remember playing trio sonatas at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane – not maybe the sort of venue normally associated with this repertoire.

I remained in touch with Julian after I left school.  Julian himself handed in his notice a year or so later, and began working as a theatre MD. In August 1972, while a BA student at the University of Sussex, I was in the band performing Julian’s haunting and effective music for Yevgeny Schwarz’s The Dragon at the old Half Moon Theatre in Alie Street, Aldgate.

By the time I finished my degree at Sussex, Julian and Erika had moved to Switzerland and were living on the outskirts of Zürich. In the Summer of 1973, my then girlfriend and I hitch-hiked from Rome to London via Zürich.  Julian had assured me that we would both be welcome there, and, initially, we had a very pleasant time. I wrote some short duos for flute and horn, which we played together. Erika, it soon turned out, was less pleased to see us, as we were the latest in a constant stream of visitors from London who had descended on them at Julian’s invitation, and we left after a few days.

Julian and Erika returned to London and, by the late 1970s, Julian was working as Classical Music editor for Time Out magazine. I was a struggling freelance musician, trying to make a living from proof-reading, music editing and suchlike. On several occasions, Julian offered me work writing photo captions for the magazine. The captions were only about a hundred words long, and the pay was good, so I was naturally very grateful to him for this.

I was also very pleased when, in 1982, music by Julian and me appeared in the same programme, when the newly-formed duo of trumpeter Jonathan Impett and pianist Michael Blake commissioned works from both of us for their debut concert at the Purcell Room.

It was at this time that it became obvious from our increasingly infrequent conversations and correspondence that Julian was not entirely happy with the direction my work was taking. I had got to know Brian Ferneyhough when I was working at Peters Edition in the late 1970s, eventually studying with him in Freiburg from 1981 to 1982, so my music was associated in some quarters with the “New Complexity”. Julian was himself at one point intrigued by this tendency. Dizzy Spells, the piece he wrote for Jonathan Impett and Michael Blake, was apparently influenced by Michael Finnissy. He clearly became disillusioned with it, as is obvious from his somewhat dismissive review of the “New Complexity” issue of Contemporary Music Review (1995) (to which I had contributed an article) in the July 1996 edition of Tempo.

This review, which appeared some years after we eventually lost contact, was the last time my and Julian’s lives converged. I was saddened by its tone, and am still sorry that I never had the chance to discuss it with him. Ironically, his last years were spent living within walking distance of my parents’ home. My overwhelming memories of Julian are positive, though. I will never forget his wisdom, his guidance and the kindness he showed me, and, to this day, I will be listening to a piece of music and suddenly think, “Ah, I remember talking about this piece with Julian”.

An update from James Erber (August 2020)

Towards the end of 2019, shortly after I wrote my original post about Julian Silverman, Julian’s widow, Erika, contacted me and asked if I could help find a new home for Julian’s compositions and writings on music. I am very pleased that, after a lengthy delay due to the lockdown, Roger, Julian’s brother, and I have finally been able to deliver them to the Bodleian Library, where they await cataloguing. The library is the obvious place for them to be lodged. During the mid-1950s Julian had studied Music at Oxford and, together with composers such as Peter Sculthorpe and Gordon Crosse, had made a strong impact on the New Music scene there.

Erika, Roger and I are most grateful to the two people who made this possible: Martin Holmes, the Bodleian’s Music Librarian, and Margaret Jones, Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library, who suggested the Bodleian Library as the recipient of Julian’s papers, and offered to intercede with Martin about them.

James Erber was born in 1951 in London. Having gained Music degrees at the Universities of Sussex and Nottingham, he spent a year studying composition with Brian Ferneyhough at the Musikhochschule, Freiburg-im-Breisgau. He has worked in music publishing and education.
His music has been widely performed and broadcast throughout Europe and in the USA, Australia and New Zealand by many eminent soloists and ensembles. It includes Epitomaria-Glosaria-Commentaria for 25 solo strings (1981-84), The ‘Traces’ Cycle for solo flute (1991-2006), two string quartets (1992-94 and 2010-11), Das Buch Bahir for 9 instruments (2004-2005), The Death of the Kings for 11 instruments (2007) and Elided Dilapidations for piano (2013-14).
Matteo Cesari’s recording of The ‘Traces’ Cycle and three other shorter works for solo flute is available on Convivium Records.  Other works can be found on NMC, Metier and Centaur Records (USA).

Meet the Artist interview with James Erber

[1] Roger Silverman, In Memory of Julian Silverman: https://weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/2017/01/in-memory-of-julian-silverman.html