Guest article by William Howard
Howard Skempton is one of the UK’s most engaging and distinctive composers. Now in his seventies, he has produced a large and varied body of more than 300 works. Amongst these are over 100 pieces for solo piano, which he describes as the ‘central nervous system’ of his work. It is a treasure trove for both amateur and professional pianists, in which most of the pieces are very approachable from a technical point of view (in contrast to a great deal of contemporary piano music) whilst being at the same time hugely rewarding to explore and perform.
Almost all of Skempton’s piano pieces have been written for friends and colleagues or for special occasions. They are predominantly short, tonal and sparingly composed, with very few notes to the page. Many of them look very simple and are, in fact, quite easy to sight read, but, in my experience the only time these pieces are ever easy is when you are sight-reading them. As soon as you start practising them the challenge begins. Their apparent simplicity is deceptive, a conclusion reached in an excellent programme on BBC radio 3 recently called The Simple Truth, in which Tom Service explored the subject of ‘Simplicity in Music’. Commenting on one of Howard Skempton’s short piano pieces, he said “Simple, isn’t it…well, you try composing it!”. I would add “try playing it!”.
One of my favourites is Solitary Highland Song, which he wrote in 2017 for a collection of love songs for solo piano that I commissioned. When the piece first arrived, I immediately read it through and found it deeply moving. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. It consists of a simple and haunting eight bar tune, repeated six times, each time slightly differently. The dynamics start at pp, progress to mp and return to pp. Nothing complicated here. And yet I remember practising the piece for hours and hours before I gave its first performance, and I still practise it a lot before a performance. Why? The simplest answer that I can give is that it takes time to really hear the music. Skempton’s musical language is so distilled and pared down that every note, chord and musical gesture must be perfectly calibrated. Quite apart from the question of mastering total control of touch and voicing, the performer must seek out the essential character of each piece by learning to be open to what is interesting within the music, rather than trying to make the music sound interesting. There are no short cuts in this process. Skempton deliberately gives only minimal performance instructions, so that performers are invited to participate in the music and develop their own awareness of subtle changes and shifting patterns. The more I play Solitary Highland Song, the more I become aware of the genius behind every choice the composer has made: the subtle changes of register, for example, or the distribution of notes in chords and unexpected changes of harmony and rhythm. For me the piece is an enduring delight, and, I think for others too, since it has recently achieved the wonderful landmark of being heard over a million times on streaming platforms.
An example of an even sparser piece would be the third of the Reflections, a collection of eleven pieces that Skempton wrote for me between 1999 and 2002. It consists of four two note chords, a ninth or tenth apart, which are repeated in a different order eight times. The only performance instructions given by the composer are that the chords should all be played approximately two seconds apart, ppp and pedalled throughout. Where is the challenge here? Well, for a start, it is not easy to sustain molto pianissimo playing with a consistent sound, even for just over a minute. The more you play the piece, the more your listening becomes tuned in to the slightest blemish, or bumped note. And the more you listen, the more you start to become aware of the harmonic resonance shifts in different ways as the order of the chords change. By the time I came to record this piece, my ears were highly sensitised to the point where the tiniest imbalance in a chord would sound like a catastrophe. But it became very clear in the recording sessions that what brings a performance to life for the composer are the tiny unexpected or unplanned things that happen and the way a performer responds to them. In his characteristically gentle and encouraging manner, Howard Skempton decided that what we might have called ‘blemishes’ should be referred to as ‘involuntary refinements’! For him, the most important thing is to keep the music alive at every moment rather than aim for clinical perfection.
I recommend this repertoire strongly to fellow pianists at every level of ability. You will find pieces that are hauntingly beautiful, others that are quirky and playful; they are always imaginative, beautifully crafted and unpredictable. As well as giving a huge amount of pleasure they can teach us a great deal about our relationship to the keyboard and about how we listen to ourselves. Having totally immersed myself in Skempton’s music recently, I find that all the other repertoire I am coming back to sounds new and refreshed to my ears.
Scores are easy to obtain. Oxford University Press have published three volumes of Skempton’s piano pieces, which are reasonably priced. Most recently Howard Skempton has taken on the challenge of writing 24 Preludes and Fugues, an intriguing cycle of miniatures covering all 24 major and minor keys, written last year and lasting barely 23 minutes. These will be published by OUP in the coming months.
William Howard’s recording of Howard Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019), Nocturnes (1995), Reflections (1999-2002) and Images (1989) will be released on Orchid Classics (ORC100116) on 14th February. Pre-order here.:
Anyone who pre-orders the album can enter a prize draw to win one of five copies of Solitary Highland Song, signed by the composer. Please forward your order confirmation email to firstname.lastname@example.org before 14th February.
The album will be launched with a recital by William Howard at Kings Place on Wednesday 12th February at 7.30pm in which he will play works by Bach, Schubert and Howard Skempton. Tickets and further details here