LEWIS FOREMAN, the celebrated commentator and writer on British Music, pays tribute to Edward Gregson and his music
For impact, Edward Gregson’s music, as demonstrated by Chandos’s CD of his Clarinet and Violin Concertos (CHAN 10105) takes some beating. That recording includes two shorter pieces, Blazon (1992) and Stepping Out (1996), both ideal introductions to Gregson’s vivid personal musical world. “My music has always tried to achieve big contrasts – black and white statements” ; he once said, and even in such short occasional pieces this is evident. The coruscating extended opening fanfares of Blazon feature those aspects of the orchestra which Gregson has always done best – brass and percussion. Paul Hindmarsh in his excellent Chandos notes tells us that Gregson described Blazon as “a miniature concerto for orchestra” which grew out of an earlier piece for symphonic winds, harp and piano called Celebration (1991). (It is very characteristic for Gregson to develop a new work through a variety of later incarnations before finding a finished shape for it.) In Blazon the orchestra is divided into concertante groups who each have their own music. Gregson called one of his earlier works “Dances and Arias” an epithet which could apply to so much of this music, and it certainly encapsulates such a contrasted musical landscape with the reflective atmospheric song-like instrumental interludes, perfectly judged to reflect the general energy and brilliance. It underlines Gregson’s characteristic strengths – the dance, the fanfare and the song-like line – which constitute some of his most memorable invention. Gregson’s Stepping Out, is a vigorous string orchestra essay in minimalism which at first suggests John Adams. Was it the composer who called it “John Adams meets Shostakovich, with a bit of Gregson thrown in”? In fact the second part, a tempestuous fugue, is pure Gregson in its drive, excitement and no-nonsense cut off.
After studying composition with Alan Bush at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London between 1963 and 1967, where he won many prizes for composition, Edward Gregson quickly established himself, at first as a striking composer for brass bands. This soon widened to the wind band and then to the orchestra. Whatever the forces, his brilliant and precisely heard tonal palette was soon recognised as an abiding characteristic. Over some thirty years his music has been highlighted by several outstanding concertos crowned by the treasurable clarinet and violin concertos of 1994 and 2000.
Gregson’s development as a composer has been set against the context of a successful academic career in music. For twenty years he taught at Goldsmiths College, University of London, culminating in the post of Professor of Music (1994-96). Since 1996 he has been the Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and an Honorary Professor of Music at Manchester University. Fully involved with the business of music-making, he has been the Vice-Chairman of the Composer’s Guild (1976-78), Chairman of the Association of Professional Composers (1989-91), and in 1997 he was appointed to the Government’s Music Industry Forum. In 1995 he was elected as a writer-director of the Performing Right Society, a position he still holds.
Gregson built a reputation writing music for brass and wind bands, with an impact and communication that has since informed his growing catalogue of orchestral music. The Brass Quintet of 1967 won the Frederick Corder Memorial Prize at the ram and effectively launched the first phase of his career in its ultimate direction. Soon recorded by the Hallé Brass Consort this popular work is still widely played. Sixteen years later Gregson returned to the medium of the brass quintet with his Equale Dances (“really my second quintet for brass” he said), commissioned by Equale Brass in 1983.
Gregson was contracted by the band publisher R Smith early in his career, for whom he wrote a succession of forward-looking show-case pieces for brass band, and he quickly became one of the most successful younger composers for the medium. For six or seven years he worked almost exclusively on music for band, producing a string of now well-known pieces, starting with Voices of Youth, and followed by the Partita (1970), the three-movement Essay for brass band (1970), and continued with such evocative music as The Plantagenets (1973) – the latter a “test piece” developing the tradition of the band works of Howells and Bliss. There was also the one movement Concerto Grosso (1972), for the idiosyncratic solo group of cornet, horn, trombone and euphonium.
It was in 1976 that Gregson became the youngest composer to be commissioned to write the national finals test piece for the Royal Albert Hall, for which he produced his brilliant Connotations. But since then he has written little for brass bands, making a deliberate and purposeful change of direction, though when he has returned to the band the outcome has been impressive, the music in no sense merely revisiting his former world, but rather writing big pieces in his now more integrated later style that happen to be for brass. He now asks his players to try to play orchestrally, thus expanding the range of tone colour produced. These later brass works include Dances and Arias (1984), and, in 1990 – to a Dutch commission – he wrote the atmospheric and heroic tone poem Of Men and Mountains, engendered by a trans-Canadian railway journey, “through the Rocky Mountains, with its high peaks and shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds”.
With the perspective of time the four-movement Music for Chamber Orchestra of 1968, a gritty piece for small forces, should not be forgotten in the face of the better known early band music, for it heralds his later development. Commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra, it is an inventive piece that rewards investigation. Another fourteen years and his first mature orchestral work, the three movement Contrasts of 1983, in the composer’s words “a sort of concerto for orchestra”, was first written as a display piece for the National Centre for Orchestral Studies, as Greenwich Dances. This is a typically invigorating score, revised and renamed in 1989, and further revised and recorded in 2001, as “Concerto for Orchestra”, now its formal subtitle. With its brilliant dance-like outer movements and striking pensive central Elegy, an earlier generation might have been tempted to dub it “sinfonietta” or even “symphony”.
Perhaps the most distinctive line of Gregson’s development is found in his concertos. While his flair was evident from the first in his Horn Concerto (1971) commissioned by the British Federation of Brass Bands, the early highpoint was the Tuba Concerto (1976), written for the late and much lamented – John Fletcher. Gregson subsequently made an orchestral version, and this has become a leading repertoire piece for the instrument. He later produced orchestral concertos for both trombone (1979) and trumpet (1883), the latter particularly striking. The composer sees his Trumpet Concerto as a significant milestone in his output, and certainly with its dramatic accompaniment for tympani and strings it is an arresting work, in the insistent slow movement the dsch motif underlining the dedication to Shostakovich.
More recently the glorious Clarinet Concerto (1994) was commissioned for Michael Collins and the BBC Philharmonic. Far more symphonic than such pieces often are, the first movement is caught between the brooding soloist and a driving, brilliant, virtuosic orchestra, characterised by the composer’s ear for effect. The second part – effectively slow movement and finale – develops from intriguing layered string textures, building to an insistent and imposing climax which cuts off to reveal the clarinet’s long lyrical musings. This runs into the fast music of the finale – at one point instructed to “swing” – and at the end the clarinet’s heart-easing tune, taken up by the whole orchestra with remarkable emotional impact, is the goal towards which the whole work has been striving, instantly adding Gregson to one’s humming-in-the-bath musical stock.
By the time of the Violin Concerto of 2000, commissioned by the Hallé Concerts Society and first performed by violinist Lyn Fletcher and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano at the Bridgewater Hall on 3 February 2000, we find Gregson attaining a new eloquence. It was subsequently taken up and recorded by the French violinist Olivier Charlier who had a notable personal success with the audience at the Royal Northern College of Music before the recording in February 2002, not least it was apparent at the time how immediate and exhilarating Gregson’s music was in the hall.
Turning again to literary sources already explored in his choral work The Dance, Forever the Dance of 1999 (see below), here he fuses the several threads of his earlier development in a substantial potentially popular work whose lyrical bitter-sweet opening violin cantilena is immediately involving, and clearly of a tradition stretching back to Walton, Prokofiev and Samuel Barber. For the first movement he quarries a quotation from Oscar Wilde:
– she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.
With such a tag we may expect both dances and arias, and we are not disappointed. The violin soon arises from the romantic atmospheric opening, which is quickly left behind in the soloist’s relentless figuration. Gregson soon breaks into fast rhythmic music and his characteristic orchestration, with pungent brass but also harp, orchestral piano and chiming percussion in evidence, shines with a quite personal radiance. Speaking personally I love that gloriously ringing, chiming, blaze Gregson can conjure when adding his vibraphone. “The Harlot’s House” shows the woman preoccupied by a distant waltz, and Gregson’s music reaches a climax with an insistent dance macabre, reinforced by the ensuing cadenza for violin and timpani.
Here, between his first and second movements, he writes a remarkably expressive cadenza, with a tympani accompaniment at one point suggesting a feeling of muttered distant thunder giving the elegiac violin added resonance. This runs on into the second movement, a dark and threatening atmosphere at first striking an autumnal note, this time with a quotation from Verlaine in French – this is the English:
The drawn-out sobs of the violins of autumn
wound my heart with a monotonous languor.
Here Gregson’s brooding strings presage one of the work’s high points as he continues to explore the world of the first movement leading to a huge and threatening climax before relaxing into the textures heard at the opening of the first movement. The music achieves a passing hard-won serenity as at the close of the movement the solo violin sings deliciously over running harp figurations.
The finale sets out with what seems to be a reel, albeit Gregson in Ireland, the superscription this time coming from Yeats,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance.
but this is still a troubled world we are passing through. At one point the muscular string music from Blazon re-appears, but although Paul Hindmarsh’s CD notes tell us we have finally achieved general rejoicing, this is still very much music of today evoking the world as it is. In a finale of headlong driving orchestral excitement and colour, Gregson ends with stratospheric harmonics for the violin; a bitter-sweet acceptance but there is to be no serenity.
While most of Gregson’s serious works are informed by his experience in writing for brass — with fast and delicate, or bold and dramatic brass effects, in particular, stem from this invaluable apprenticeship, as does his sure ear in knowing what he wants — his feeling for the orchestra reveals a wide sympathy for the new music of the last thirty years coupled with a desire to communicate. The turning point, indeed the stepping-stone away from the brass band world, came with the punchy Metamorphoses (1979), commissioned for the Goldsmiths College Student Orchestra, and incorporating an atmospheric and sensitive use of electronics.
Such scores underline Gregson’s instinctive dramatic impulse. While he wrote the music for the York mystery plays in 1980, his music for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Adrian Noble’s Shakespeare adaptation The Plantagenets is by far his most ambitious undertaking for the theatre. Here he revelled in the big gesture, the wide horizon and the use of music to create time and place. From it came two striking three-movement suites The Sword and the Crown (1991) and The Kings Go Forth (1996). He has since written a third suite for brass band, utilising music from both earlier suites. Written specially for a recording by the Black Dyke Band in 2004, this new version is called An Age of Kings.
Gregson, a composer for whom drama and lyricism are essential elements in his music, has only written one dramatic work, and that for children. This is the children’s cantata The Salamander and the Moonraker (1980), a space adventure story for narrator, piano duet, percussion and a large and elastic ensemble of school instruments. The text is by his wife, Susan Gregson, who also wrote the words for Fairground Songs, commissioned in 1982 by the Croydon Schools Music Association (who also commissioned The Salamander and the Moonraker). Also for children is the Missa Brevis Pacem (1988), for baritone, childrens’ voices and wind ensemble. Here we find many of Gregson’s strengths: infectious rhythms, bold gestures, a mastery of the haunting motif, a catchy tune, brilliant colourful writing for the wind ensemble and a natural feel for the chorus, and with a solo treble setting of the Benedictus to place alongside other iconic settings. The immediacy of the Missa Brevis can also be experienced in two shorter works. The anthem Make a Joyful Noise for satb, organ, brass and percussion, is a brilliant big-boned piece for all its ten-minute duration. Even more so, perhaps, is the shorter A Welcome Ode for satb, piano duet (or organ) and optional percussion. Yet here, characteristically, the percussion is really a necessity, colouring Gregson’s driving rhythms and characteristically insistent ostinati.
As far as instrumenal music is concerned, one of Gregson’s earliest acknowledged works is the melifluously singing eleven-minute Oboe Sonata (1965), with its striking elegiac slow movement and jauntily rhythmic finale. However, no-one should judge Gregson to be soft-centred and his piano music certainly challenges his listeners. His Six Little Pieces for piano, first written in 1982 and revised for publication in 1993, raise comparisons with Schoenberg’s set of seventy years earlier. Gregson’s one-movement Piano Sonata, first performed in February 1983 at the Purcell Room, was heard again, now revised, in November 1986. Critics noted structural and even thematic resemblances with Tippett’s Second Sonata — it is dedicated to “Michael Tippett, with admiration” — and certainly the comparison gives some feeling of what to expect, though Gregson’s characteristic lyricism and rhythmic energy removes it from being too close to its presumed model. Like Walton, Gregson is one of those composers who even when he takes another composer as a model immediately impresses his own personality: one is never in doubt that it is Gregson speaking.
Gregson’s authority at the keyboard is evident again in the invigorating Concerto for Piano and Wind (1995-97), subtitled “Homages” — in this case to Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov and Poulenc. This surely demonstrates Gregson as a composer at the height of his powers, and one who communicates with a wide audience in a strongly personal way, yet without compromise in language or technique.
Gregson’s delight in the dramatic, without losing opportunity for his lyrical instincts, came in the Hertfordshire Chorus’s commission The Dance, Forever the Dance, which was first heard in St Albans Cathedral in December 1999. Gregson’s four movements, “Dance of Joy”, “Dance of Love” “Dance of Death” and “Dance of Life” make a strikingly dramatic 35 minute tapestry, which engages in a vital and direct a way. For this commentator, particularly memorable is the arresting quiet treatment of “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”, words familiar from celebrated settings by Holst and John Gardiner. Here Gregson’s involving and unexpected slow treatment of those well-known words is truly gripping, the audience caught by the slow inexorable reverie. However, The Dance is chiefly characterised by Gregson’s flamboyant theatricality — the work opens with antiphonal trumpets arrestingly sounding from on high — and by his characteristic sense of development and growth, a forward building and onward rhythmic drive, which informs all four movements. This intuitive sense of dramatic development brings a distinctive character to each movement, the spectral “Dance of Death” (with the same motto as the first movement of the Violin Concerto quoted above) becoming exuberantly sensual while the finale, “Dance of Life”, setting words from “Death’s Echo” by W H Auden (Letters from Iceland) leaves us with an extended life-affirming peroration.
So at a time when the future development of music is hard to see, and when we are told many doubt that serious (dare we call it “classical” ) music has a future, it is heart-warming to celebrate a composer of our day whose music while new communicates so immediately with the widest audience. How wonderful to be able to look at a concert programme and be able to say: “it’s the new Gregson! – I must hear that”.
© Copyright Lewis Foreman