Not the Classical Music Repertoire Guide
to the works of
IAN CARMALT (1956 - )
A compositional autobiography by The Composer
N.B. underlined titles indicate works that are available from www.SibeliusMusic.com
This is an account of a man, and more to the point of his music, which may not be expected to grace the pages of a journal such as Classical Music since it is about an amateur ex-composer who has not been overtly successful. It is written by someone who can claim an insight greater than anyone else's into the music under discussion, and hopefully with wise critical judgment, derived from hindsight, as to the merit or otherwise of each work. It is written with honesty and humour: it should be clear now and then that the tongue is in the cheek, or the trumpet is to the lips. Nevertheless every phrase is sincere, and some salient points are made along the way.
I do not know when I began to compose: I have heard music (some of which is my own) in my head for as long as I can remember. I started writing down compositions at the age of seven, and continued until the proverbial stream dried up in the mid-1980's, when I was approaching 30. Traumatic as this cessation was at the time, I have since come to regard it as the inevitable result of the increasing difficulty I found in producing music and my increasing dissatisfaction with the results of my labours and lack of performance opportunities.
It was unfortunate that in my formative years I failed to find a source of encouragement for the sort of music that it was in my nature to write. In the early and mid 1970's, the contemporary music scene was still dominated by the plinky-plonkers, a term which on the one hand onomatopoeically describes much of their so-called "music", and on the other reflects the firm belief of many of them that methods such as total serialism, randomness and their opposites represented the only ways forward for music. In fact, it is largely attributable to luck whether or not the results of such methods are aurally recognisable as music. Admittedly the term "music" means different things to different people. My attempt at definition is "an aesthetically pleasing succession of sounds", given that each individual has his own perception of aesthetic pleasure.
Such an environment was hardly conducive to a composer whose works tend to sound as if they could have been written at various times during the last 250 or so years.
It is important to realise that I have never indulged in pastiche. Whatever influences impinge on each work, the ultimate style is always my own. In those works which mostly sound of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, there are passages (a particular juxtaposition of harmonies, perhaps) which would not have occurred unless the music had been composed in recent times. This is music of its time, for all time, and in the 1970's was ahead of its time. There is no reason why the style should be unacceptable in this more enlightened era.
What style is this, one may ask? My
experience suggests that a born or natural
composer has his own innate style, which may absorb by largely
intuitive and subconscious methods elements of any music he hears
or otherwise studies. When I was very young, most of the music I
heard was light music of the twentieth century or classical music
of the previous two centuries (N.B. it was only in the twentieth
century, since classical composers began exploring harmonic and a-harmonic
languages inappropriate to light music, that the two have become
divorced). These are the only stylistic influences on the music I
wrote before the age of about 17, and all my best works are
firmly rooted in these traditions, whether or not the twentieth
century impinges. For example, there is very little in the Festal
March or the Symphony-Suite that is not derived
from these sources, and nineteenth century music provides the
foundations for the Romance for viola and piano
and the piano Polonaise, although neither work
could have been written in the nineteenth century. The polonaise,
for instance, is sparked off by a harmonic disruption that would
have been inconceivable one hundred years before its composition.
The first note of the piece is A natural, and the first chord A
minor: the ensuing dissonant upheaval is explained at bar 6, when
the A is displaced downwards to the correct note A flat, the
dominant of the works key.
Every good rule has its exception. I do not recall encountering ragtime before my teens, yet one of my potentially greatest hits (my best selling work at time of writing) is an almost traditional, Joplinesque rag. Autumn Sunshine is the only work of mine that could work as a jazz band number, in which form it could be as exciting as in its piano solo format.
A curious side effect of the subconscious absorption of influences is the way in which themes I have heard and then forgotten have occasionally emerged in my works. This causes one to doubt whether other themes in ones works are ones own! The first two manifestations occurred in piano pieces composed when I was about ten, which turned out to be variations on Eric Coates Dambusters March and the motto theme of Tchaikovskys Symphony No 5. Whatever the presence of themes from Schuberts Piano Sonata in B flat and one of Rossinis best known overtures may suggest, I was not familiar with these works when I composed a Sonata in A minor in 1973! The most remarkable surprise of this kind I have had was in the mid-1980s when, on attending a performance of Crusells Clarinet Concerto in F minor, I discovered that in 1978 I had turned the main theme of its slow movement into a polonaise.
As I matured, I listened to and assimilated elements of a far wider range of music, including classical and other styles of the twentieth century. As a result, i began to write in more modern idioms, with a more flexible approach to harmony and dissonance. One guiding maxim was always the just listening test: I aimed to produce only pieces to which, regardless of whether or not they were aware of their compositional processes, a lot of people might enjoy listening. Of course, each pair of ears has a different range of styles that it is prepared to accept. I wrote several pieces that would be written off at bar one by those who believe decent music finished about the time of Grieg! On the other hand, those who enjoy listening to (say) Boulez or Ferneyhough, unless they have very open minds, will probably find all my work unbearably simplistic and out of date.
With this greater awareness of more recent music came a growing awareness of musical forms, and improved discipline in my craftsmanship, especially in my use of themes. When I was young, it was pointed out to me that I had a tendency to waste ideas by developing them little if at all. Whilst my critics were right, one should beware of going to the other extreme. How many boring works have resulted from composers attempts to derive long pieces from the sometimes sparse contents of their opening bars? This is why, in my Cello concerto, based on the ideas presented in its first couple of minutes, I introduce a new theme in the scherzo, and clear the decks with an intermezzo on different themes before the work enters its final stages.
Adopting a special discipline can be a fascinating exercise, as in my untitled D major adagio for piano, in which one friend detected the influence of Stravinsky. In this I use only the notes of the scale of D major, plus G sharp in the first half of the piece and C natural in the second. The whole five minutes or so is derived from the opening statement of an arpeggio leading to a chord, followed by a turn-like figure and some stepwise movements. The outcome includes a surprisingly large amount of dissonance and resolution.
I wrote a considerable amount of music when I was about 17 and still at school, studying for A levels. Several of these pieces, and a few of my later works, are probably suitable for home consumption by groups of friends.
This group of works includes the Two Fantasias on Scarborough Fair. No.1 for flute, violin, cello and piano is the most successful of all these works, and was performed in a school concert. No. 2 is scored for flute, two oboes, two clarinets, three violins (only one of which gets to play the tune) and piano. Both include tunes of my own, used as episodes between groups of harmonic variations on the theme song.
Another piece of chamber music in this category is the Sonata in A minor for oboe, two violins and piano. Prospective performers should be forewarned of the pervading melancholy of this work: the only ray of sunshine comes when the second subject is recapitulated in an unexpected few bars of C major.
The Pastoral Fantasy for oboe and two clarinets is of less merit; friends would do better to find a third clarinettist and tackle the Minuet and Finale, one of the most rewarding of my early works.
Also rewarding for solo piano is the set of twelve variations on a theme in E major that takes as its starting point a favourite melodic pattern of Schubert.
Any combination of treble and bass should enjoy the Duo movement in B flat major. This originated as a counterpoint exercise when I needed evidence of my ability in that field. The result is worth playing: I think it works best on violin and cello, but there is no reason why it should not be played by any combination of treble and bass, including solo keyboard.
This is probably the best point at which to refer to a couple of later pieces, the two Doodles for piano. It would be difficult to find a context for the performance of these interesting exercises in compression, written to fill empty pages in manuscript books, left by the completion of larger works.
I wrote more works for piano solo than for any other medium, in a wide variety of forms and styles.
The best of these actually date from the 1990s, long after I gave up composing. All good rules supposedly have exceptions, and these two pieces came about as a result of tasks undertaken in the course of studying at Anglia Polytechnic University for my B.A. in Music. The Andantino in F minor, which has become my signature tune, takes a turning motif common in the works of Chopin, and makes a complete piece out of it and a wittier idea featuring lots of rests. Variationen B-dur, zur übung der faust, my only collaboration with another composer, takes from two pages of one of Beethovens sketch books ideas for a set of variations, and with the help of some of my own ideas for further variations elaborates them into a complete piece. An essay about the creation of this piece is available from me.
The composition of the Polonaise fulfilled a desire to produce a work emulating the tradition of the 19th century virtuoso show piece. If you think a polonaise (three beats in a bar) in D flat major cannot begin in A minor with four beats in a bar, this work will revise your opinion. It was actually some twelve years after composition when it dawned on me that the analysis of this introduction, and the important role of the note A natural or B double flat in the subsequent music, is thoroughly logical. The polonaise also illustrates (as mentioned earlier) how an idea can enter a creative persons subconscious and emerge some time in the future.
Worthy of consideration too is at least one of the Four Seasons in Ragtime These and the Ragged Rondo (cello and piano) are evidence of my delight in the works of Scott Joplin, Fats Waller and Cow Cow Davenport, to name just three eminent ragtime, jazz or blues pianists. The most effective sequence for performance should have been to work backwards from summer to autumn, but since at the time I stopped composing Lazy, Hazy Rag had progressed no further than a few bars in my head, only three seasons are extant. Pretty ring time is a gentle rag en rondeau, a form that I used as an excuse for indulging my predilection for writing variations. In the bleak is an intellectual rag, containing a mini-fugue, development and inversion of themes, and bitonality: in the final section, E major and E flat major clash so outrageously as to bring to mind the epithet you cannot be serious. Autumn Sunshine is a rip-roaring, foot-stomping quick rag with smash-hit mass appeal, a rousing conclusion to the set.
One of my last works, for piano, in D major, marked adagio molto and in 5/8 time, is a meditative, contemplative piece that best conveys its message if approached without preconceptions, and consequently exists without the encumbrance of a title.
Besides the aforementioned set of variations in E major, there is a solo piano version of Sonnet (see later); and Thought, which appears on the surface to be a piece of piano music, but is actually a concept, and cannot be performed on account of the instruction D.S. ad infinitum covering the last eight of the ten bars. I forget how this Thought occurred to me: I suspect I was musing on the transience of life, and determined to write a piece that will go on for ever, even though I shall not.
The Sonata in E minor is an experimental, neo-classical work, notable mostly for a slow movement that is unsure whether its main influence is the blues, or the Spanish music of French composers of the early 20th century. The first point of experiment is the insertion of this movement between the development and recapitulation of the opening allegro, the first three notes of the slow musics principal theme being also the first three notes of the second subject of the allegro. The second experiment is the contrast in scale between the resulting long movement and the very short concluding presto.
Variations and studies was an interesting idea, but it did not work very well in practice. The variations, on what starts out as a rather trivial theme, alternate with a set of studies, pairs of which are variations on each other, except for the study in quiet playing that forms the works centrepiece. Although the whole piece plays without a break, the result is rather fragmentary.
The formal experiments of the piano sonata are manifest in other works.
The Suite for oboe and piano (which has been performed privately a generous gesture on the part of Richard Weigall and Michael Jones) begins with two very short movements, followed by a final rondo of at least twice the total length of those first two movements. The rondos two episodes are variations respectively on the prelude and minuet (which is not a minuet, the title being one of this works musical jokes).
Whilst on the subject of mediocre wind solo music, I will mention a couple of movements without formal titles. One, for unaccompanied oboe, is a study in the form of a set of variations on a little original theme in the dorian mode. It dates from the time when I was wrestling with the decision as to whether or not to give up playing the oboe because of weakness of the facial muscles (the weakness won in the end). My catalogue also includes a movement for flute and string quartet: a pleasant enough piece, but in its state of isolation it seems to lack some essential ingredient.
A work that seems to have nothing in common with anything else I wrote is the Tarantelle and Gavotte for clarinet and piano. This is a single movement, contrasting ideas in the two rhythms described in the title with each other and with the slow music that begins the piece.
The cyclic formal experiment of the piano sonata goes further in my String Quartet. This begins with static chords and a flourish, which reappear at the end of the work, framing an allegro in sonata form, which itself frames three more movements between its development and recapitulation: an adagio that fulfilled a desire to write a beautiful romantic slow movement in D flat major; an idiosyncratic scherzo; and a very odd sort of anti-finale that takes the notes BACH as its starting point. The scoring is also odd violin, two violas (one being silent in the BACH movement) and cello. This derives from an earlier version of the work, scored for string trio, in which the viola part was absurdly virtuosic. The form works rather well: it is a pity the musical material is not of sufficient quality to make the whole quartet worth performing, although the slow movement is tolerable on its own.
My best piece of solo string music is surely the Romance in D, for viola and piano. This delightful gem has many human romantic qualities always well-meaning, perhaps at times irritating and certainly fickle in its wayward modulations. It is decidedly not slow (the tempo marking is allegretto amabile) or sentimental here is no besotted, empty-gestured lover but a more practical type, busy, surprising, sometimes turbulent, yet also wistful and teasing. The music moves traditionally through A and B sections, then springs its biggest surprise: instead of a recapitulation of A, there is a reminiscence from afar of its themes, which makes as if to end with a moan in F sharp minor. This is just another tease, and the piece ends by slipping back into a smile in D major.
This work may never have existed were it not for the BBC, who one day broadcast a set of three romances for viola and piano (I have forgotten by whom). An inordinately long gap between announcement and music gave me time to ponder, and to compose my opening phrases.
I gained a lot of pleasure playing through with a friend from the ENB orchestra my Romance and Bridges two pieces for viola and piano. It seems to me that these make excellent companions, my piece fitting between Bridges to make a three movement suite of increasing tempo and progressing tonality: F minor, D major with F minor middle section, B minor.
And now for something completely different, the Ragged rondo for cello and piano, a fun piece, and I hope also rewarding to play. Compositionally it is notable for having a proper introduction that is one that introduces the listener to three important elements of the ensuing ragged theme. Beethoven would have instantly recognised the sonata-rondo form of the work, but he may have struggled with the content: the ragged theme is not too far out, but what about the episodic material (an expression of my opinion at the time of a lot of the new so-called music of the mid-1970s)?
Violists and cellists may also like to join pianists in trying out the song transcription Sonnet, this string version of the piece being probably its most successful.
What, you may ask, is there for the violin? Sorry, fiddlers all I can offer is the upper part of the Duo movement in B flat major: the Sonata for violin and piano is a dud. It suffers from having been begun when I was 13, little added over the next few years, and the bulk composed when I was 22. An unusual slow movement and some fine passages in the first movements development do not compensate for the ungainliness and triteness evident elsewhere in the work.
Those who are aware that, in my composing days, I was best known as a choral singer may be surprised to learn that my output of vocal music consists of one solo song. This may be less surprising when one finds out that my worst subject at school was English literature.
One exercise the A-level class (all two of us) was given was to set a Shakespeare sonnet in the style of Schubert. My effort was a setting of No longer mourn for me, which I described at the time as Schubert at the age of 40. I believe I did not get under the skin of the poem, and think the music works better as an instrumental piece, hence the transcriptions entitled Sonnet, for solo piano, and for viola or cello (which could be played on virtually any solo instrument: to enable this, the parts are presented entirely in treble or bass clefs respectively) and piano.
In view of the time and trouble required to write them, it is perhaps as well that two of my orchestral works are among my finest compositions.
The Festal march has the same smash hit potential as Autumn sunshine rag, being capable of generating terrific momentum, excitement and mass appeal. It is scored for a flexible orchestra, the minimum requirements being double woodwind, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (2 drums) and strings. The score contains parts for a third set of woodwind, a third trumpet, one or two harps, a third drum and percussion, and I dare say parts for myriad further instruments could easily be written.
As its title suggests, the Symphony-Suite in A major is an experiment in reverse stylistic progression, starting out as if to be a romantic symphony and ending as if it has been a baroque suite. I am not absolutely sure the experiment works (if only someone would try it!). Failing that, any one of movements I, II (the best) or IV may successfully be played on its own.
The first movement of the Symphony-Suite is a splendid specimen of symphonic sonata form, which refuses to be shackled by any sense of formal boundaries of exposition, development and recapitulation: for example, the process of development goes on through most of the movement, rather than being confined to a central section. The second subject evolves gradually: after its eventual statement, first subject material comes back to bring the exposition to a big climax in the dominant key. When this passage returns in the tonic, it takes the music from a recapitulation, consisting merely of a statement of the second subject, through to a coda.
The reminiscences of Dvoráks New World symphony in the middle of this opening movement are the result of Dvoráks first subject and mine having rising and falling arpeggios as a common feature. This passage should not be pointed out in performance because it fits naturally into the flow of the music, as does the melodic fragment from a piano intermezzo by Brahms that occurs twice in the next movement.
The heading Intermezzo to this second movement is itself a Brahmsian touch. The music proceeds as the antithesis to the classical scherzo with two trios, its gentle progress being interrupted by two much livelier ideas. Note the passage for string quartet leading into the first scherzo: this is the first serious outbreak of chamber music in a work whose scale is throughout contracting, becoming more intimate.
A rather sickly-sweet slow movement separates the intermezzo from the finale. Headed In the manner of a baroque dance movement, this virtually a suite of dances in itself derives its tri-trioid form from the corresponding movement of J S Bachs Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. I am unable to equate the main section with any specific baroque dance form, hence the rather cumbersome title.
We may safely overlook the Classical Symphony in C major, a sixteen year olds attempt to outdo Prokofiev (for example, with a minuet rather than a gavotte), which succeeded only in emulating Haydns charm and wit without the necessary formal knowledge, let alone mastery. It achieved a run of half-hearted rehearsals with the school orchestra.
This leaves one more orchestral work for consideration, an extraordinary Cello concerto in which the solo part requires such agile virtuosity that I suspect there is a viola (or even violin) concerto hidden inside, trying to make itself known. Formally, the piece is a multi-movement structure that plays without a break fascinatingly, the question how many movements could be discussed until the proverbial cows come home. I think it unsatisfactory to define the work as a single movement on account of the intermezzo, devoid of the themes on which the rest of the concerto is based, which acts as a sort of deck-clearing before the piece enters its final, predominantly fugal stages (the main theme of the intermezzo is by an amateur cellist school friend of mine who, on presenting me with his tune, suggested that it might fit into a cello concerto). Slow movement (in which bassoon and tuba share the limelight with the solo cellist), and scherzo and trio are also clearly defined, but elsewhere it is rarely obvious what constitutes a movement. How, for example, does one describe the first few minutes of the concerto? Here is certainly an introduction to (or exposition of) the whole works musical material only the main theme of the scherzo and the themes of the intermezzo are absent but is it a movement?