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The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]

Some V.U.C. Composers

page 17

Some V.U.C. Composers

How a Musician is made, what impels him towards the musician's world of order, clarity and consonance, what makes his metronome tick, if known, is not known to me. The poet, the writer,***' according to Cyril Connolly, to Dylan Thomas, draws on a stock of material gathered in childhood, the painter makes his mark on the wall; one can conceivably, in painting, given the material, get somewhere without much formal education. But why the composer starts is a mystery"—perhaps a lucky arrangement of nerve endings in his physical ear, more likely not. He is usually compelled towards an instrument at an early age, simply because instruments, until the radio era, happen to be around the house. He may even learn to read his notes before he reads his letters. We know only that musicians begin, that they require a long course of training, that there is not one composer in the past who has not undergone such a course. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Vaughan-Williams"—all spent years on their training, whether at choir school, university or conservatorium. Schubert at 30, Brahms at 40, thought they had better do some more counterpoint. Vaughan-Williams at 40, a Mus.D. from Cambridge, went off to Paris to study with the young Ravel.

At Victoria we get our students at 17, already too old, and spoiled frequently by some previous bad harmony teaching. Tovey thought we should absorb our counterpoint aged ten.

Myself, I took to the piano aged five, picked up a smattering of rudiments from reading music itself, acquired a copy of Percy Scholes' Beginners' Guide to Harmony aged sixteen, and worked away. The instruction was dogmatic"—do this, do not do that. A chord on the mediant of the scale was described as "one chord you must never use," and if, as one soon discovered, Dvorak used it very beautifully, then that fact just goes to show. And so when at University one was put to Kitson's books on Elementary Harmony and Counterpoint for Beginners and to Buck's Harmony, one learned to do a kind of double-think. There was a world of exercises and examples, a kind of snakes-and-ladder's game, "on no account go from IIb to IVa""—phrases that ring in my ear still with a minatory air, like frontier passwords from Auden's "orators," or a message from one of Cocteau's transmitters; the example given as good workings had no resemblance to music one had ever seen or heard"—"music that was never on land or sea." Meantime I was exploring page 18 in 1922 the voluptuous delights of Debussy and Ravel; wicked Stravinsky and Bartok were still ahead. This course in double-think, with the help of R. O. Morris's Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century, which I read on the quiet as though it were Joyce's Ulysses, eventually gained me a Mus.B. degree. As to the academic's argument, that such a training teaches one grammar, one would like to call on Pozzo for his comment.

Morris's revolutionary book cleared the way in the teaching of counterpoint, which has become a manageable, if tough, subject. You can show the student what is going on in the twelfth century"—start together, take intervals in your stride, keep to the word of God, and end on a consonance. In the fourteenth, as in the twentieth century, gear your music to a pattern and sweat it out; in the sixteenth, resolve your dissonances by rule. One begins to understand why Bach, Mozart, Beethoven went to such pains over their counterpoint, why contemporary composers place such a value on its study, for itself, and as a means of studying one's craft. And if one starts to look at Piero della Francesca, at Ben Nicholson, with a fresh eye, that is something gained. But the study of harmony is the real diabolus in musica. On the library shelves"—and it is agreeable that the music books at V.U.C. are housed in the bay marked Science *," and finally, with a stuffed fantasy-sonata for two pianos win the Philip Neil Prize. We confess at Victoria to not liking this very much.

Our students are put to melody writing, and even to find out what is a melody in this land where no kiwi sings is itself not easy. They are urged to join church choirs. They are shown how to handle common chords, with illustrations drawn from Bartok's peasant songs, to the Anglican hymnal, asked to recognise that if all chords are equal, some chords are more emotionally equal than others; they go on to a study of Bach's chorales, of string quartet writing, and are then pushed off the deep end. It is as though Professor Gordon were to ask, in English III, for poems on a particular rhyming scheme, with opening lines given. No wonder the students find it hard, and are inclined to ask for rules handed out in packages. One solution, one made at Victoria, is to have a composer attached to the staff. As Hindemith has said, ". . . his (the composer's) instruction is bound to have a certain creative warmth, because he is passing on directly what he himself has experienced."

* * *

Douglas Lilburn studied with J. C. Bradshaw at Canterbury University College, and with R. Vaughan-Williams at the Royal College of Music. Since he has been at Victoria he has written two symphonies; Suite for Orchestra; Diversions for String Orchestra; A Birthday Offering; several chamber music works; song cycles for poems by Alistair Campbell and Denis Glover; and incidental music for film, theatre and radio.

page 19

David Farquhar was the first Mus.B. from Victoria. He studied at Cambridge with Robin Orr and Patrick Hadley, is an M.A. from there, spent a year with Ben Frankel at the Guildhall in London, and joined the staff in 1952. In 1956 he spent a further year in London with Frankel. His recent works include Epithalamion"—Overture for Strings; Partita for Piano; two songs for male voices and percussion (C. Day Lewis); Coronation Ode for women's voices, strings and harp; and other songs. Followers of the New Zealand Players will also remember his incidental music for Ring Round the Moon and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Barry Moss (1947) spent only one year at Victoria before taking up a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. I remember with pleasure his work in the counterpoint class, but of his mature work I know only, and that through a recording, his Variations for Orchestra. This is a sombre, slow-moving work, beautifully set out, and was played at the 1956 Stockholm Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Ashley Heenan (1946-50) came to Victoria with a technique already well developed. His work is conservative and strongly written. There is some natty counterpoint in his Square Dance for string orchestra. Since graduation he has written A College Overture (for symphony orchestra); Suite for Small Orchestra; Interludes for String Orchestra: Rhapsodic Scherzoso for piano; Sonata for Viola and Piano; and incidental music to Jack Winter's Dream.

Robert Burch (1948-51) wrote an attractive pastoral work for his Mus.B. exercise, influenced by the English diatonic Vaughan-Williams world. He has studied at the Guildhall with Frankel, and has written a fine set of four preludes for piano; songs; and a string quartet, which was played in the Music Room. At present he is playing the horn in the National Orchestra.

Christopher Small (1949-52) has written a bold setting of Auden's poem Look Stranger, and when I last had news of him was writing film music.

John Taylor (1951-54) did some stylish work for his Mus.B. exercise. He is at present on the staff of the N.Z.B.S.

John Steele (1950-53) is a musicologist who has studied at Cambridge and has brought out, with Susi Jeans, an edition of the organ voluntaries of the early seventeenth century composer, John Lugge.

Peter Crowe (1953-) is caught up with the twelve note school. He has written Duo for Flute and Piano, Suite for Piano, Nocturne for Piano, Elegy for String Quartet; and part songs.

Dorothy Freed (1954) has written a number of songs, and was recently successful in the 1957 A.P.R.A. Competition for New Zealand Composers.

F. J. Page

* These examples ate based on 50 deposits each year.