I’ve been thinking about how architects often have to work among the half-surviving remnants of much older buildings; they leave them visible, but what they fit into the spaces left in between is completely new and usually totally different in every way, even if it ‘harmonises’ with the old remnants. Many wonderful new buildings have come about in this way, including the place in the photo below – Château Barrière.
I wondered about building a new piece like this. I think I was prompted by the experience of taking part in a rehearsal for a Beethoven piano concerto back in February: the first orchestral rehearsal, before the pianist arrived. It was fascinating in the solo sections to hear all these empty spaces, clearly defined and laid out by little orchestral prompts, but essentially empty, waiting for music to fill them – and also fascinating how every now and then a tutti section would arrive and the music would spring to life fully formed for maybe 20 seconds, and then become an empty shell again. From there I got the idea to take a Mozart piano concerto, strip out the piano part completely, but leave in the strings, whose parts are enough to define both the tutti sections and the bare framework that shapes the solo sections. I quickly decided not to mess with the great, famous concertos, and go back to one of the early ones where it’s much easier to play around, try new things – and settled on no. 1. Written when he was 11, it was perfect for what I needed – a distillation of typical classical manouevres and clichés, with odd glimpses of later genius but plenty of room for other ideas too. In my new piece the strings play 100% original boy-Mozart (some of this material, in fact, he borrowed from other composers of the time). I’ve written a completely new, not-at-all-classical, solo piano part and new non-classical wind parts, using a typical 18C orchestra. The result is a three-movement concerto lasting about 16 minutes, built around and on top of the Mozart, which is always there in the background and occasionally bursts into the centre stage.
Two glimpses of John Keats, described by his friends:
‘He was called by his fellow students ‘little Keats,’ being at his full growth no more than five feet high. . . In a room, he was always at the window, peering into space.’
‘Keats was in childhood not attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one–morning, noon, and night, his brother among the rest. It was meat and drink to him.’
My new concerto for bassoon with strings is a character portrait of this man. Yes, it’s an eccentric plan. Keats didn’t play the bassoon, but there’s an account of him imitating one at a drunken party when he and his friends decided to make an impromptu ‘orchestra’, each acting out a chosen instrument at the top of their voices, all at the same time. John Cage would surely have loved it.
There are so many fascinating sides to Keats; my piece explores different strands of his character in seven (mostly brief) movements. He was wonderful company: ebullient, charming, lively, good-looking; he could be the life and soul of the party, as we hear in the first movement. Following this, A living orrery imagines him in his schooldays, gradually learning to discover meaning and beauty and exhilaration in almost everything, from science to politics to literature. His school was an inspiringly enlightened and imaginative place, and the music borrows its plan from a monthly lesson where the boys were taken out into the garden to enact for themselves the orbits of the planets around the sun. The third movement evokes Keats’ romantic yearnings for the love of his short life, Fanny Brawne (who may be familiar from the film ‘Bright Star’).
Keats spent several years training as a surgeon – after qualifying, he gave it up for poetry – and in the fourth movement we glimpse him assisting at the operating table. Then follows the zany and drunken ‘concert’ mentioned above. Keats also suffered from bouts of deep melancholy – in today’s language, depression, perhaps – which takes grip in the sixth movement. Poetry was an urgent calling for Keats – throughout his life he refused to let distractions and disasters keep him from his work because he knew he had something unique, inspiring and important to say. So the seventh and final movement ends the portrait on a visionary note. Blithe Wine is dedicated to Robert McFall and Peter Whelan, who will be giving the piece its premiere at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, before taking it on tour.