Time and the Seasons: An Interview with Robert Saxton

This week Oxford University’s Faculty of Music is celebrating the sixtieth birthday of composer Robert Saxton. On Monday evening, Ensemble ISIS, a group of student performers based at the Music Faculty dedicated to the performance of new music, perform a programme entitled ‘The Music of Robert Saxton’ (Mon 11 Nov, 8pm, Holywell Music Room) and on Tuesday, Clare Hammond (piano) performs a lunchtime recital, featuring music by Saxton, Britten and Bach (Tues 12 Nov, 12:30pm, Holywell Music Room). As well as these concerts, Saxton will be discussing his life and work with Dr Martyn HarryRobert Saxton in Conversation (Mon 11 Nov, 5pm, Holywell Music Room) – and his music will be the focus of a Research Colloquium (Tues 12 Nov, 5:15pm, Faculty of Music). I talked to Robert Saxton, who also works as a Professor of Composition at the Music Faculty and Tutorial Fellow in Music at Worcester College, to find out more.

Simon Desbrulais will be performing two of your works for trumpet and small orchestra with Ensemble ISIS on Monday evening: can you tell me something about these pieces?

Yes, Simon Desbruslais, who is a postgraduate here, is a very fine trumpeter. He had contacted me and said that he wanted to play Psalm – A Song of Ascents [1992], which is a piece I wrote for John Wallace and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the London Sinfonietta. That piece is linked movements which take the trumpet through Biblical references and different manifestations: mourning, warning, celebratory. It’s quite a tough piece, a bit sturm und drang. When Simon performed it with the Orchestra of the Swan [in 2012] it was very, very funny because when it finished, the man sitting behind me, who had no idea I was the composer, said “Thank God that’s over!” as I went up to take my bow, which was hilarious.

Simon wanted a new work and so I’ve done this piece called Shakespeare Scenes. It starts with a movement based on Midsummer Night’s Dream called ‘The Magic Wood’ with the trumpet as Puck and the string orchestra all muted; it’s a tribute to Mendelssohn and Shakespeare all at once. Next it has a movement called ‘Falstaff’, where the trumpet is Falstaff. I go from Falstaff waking up to the Gad’s Hill episode to the death of Falstaff in three minutes flat. Then there is the storm on the heath, with Lear and his fool, where the string orchestra are the storm, the trumpet is Lear and the solo violin is the fool. That’s followed by a movement called ‘Masque’. The trumpet plays a kind of pastiche of Tudor music, a Pavane and a Galliard, and the strings are the courtiers and the crowd. The last piece, based on The Tempest, is called ‘The Magic Island’. The strings have ringing, slow music, the trumpet is Prospero and the solo viola is Caliban. Caliban is one of my favourite characters and I think he is deeply misunderstood. When Prospero is haranguing him and he says “I must eat my dinner” I think it’s one of the most tragic and beautiful lines in all drama. At the end, Caliban is reconciled and he is going to be on the island and Prospero’s spell is broken. It finishes on rather than in E major. The pitch centres of each movement are Shakespeare’s name because [in German nomenclature] “Es” is E flat and “H” is B natural. So Shakespeare’s name is driven through the piece.

It seems perhaps unlikely that even the most cultured and attuned listener could pick up on this spelling out of Shakespeare’s name across the movements without seriously studying the score. If they are not meant to be heard, what function do such devices perform?

No, I don’t expect the listener to hear the Shakespeare spelling. It’s like the inner dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, which we cannot see but, without which, the cathedral would collapse. It exists as part of my compositional scaffolding. Before the era of the public concert, ciphers and codes were frequently used in poetry, painting and music. Think of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors with the skewed skull in the foreground or Josquin’s Dux Ferrara Mass. Charles Rosen has made the point that many of these things were to do with the player understanding as they played, when music was a more private business.

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors. The grey diagonal in the foreground is a skull rendered in anamorphic perspective
Hans Holbein ‘The Ambassadors. The grey diagonal in the foreground is a skull rendered in anamorphic perspective

As well as these works for trumpet, Monday’s concert will also feature new music based on your Little Prelude (2003).

I wrote Little Prelude nine years ago for an Ensemble ISIS Holywell Music Room concert in which my wife, Teresa Cahill, sang the soprano solo in Erwin Stein’s chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. John Traill, conducting, requested a curtain raiser lasting about one minute, and I wrote the Little Prelude for this purpose; it is based on a small fragment from the initial bars of the symphony. For this Monday, I gather that a group of former students of mine (including John himself, and supported by Dr Martyn Harry and Cayenna Ponchione) have written a set of variations on my “variation” on Mahler. More I don’t know, because the whole thing has been a huge surprise and I only found out recently, which is both lovely and embarrassing!

Can you tell me something about Hortus Musicae (2013), the work that Clare Hammond will be performing?

Clare Hammond, who was doing her PhD at City University, contacted me about two years ago and said I’m playing your left hand Chacony in my recital, would you come? That piece is called Chacony after Purcell, in the Britten tradition, and was written for the American pianist Leon Fleisher in 1988 for the Aldeburgh Festival. It was written to go directly into the Brahms-Bach Chaconne, which Brahms did for Clara Schumann [Hammond will be performing both Chacony and Chaconne in Tuesday’s concert]. So I went to City University, we chatted afterwards and eventually she ended up agreeing to do this cycle at the City of London Festival [the work’s première in June of this year].

The cycle is different types of gardens. So the opening is a visionary garden, fleeting, it comes and it’s gone, a bit like St Augustine’s vision. Then the second one is related to the floral clock in Andrew Marvell’s great metaphysical poem The Garden. Whatever happens that beat is going on. Then there is the singing garden, the garden of song, and that’s all about line. Then there’s a very formal garden, which, for anyone who is interested, is a prolation canon, which is a palindrome based on a chaconne harmonic ground. The last one is a dance, based on two lines from Auden’s 1944 poem The Sea and the Mirror. The poem is a postscript to The Tempest and they are Miranda’s lines: “So, to remember our changing garden, we / Are linked as children in a circle dancing.”

It seems that both in this work and in Time and the Seasons (which received its world première in Oxford last month) the rhythms of nature are central.

There are traditions that are always in my mind. I’m Jewish with one Christian grandmother and was brought up at Church of England schools and go to evensong in college two or three times a week. I love the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, although not because I’m a conventional believer, I suppose I’m a “cultural Christian” – although I’m Jewish! On the one hand, there’s quite a lot of visionary and mystical ideas in Judaism, not rabbinical Judiasm but the Kabbalah. There is also the tradition of dancing, the Hasidic Jews who dance themselves into a frenzy; this happens in a lot of cultural traditions. On the other hand, there’s the Christian tradition, the idea of intellectual ecstasy in St Augustine and others. Connected to the Christian tradition is the great English tradition of John Bunyan, the metaphysical poets, Vaughan-Williams, Tippett, Yeats and even Auden: the idea that song and dance are the two things that we can celebrate, mourn, and have rituals about.

That’s why I have enjoyed doing things for Stephen Darlington and Christ Church Cathedral Choir. When I arrived Stephen was so generous and he wanted to do a project over several years, not just a one-off piece. I’m very grateful to Stephen for the luxury of his three commissions over the past decade – some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever done.

This month also marks the centenary celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s birth [more on this next week]. Do you remember the first time you met him?

Yes. I was learning the recorder and I was writing everything down – I preferred it to practising. My mother said, “You’ll have to write to someone like Britten or Stravinsky”. My grandparents lived in Norfolk, which is where we spent all our childhood holidays, and my grandfather had said to me that there’s this funny chap down the coast who writes strange noises with bells and things. So I wrote to Benjamin Britten in Suffolk and I got a postcard from abroad asking me to send some of my music.

Later he wrote and said, “I’m doing a prom at the Albert Hall – come and say hello afterwards.” That was his fiftieth birthday prom in 1963. I was nine years old in shorts and a little tie. I probably exaggerate it because when you’re nine everything seems extraordinary but there seemed to be endless people in the corridors waiting for autographs afterwards. Britten was a great figure. I remember Britten looking down at me and saying, “My, aren’t we tall? You’d better come and see me in Aldeburgh”.

I wrote to him when we were in Norfolk about a year and a half later and I got a postcard back saying, “Would you like to come for tea?” So we went down to Aldeburgh and he looked through a setting for violin and voice I had done of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which everybody used to have to learn at school. We went through it and he was not off-putting at all, but very strict. Then I played the violin with him accompanying. We started playing but he stopped and said, “I don’t like this arrangement”. I’ve still got the Associated Board copy with his changes. So then we started again and this time I stopped and said to him – I cannot believe this now – “You’re playing much more loudly than my violin teacher does”. “I’m awfully sorry,” he said, “I’ll try and do it better”. Years later, I told Rosamund Strode, who had been his musical assistant, and she said “that’s the sort of thing he’d absolutely love! Though if you’d done it when you were eighteen it might have been a bit different..!”

I never actually had another lesson but I would send him stuff regularly and he’d always write back. I met him again when I was working as a Hesse student at Aldeburgh just before I went up to Cambridge as an undergraduate; I served him tea in the Maltings bar. Colin Matthews and various other people have said to me that I should have reintroduced myself. But this was 1972: I had big hair and I was into Stockhausen, cowboy boots, bracelets with studs and flared purple trousers! So I’m glad I didn’t reintroduce myself. We were still in touch by letter but of course he didn’t know what I looked like. I think I could have had bad memories. I think it was better that I have the nice memories and just served him tea.

What do you think you learned most from him?

First of all, sanity, of a certain kind, because I was being very neurotic looking back at those days. Britten was a very good psychologist and he wrote to me several times and said, “Do relax, we all make mistakes, don’t worry so much”. He was also very tough. Sometimes he’d say, “I’m going away now and you haven’t done what I set so don’t write any more until you have.” No nonsense.

Once I asked him how I could hear everything at once. I could hear things but I didn’t know how to write them down. He said, just look at Schubert’s song The Trout, which Britten accompanied many times, of course. Britten was sure that Schubert thought of the accompaniment first; he didn’t harmonise a tune, he thought of the idea. There are several letters where he says to me, “I think this is very interesting, but there’s not enough of an idea, where’s the idea gone?” He was also very practical. He advised me not to get misled by things that don’t matter and to keep on writing. A lot of the letters said that: keep on writing. I got to Elisabeth Lutyens when I was sixteen. She was a wonderful teacher. The first time we met, she said “Now tell me about yourself”, smoking a cigarette in her green corduroy trouser-suit and green fingernail varnish. I said I’d had help from Britten and she said “Right, well you can wipe that smile off of your face for a start. I’ve looked at your music, you haven’t got any talent so we’ll have to find some”. Those sorts of things are very good for you.

Do you think that Britten’s music is still a major influence on you now?

I don’t think one is “influenced” at sixty, but there are things that are in the blood-stream. Britten and Tippett have been hugely important, as have some works by Elisabeth Lutyens. While I am wary of the word “influence” the composers of the twentieth-century who are, if you like, “biblical” for me are Berg, Bartók, Schoenberg, Webern, pre-1921 Stravinsky and, to a lesser extent, Messiaen. I learnt technical matters which all composers must know from these masters. As an undergraduate, I studied Boulez’s On Music Today and attended many of his rehearsals with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. My generation knew this music and studied it analytically and so have been able to absorb it and, hopefully, create a synthesis, returning to what is by today’s standards more of a “middle ground” culturally and aesthetically. This is why my generation of composers, in the UK in particular, does not, on the whole, have “style” issues. We learnt to manipulate material conventionally and through the lens of advances made after World War II. So, I was able early on to feel comfortable with, for example, Britten’s Curlew River and Boulez’s Pli selon Pli as 1960s works, without “inner conflict”.

With Britten it wasn’t perhaps a question of influence so much, but excitement. I adored my paternal grandfather and he died, funnily enough, the year I went to Britten’s house. I think Britten became a sort of substitute. But I do love a lot of the music too. There’s a sound-world: the opening of the Second String Quartet, Peter Grimes and some of the early works in particular. I think there’s a kind of loneliness and sadness about Britten’s best music. My father adored it, and I was very close to him, and my mother too. I had a very mixed background. My family on both sides were refugees from Europe, but my paternal grandmother was from Yorkshire via Suffolk. So I had this one very English side, which I feel very close to – late Shakespeare, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the metaphysical poets, Vaughan Williams – and the European side, which I was also brought up with – I knew Pierrot Lunaire when I was twelve! So I had both traditions at once, but of course they’re not as separate as one thinks.

Do you think that feeling rooted in English music and tradition is particularly important to you?

Yes. I think that the English have a slightly different take on modernism. If you think of English artists like Graham Sutherland or English poets like Auden, they have not gone to the extremes. They’ve absorbed modernism and somehow you never feel it’s experimenting, you feel it’s coming out with something to say. Take Birtwistle at his greatest – that’s what I mean. James Joyce does it in Ulysses. It’s a terribly difficult book to read, but he really has got something to say, he’s not just an experimenter. That’s what interests me and I think the way you say it does matter. The fact that Seurat painted in dots does matter because the way you see his world is connected to the way he painted. I spend my life trying to help composition students relate their ideas to the way they compose.

As you mentioned earlier, Britten was a great figure. Do you think it’s possible for a classical composer to become such a national figure like that now?

We had the wonderful Peter Maxwell Davies in residence here a few years ago and I was discussing that with some of my students. Maxwell Davies is a very famous international figure – but is it quite the same? When I went to see Britten backstage at the Albert Hall it was almost like going to see Churchill or the Queen. Tippett after all is an enormously great artist and yet he wasn’t a national figure the way Britten was and therefore I think it would be very difficult, the way no Finnish composer has become an icon like Sibelius.

Do you think there was something unique about Britten which meant he could achieve that?

I think it has to do with Britten as a pianist, as a conductor, as an influence. Although he could be very gentle, he was very, very ambitious and extremely single-minded – he created an entire world, the Aldeburgh festival, and his music has a sound-world too. You hear one bar and you know it’s Britten. Norman Lebrecht recently said in an article that he thought Britten was very divisive, that it was only since Britten that we had this sort of “first eleven” of composers. Elgar, who could be a difficult old thing, was not like that. Vaughan Williams was very generous to Finzi and Howells. Lebrecht says that Britten caused this kind of “who’s in and who’s out”, to quote King Lear. I do think there’s an element of truth in that and I think it is an unfortunate thing. I think artists should go into their studio and get on with their work.

His family all say that he was a wonderful uncle, a wonderful brother, but I think that at a professional level, particularly in conjunction with Pears, he could perhaps be a bit divisive; it was very much whether you were in or out at court. I think Aldeburgh still has that flavour. I’m usually careful what I say because it can sound like grumpy old middle-aged composer and I’m not – I’m just stating what I think a lot of people feel anyway. But I do owe Britten a lot, of course I do.

Do you ever feel daunted by the weight of tradition?

Oh yes, sometimes I wish I was an American experimentalist and didn’t bother with all that! But I think where I feel close to someone like Britten, is that I do, at a deep level, go from Purcell backwards technically: so isorhythm, mensuration canon, modality, thinking about big structures from other angles and the whole variation aspect of English music. The thought of listening to Tallis’s O nata lux or Byrd’s Haec dies does fill me with an enormous sense of pleasure, comfort and wonder. So I don’t bang my head against a wall now wondering why I don’t or can’t develop like Brahms. That doesn’t worry me. But I don’t want to sound complacent. The person I suppose who’s always at the back of mind, in one sense and one sense only, is Beethoven. In his late works, he never rested on his laurels, he’s always trying to discover something new and that is a great beacon.

Do you find that these kind of anniversary events or retrospectives are important for how you view your career?

I have never been the recipient of a “retrospective” before. I couldn’t be more grateful to those concerned but, as far as my career goes, I carry on regardless. As I get older, I realise that, in conjunction with my professional training and varied experiences of many decades, certain ideas transcend time and remain with me from early on. I find that composing “feeds” teaching (which I consider as important as writing) and vice-versa, so that “career” in the sense in which it might be intended, is not a factor. I work on trains, planes, everywhere, continuously. The forthcoming week makes me step back and consider what I have been trying to do for many years from a bird’s eye point-of-view.

Do you ever see yourself stopping composing?

I just write, it’s something I do. I can do it literally on the back of envelopes. I taught myself at boarding school, trying to hear difficult music in my head reading scores with a torch hidden under the bedclothes in the dormitory. So I think I would always write, but I would always want to teach too, because I love teaching and working with young people, I really do. We live in a quite problematic sometimes and very multicultural area of South-East London and when I retire one of the things I want to do is to try and set up a music project for disadvantaged people. Not in some kind of pompous way but because I’d like to put something back.

That seems like the kind of project that would have had Britten’s approval, given his notion that musicians must be “useful”.

I suppose so. I think it does matter that music is part of people’s lives. My mother is in a care home now. I was there the other afternoon and there was someone there doing marvellous work who gets them all singing songs. There was one lady in a wheelchair who hasn’t spoken for about two years, but she sings. She can remember songs and she immediately sings, but if you talk to her she doesn’t or can’t reply. That’s something music has which is very special.

G. Masters

Robert Saxton’s future projects include a Fourth String Quartet (for the Kreutzer Quartet), a short a cappella choral piece for Merton College’s 750th anniversary, a work based on Orlando Gibbons for the City of Cambridge Brass Band commissioned by their conductor Peter Bassano, a second volume of Hortus Musicae for Clare Hammond, and a large-scale work for ensemble and voices based on the ancient Sumerian legend The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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