When I arrived at the Royal College of Music in London, in September 1937, and was accepted as a student by Vaughan Williams, he put me through routine disciplines of writing fugues and part-songs, and then one day said: “Isn’t it time you composed something?”
I accepted the challenge and produced by Drysdale Overture, with its nostalgic memories in a musical language which rather disconcerted him. Still more did it upset Sir George Dyson, who brilliantly realised my rough orchestral score on the piano and then said: “Don’t bring me another manuscript like that.” He did, however, give it a reading rehearsal with the RCM first orchestra, and I took steps to improve my musical handwriting.
In those far-off heady days, Hans Keller’s “functional analysis” had hardly impacted on the RCM – we students ignorantly and derisively called it “sweet FA”. And so I may hardly provide an “analytical synopsis”.
With my meagre knowledge of classical forms, I thought that proper overtures should have a solemn introduction, with motifs recalled later in various structural guises, and that they should have a contrasting “second object” – hence my nostalgic oboe tune, with fitting Scottish inflections. Curiously, what might have been a routine “development” turned into a sunlit rondo, nostalgic of childhood happiness.
I’m left with that lovely Mark Twain image of Jim and Huckleberry drifting on their barge down that great river, looking up at the stars and wondering “whether they was made, or only just happened”.
Several of the melodic ideas in Other Echoes are based on New Zealand birdcalls: the first violin is the now extinct huia, the cor anglais is the endangered kokako (also the bassoons and clarinets). Piccolo, trumpet and horns also play native birdcalls The composer believes these specific calls lend themselves particularly well to instrumental or vocal imitation, and has done a similar thing in several works over the years including the Chaos of Delight series.
Lilburn was a student when he wrote Overture: Aotearoa. It was premiered in 1940, as part of the New Zealand Centennial Matinee at His Majesty’s Theatre in London. Although it did not receive its New Zealand premiere until 1959 it has since received numerous performances and several recordings. Described as a work of “unabashed optimism”, Lilburn noted that it had a, “freshness and exhilaration”.
The Hanging Bulb consists of a continuous movement, divided into four sections: slow, fast, slow, fast. Sections 1 and 2 are thematically related, as are sections 3 and 4, so the structure could be described as a double couplet. The work expresses particular emotional and psychological states of mind, encapsulated in the title of the work which is an image of despair. Hanging light bulbs have been associated with despair and obsession in the world of art and in the real world. They became a significant image to the composer at the time of writing this piece, which was not born in happy circumstances.
Tension in the music is created through extensive use of the octatonic scale, bi-modal effects and thickly layered chords (such as occur near the end). The xylophone and bass drum are used as symbols of cruelty, while the piano has an important ‘personal’ statement in the first section. The last section has an obsessional quality which is expressed through repeated rhythms and motifs.