Saturday 8 February 2020

For a piece to suit the requirements of a particular occasion is the ultimate praise: composer Bernard Hughes chats about his approach to composing & his new disc of music for narrator & orchestra, Not Now, Bernard!

David McKee's Not Now! Bernard
David McKee's Not Now, Bernard! (Publisher Andersen Press)
Bernard Hughes (Photo SJ Field)
Bernard Hughes (Photo SJ Field)
I first came across Bernard Hughes' music in 2013 when my choir, London Concord Singers, performed his Two Choral Fanfares, and we would give further performances of his pieces, well-made music which still provided a satisfying challenge to good amateurs. Then in 2016 I reviewed I am the Song, the BBC Singers and conductor Paul Brough's disc of Bernard Hughes' choral music on the Signum Classics label [see my review]. 

Now Bernard has another disc out, Not Now Bernard on Orchid Classics. On this disc Alexander Armstrong narrates three of Bernard's works for narrator and orchestra, plus music by Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland, with the Orchestra of the Swan and conductor Tom Hammond. In fact, Barnard and Tom Hammond are co-producers of the disc. I recently met Bernard for a coffee to find out more about the disc and the music on it.

The idea for the recording arose because Tom Hammond had commissioned two works from Bernard, both for narrator and orchestra based on David McKee's children's stories, Not Now, Bernard and Isabel's Noisy Tummy.  Hammond commissioned Not Now, Bernard first, premiered by the British Police Service Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, and then Isabel's Noisy Tummy which will stand alone or work as a pair with the first piece.

Bernard knew David McKee's Not Now! Bernard as a child (when he identified with the story partly because of the name). A father himself now, he knew that it was a great story with both a message for children and for adults. In fact, McKee's story is very compact, only 154 words, and relies on the pictures as well so that occasionally Bernard had to add a bit of text to fill in for the pictures. Later on Tom Hammond commissioned another piece for narrator and orchestra, for the Hertford Symphony Orchestra, this was to a story by James Mayhew who live-illustrates the story in performance. This is something that Mayhew does a lot of, telling a story and live-illustrating it, but never before for one of his own stories.

So the three works made logical companions for disc, and Bernard and Tom Hammond cast around for further works for similar forces. Hammond suggested Malcolm Arnold's Toy Symphony, which had never been commercially recorded (it was premiered in 1957 at the Savoy Hotel at a Musicians' Benevolent Fund benefit). This uses a string quintet and a battery of toy instruments and comedy percussion which, at the work's premiere was originally played by celebrities. Bernard describes it as proper music, which just happens to be surrounded by a racket!

For the proposed recording, Bernard made a reduced orchestration of his pieces and then discovered and early work by Judith Weir, Thread! which uses virtually the same orchestration. This too had never been recorded, and Weir was delighted for it to be revived. It was only available from the publishers in her hand-written manuscript, so she re-edited the piece and revised the percussion, and it was typeset for a new edition. The work was premiered in 1981, by the New Music Group of Scotland, and in it Weir sets the rather laconic text which runs along the top of the Bayeux Tapestry, with her music filling in the gaps instead of the images.

Tom Hammond, Alexander Armstrong, Bernard Hughes
Tom Hammond, Alexander Armstrong, Bernard Hughes at the recording session
By chance, Bernard also came across John Ireland's melodrama, Annabel Lee using Edgar Allan Poe's poem. Originally for narrator and piano, Bernard produced a version for chamber orchestra for the disc.

It has taken Bernard and Tom Hammond around four years to go from the idea of a disc to seeing it released, in the meantime they have had to find a publisher, get an orchestra on board (the Orchestra of the Swan), get funding and find a narrator (Alexander Armstrong).

Technically, Bernard's works on the discs are melodramas, as is Judith Weir's, in that they use spoken word underscored by music, but Bernard is wary of using the term because in English it has so many other connotations. The music in Bernard's pieces is virtually continuous, though in some passages there is an element of stasis until the narrator finishes (what, in another age would be referred to a 'vamp till ready'). In the third work, The Knight Who Took All Day setting the James Mayhew story, extra space had to be left for Mayhew's live drawing.

For a composer it is notoriously tricky combining spoken text and music as our ear automatically goes to the text, so the music might get ignored. (Sir Arthur Bliss solves this in Morning Heroes by having a large musical exposition before the speaker comes in). Bernard admits that there were moments when he wondered whether he had 'wasted' a tune because it was under the narration, and he does wonder whether the pieces would stand on their own without narration. There is something slightly symphonic in the thematic development of the music, alongside elements of pure scene-painting such as the depiction of the animals in zoo in Isabel's Noisy Tummy.  Also, Bernard was aware of not detracting from the stories, so that the music retreats in order for punch lines to be heard. To a certain extent he regards the music as serving the story.

Surprisingly, apart from these pieces Bernard has not written any other music for family audiences, and in fact Not now, Bernard was his first orchestral work. He remains interested in the form, and is fascinated by the idea of producing a work for narrator and orchestra aimed at adults.

Tom Hammond and Orchestra of the Swan at the recording sessions for Not now, Bernard!
Tom Hammond and Orchestra of the Swan at the recording sessions for Not now, Bernard!
When performed live, and Bernard has narrated the works himself, it does need a microphone and there are moments when the narrator rather needs to shout but these fit the drama. And in the recording studio they had the flexibility to adjust levels, to ensure each passage had optimum balance.

Whilst the music is aimed at educating, engaging and entertaining children, Bernard was keen for adults to enjoy it too, and he fully regards the final pieces as part of his overall oeuvre, and he certainly did not write down to his audience. He was concerned to make the orchestra shine, as he was aware the such pieces are often a way for parents to introduce their children to the orchestra.

Though there was no conscious idea of continuity, one of the larger pieces on his 2016 disc, The Death of Balder, is for narrator but this time with the choir providing the musical backdrop. Here he uses choral writing to underscore the text and admits that the piece, though serious in intent and for adults, has the sense of colour in the music and asks the same questions about integration between narrator and musical backing, about flow and about balance.

The Death of Balder arose out of workshops that Bernard did with the BBC Singers and the piece was inspired by Judith Weir's Missa del Cid which, though not strictly a melodrama, interweaves spoken passages with sung ones.

In fact, the majority of Bernard's work in the last 10 to 12 years has been choral music. In a way this is surprising as he was not a singer as a child, and as a student attended the only Oxford college without a chapel! His writing choral music came about because of a BBC Singers workshop. This was held as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and Bernard had simply submitted a work which he had already written. It was performed last, and before it the other composers had all used extended vocal techniques and complex harmonies, whereas Bernard's work simply required straight-forward singing. He wonders whether his style came as something of a relief after the complexities beforehand, but whatever the reason, Bernard was chosen for a commission for the BBC Singers. And in fact, that piece submitted to the workshop ended up on the choir's 2016 album of Bernard's music!

A few days after we speak, the BBC Singers and conductor Eamonn Dougan were giving a portrait concert in which eight of Bernard's pieces were being performed, alongside work by Cecilia McDowall, Bo Holten, Dobrinka Tabakova and Eleanor Alberga. The concert is planned for broadcast on Afternoon on 3 on Friday 6 March 2020 at 14.00.

When I ask about his style, beyond admitting that his music is largely tonal (in that he uses diatonic chords), he says that he doesn't have a particular style but responds to the commission in hand. The biggest praise that he can give himself, after writing a piece, is 'that was very appropriate'. For a piece to suit the requirements of a particular occasion is the ultimate praise, and his admits that his role model for this sort of 'useful' composer is Benjamin Britten, whose music Bernard admires, though he admits that he does not have Britten's facility.

Bernard Hughes (Photo SJ Hughes)
Bernard Hughes (Photo SJ Hughes)
Not Now, Bernard, with Alexander Armstrong, the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor Tom Hammond is on Orchid Classics [available from Amazon from 7 February 2020] with Bernard Hughes Not Now, Bernard; Isabel's Noisy Tummy; The Knight Who Took All Day, Malcolm Arnold Toy Symphony Op. 62, John Ireland Annabel Lee, Judith Weir Thread.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Arianna: Kate Lindsey & Arcangelo bring Ariadne vividly to life in cantatas by Scarlatti, Handel & Haydn - (★★★★) CD review
  • An evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho's Wigmore Hall debut celebrates Opera Rara's 50th anniversary  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Music conceived of through restriction, which paradoxically gives the composer freedom: I chat to composer & Royal Academy of Music lecturer Alex Hills  - Interview
  • A touch of heaven: The Divine Muse, Mary Bevan & Joseph Middleton in Wolf, Schubert & Haydn (★★★★) - concert review
  • A welcome chance to hear the Orchestra National de Lille under its music director Alexandre Bloch in London, in Ravel, Debussy and Beethoven (★★★★) - concert review
  • From Georgia to Lotus Land: pianist Nino Gvetadze in music by Cyril Scott (★★★½) - CD review
  • Genesis: accordionist Bartosz Glowacki's fine debut recording moves from Scarlatti & Rameau to Trojan, Gubaidulina, Vlasov, Pärt & Piazzolla (★★★★) - CD review
  • Superb ensemble showcase: Opera North's new production of Kurt Weill's Street Scene (★★★★½) - opera review
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