DEREK HEALEY, AN INTERVIEW
Interview with Derek Healey, Glasgow, 18 January 2013.
Back in 1991, I hosted the joint WASBE and BASBWE Conferences at the Royal Northern, and for me, one of the most interesting works played was given by the Central Band of the RAF, Derek Healey's Triptych. Since then, the Scottish conductor Nigel Boddice has recorded Derek's One Midsummer's Morning, a tribute to Percy Grainger, with the West Lothian Celebrity Wind, and championed his music in a series of performances at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire. I met Derek during rehearsals for Owls and Pale Maidens in January 2013.
Tim Reynish Derek, it’s great to meet you at last and put a face to the composer of the several pieces which I have heard of yours, Triptych, One Midsummer’s Morning, English Dances andnow Owls and Pale Maidens. Can you tell me something about your early student years?
Derek Healey I went to the Royal College of Music hoping to study with Gordon Jacob, but it turned out that he, GJ, went on a sabbatical the year that I arrived and came back the year after I left, so I never did study with him. Having said that, I of course studied with Herbert Howells, a very fine choral composer so it wasn’t without interest. At the time I was writing music perhaps influenced by Hindemith more than anyone else – that wasn’t exactly Herbert Howells’ style; I learned a lot from him but obviously I did’nt wish to emulate his style of music, much as I enjoyed playing it on the organ, and I enjoyed singing the Hymnus Paradisi which I think is a very fine piece
Afterwards I went to Siena to the Accademia Chiganiana for four summers and I studied with a number of different composers there, including in the fourth year Godfredo Petrassi, and I found the instruction very good, but I think that the best composition teacher I had was Boris Porena in Rome; I studied with him for a year, and he introduced me to lots of new techniques, much of it based on the music of Frescobaldi and colleagues more than anyone else, and somehow got a twelve-tone technique derived out of their music. Very often their music is intensely chromatic so it was not as strange as it may seem. Boris Porena was also interested in sub-Saharan African music, he was very conscientious we used to study a work at the piano every week and he would give me the score to take home and to delve into.
TR I always wonder why Petrassi is not better known
DH He is known in Italy of course, a neo-classical composer, and he tried to adapt it to a certain extent to the avant-garde, the Darmstadt school, I am not sure whether that was successful. His earlier works are excellent, dramatic pieces for chori and orchestra and some very fine orchestral music
TR Can you talk us through your general musical output. As I recall, probably you are most successful in the choral music.
DH Especially now, I went to Canada to teach at the University of Victoria in ‘69 and up to then I had been writing music a bit “Darmstadty”. When I was at Victoria there was a most exceptional music librarian, Rollyn Morris, a pupil of John Cage and Harry Partch, we didn’t have lessons or anything but he introduced me to a lot of pieces that I didn’t know about and at this time Bärenreiter were bringing out very fine ethnic LPs and so there were a lot of things to be interested in, once you had decided to look into world music.
TR According to your list of works, today we are going to hear your eighth work for wind orchestra, (Owls and Pale Maidens), written between 1986 and 2012, I wonder what attracts you about the medium of wind orchestra.
DH First of all, I went from Canada, from the University of Guelph to the University of Oregon in about 1979, and it had not escaped me that at that time not many composers from Europe had written pieces for wind band, and as a good immigrant composer, I got to know pieces by other immigrants, Schoenberg and so on, and I produced a very large Symphony in five movements, which was later played by the RAF Central Band, in the WASBE concert in Manchester in 1991. After that I worked for the RAF and wrote Triptych. At the time I was teaching at the RAF School of Music in Uxbridge, and at the end of the week I would take a bus into Southall; I did not know much about the indigenous culture of India, because I was in North America when it flourished here, and I learned to play two instruments. I was into Hindu philosophy at the time, so when Barry Hingley asked me to write something for the RAF, I wrote Triptych which was based on the states on being in Hindu philosophy; I chose separate ragas for each of the three states, and wrote a band piece around it. I believe that it is one of my most successful pieces, it has not been played again, people seem more interested in my arranging. I tried to write more or less for a standard wind band which is something I don’t do very often and in fact I used RAF paper, printed down the sides with all the instruments, a useful discipline.
TR We sat together yesterday through a rehearsal of Lincolnshire Posy; I was thinking of your piece, Midsummer’s Morning, in which you make use of English folk-tunes, is there a conscious homage to Grainger here?
DH Oh yes, very much. I really did not know much about band music, it wasn’t part of my background at all. I wrote the Symphony in Oregon, but it was never played in the States for the simple reason that we could never afford to copy the parts, so the first performance was after we arrived back in England in the late 80’s, by the RAF.
TR Another fine work of yours which I have heard is English Dances, which is largely based on tunes from Playford
DH As I said, I knew nothing about band music, but the RAF brought out a recording in the late 80’s, music by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Grainger, and I was really knocked sideways by it. I had heard the Holst and Vaughan Williams as a child on the radio, but not the Grainger. People at Oregon University had talked about it, assuming that I knew it. They explained to me that he was a sort of English Charles Ives, but I got to know it at Uxbridge because it was a set piece for a competition between the bands, so I got to know the work very well. It became the inspiration for One Midsummer Morning, which has the same number of movements, it makes use of the Chaconne form which Grainger uses, and strangely enough both pieces were completed in Brooklyn. I went one step further and used techniques which have developed since Grainger, and it has become one of my most performed pieces, certainly of the band pieces. I saw the piece as being the end of the road for me in Band Music, and when I finished it I did not expect to do anything else.
I learned a lot – I was teaching harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, but of course they had all been playing in bands all their adult lives, so they knew far more about band scoring than me. For instance, the one of the members of the Central Band asked if I had ever heard the baritone saxophone in its high register, a wonderful sound which I used throughout the piece. So the years working for the RAF were very important for my approach to orchestration.
TR Did you have any similar approach when you were writing the English Dances.
DH That’s a different thing altogether, and personal factors enter it. My parents were getting very old. At the time I was teaching in the University of Oregon, and each time I saw them, I would wonder if I would ever see them again. They came over in what was to be my last year at Oregon, and I wanted to give my father a present, so I wrote a set of six dances for percussion ensemble. Now the University had a very good percussion ensemble, they asked me for some pieces so I set a few dances, mainly for keyed percussion, and one was Sir Roger de Coverly. Now my father in the thirties used to play drums and he and his father would go around, playing at hunt balls,and of course one of the favorites was Sir Roger de Coverly, which could take up to an hour. I heard all these stories about it from m father, so I made sure I ended up with Sir Roger. I then came back to England, and always intended to orchestrate the dances, but never did until I retired to Brooklyn.
I remember some ballet dancer saying that there was no such thing as traditional English dance, absolute rubbish. They were traditional dances, some of them Morris Dances, a bit of a mixture. Anyway I decided not to do what Malcolm Arnold did and write my own dances, but to arrange some traditional melodies.
TR And then you wrote a couple of works, Latino Preludes 1999/03, which you describe as Four short preludes based on Latino religious songs, and Solemn Music after 9/11.
DH Well the first developed after I got to Brooklyn, we settled down and got to know several Latinos, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and a student of mine who went on to Juilliard, remarked that there was popular music in the Catholic Church, Latino folk music, worthy of looking at. I was an organist, working for a time in a church, and I decided to write some organ preludes on traditional Latino hymn tunes, and later decided to orchestrate four for band. These were played at a composer’s convention in North Carolina, but have not been done again.
Every New Yorker was affected by the attack on the Twin Towers, and my daughter was in the financial world, and went to the Twin Towers once a week. It turned out that she was due to go the following day. My wife was working on Wall Street very close, and I watched from the roof. I wrote the piece a year and half later, sent it round to various bands who were not interested, and then eventually it was played in Nova Scotia by Mark Hopkins and at the University of Manitoba, who are bringing out a recording of it.
TR And then you wrote Kore for an Italian Band. What’s the difference between an Italian Band and an American one.
DH Well its bigger, and I came across all sorts of instruments I had not met before, saxhorns, eight saxophone parts, two euphonium parts, flugel horns as well as trumpets, virtually a brass band with woodwind. I wrote this piece based on the story of Persephone. I remember going to a museum in the province of Agrigento, and seeing a mask of Kore, the name for Persephone. Recently I have rescored it for a typical American/British band, the eight saxophones knocked down to three or four, extra brass omitted, and it is now awaiting a first performance.
TR Now, these ethnic influences, are there any in Owls and Pale Maidens?
DH Oh yes, after teaching at the University of Victoria I went on to Toronto for a year and I started work on my doctorate. After the University of Toronto, I taught in the University of Guelph for seven years, and while there I developed an elective course on world music, in which we investigated the scales and rhythms from different parts of the world. Several influences came in from Scotland, a Waulking Song, and a Pibroch, at least twenty minutes long, and I tried to use various devices, ornamentation from bagpipe music in the oboe part, and so on. Basically the piece is a homage to two artists who I like, one was James McNair, a somewhat tragic character, and the Pale Maiden is his wife. They were both art nouveau artists, but the first World War halted the movement, and they found themselves out of favour.
After the performance I wrote:
Nigel, formerly Principal Trumpet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is one of the most experienced conductors working in the field of wind and brass bands, with a formidable list of commissions and world premieres to his name. In recent years he has programmed two of Derek Healey’s works, One Midsummer Morning and English Dances; Healey’s most recent wind work, Owls and Pale Maidens, was written especially for and dedicated to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Wind Orchestra and Nigel, who gave an authoritative first performance.
The work is a single movement tone poem, some sixteen and a half minutes in duration, cast in a contemporary but completely approachable musical idiom, a homage to two Glasgow artists of the first part of the 20th century, Frances Macdonald and James Herbert McNair, who with Frances’ sister Margaret and her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh formed the legendary “Glasgow Four”, the leaders in the Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. I had the benefit of hearing two rehearsals of the new work; it made quite an impression on me at first hearing, and by teatime on Friday I found it utterly compelling, a work that I want to conduct and indeed publish as soon as possible.
The opening motif is built on a minor third, fff descending to ppp diminuendo, and this in various guises represents The Owl, a signature motif for McNair in his designs. In this work it runs throughout, sometimes softly lyrical, plaintive, sometimes screeching over low brass and percussion. Contrast is provided almost immediately by a five note theme representing Frances Macdonald and her pre-Raphaelite Pale Maidens, gently suggested by oboes and flutes in G major, alternating with The Owl in G minor. Other thematic ideas abound, a rising arpeggio in the bass clarinet, muted thirds in the horns reminiscent perhaps of Holst, an almost Wagnerian motif in the trombones, a sweeping gesture on vibraphone, harp and piano. The mood intensifies with a piu agitato, brass ostinato accompany high woodwind. The main thematic and harmonic shape of the work is clearly stated and then developed at times through lyrical melodies of great beauty, at times through a dazzling variety of orchestrations and dynamic changes, before dying away in a heart-felt coda.
TR Our interview was followed by a winning and persuasive performance of Owls and Pale Maidens and six months later I received an email from Derek:
DH I remember telling you in Glasgow that it would be doubtful if I would write any more works for band; however I am just putting the finishing touches to yet another work in this genre. This time the piece is for Jeff Reynolds and the University of Toronto Wind Ensembles. As you know he has given 2 performances of my One Midsummer’s Morning(separated by a gap of 10 years) and also my English Dances.
This piece was inspired by an exhibition I saw in Toronto devoted to the Inuit and to Robert Flaherty (of Nanook of the North fame). Needless to say it uses many fragments from Inuit music. The piece lasts about 12 minutes and is called Hunter – a homage to Robert Flaherty. Like Owls and Pale Maidens, it is a fantasy piece with lots of colour.
All scores available through
Canadian Music Centre
Chalmers House, 20 St. Joseph Street
Toronto, Ontario M4Y 1J9, Canada
WORKS FOR WIND ORCHESTRA
Op 66 Symphony II: Mountain Music 1986 32'
1. When Men and Mountains meet,
2. Mountain Man
3. The West Wind,
4. The High Snows,
5. The Mountain's Song
Op 73 Triptych 1990 14'
Op 82 One Midsummer's Morning: 1997 20' 30"
an English folk-set - Arrangements of six English folk songs:
1. Among the New Mown Hay
2. The Banks of Sweet Primroses
3. High Germany
4. Strawberry Fair
5. Bushes and Briars
6. Shropshire Rounds
Op 89h Latino Preludes 1999/03 8' 45"
Four short preludes based on Latino religious songs:
1. Fanfare, 2. Cancion, 3. Aria, 4. Salida
Op 93 Solemn Music: 2003 7' 37"
A Tribute to Station Number 3, Brooklyn - an elegy for fallen firefighters
Op 95 English Dances 2004 16' 15"
1. Processional (Morris Dance)
2. Cheshire Rounds (Country Dance)
3. Jenny pluck pears (Elizabethan Dance)
4. How d'ye do, Sir? (Morris Dance)
5. Pop goes the Weasel (Morris Dance)
6. Sir Roger de Coverly (Country Dance)
Op125 Kore: a symphonic poem 2010 10'
For large wind band Single movement, in four main sections
1. Persephone picks flowers
2. The appearance of Hades, King of the Dead
3. Persephone in the Land of the Dead
4. Persephone returns to Earth (the Arrival of Spring)
Op 132 Owls and Pale Maidens: a Homage to Frances Macdonald and James Herbert McNair 2012 14.11’
A colorful, episodic work inspired by the work of these two great Glaswegian Art-Nouveau artists for large wind ensemble, percussion, piano and harp
Op 134 HUNTER: a homage to Robert Flaherty 2013 12’
Winds and Percussion
Figures in a Barren Landscape
The Hunt Songs after the Hunt
A fine recording of One Midsummer's Morning available on a disc entitled The Gathering, conducted by Nigel Boddice on Amadeus AMSCD69, promoted by West Lothian Council under the leadership of the late Brian Duguid.