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Portsmouth Point by Thomas Rowlandson

Walton certainly was a far better composer than he was a man. His personal behaviour could be quite poisonous, as I understand it, and he was exceedingly jealous of other people’s success.

Although I admire most British composers active throughout the twentieth century I am often disappointed by Walton. Clearly he was a composer of great talent and the list of his compositions whilst in his twenties and thirties contains a number of masterpieces. Belshazzar’s Feast is an exciting and dramatic oratorio, the First Symphony is a work of very considerable power and at times snarling menace. These are certainly personal favourites. After the war however there just seems to have been a long period of much more modest achievement with few works which resonate long in the memory. I try to like the Cello Concerto (1956) and the Second Symphony (1960) but there just seems to be something lacking. Walton’s move to take up residence on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples supposedly added a Mediterranean warmth to his music but to my ears it is more a Mediterranean languor, a sort of sleepy laziness. The enormous promise of the young composer seems to have dissipated. The great works which might have been expected from the older composer just don’t seem to have been written.

I remember as a young man reacting violently against what my friends and I thought was a national obsession with the music of Benjamin Britten and the neglect of composers like Walton. Now however I do have to admit that Britten was a greater composer and a composer of much more depth.

There aren’t many ways you can be sure to make yourself feel happy, but there’s one that always seem to work for me. I listen to a piece of music, only a minute and a half long, that was originally written for a music box and then orchestrated. Its unwinding tune is immediately memorable. It is so shimmeringly coloured, so precisely made, so assured in the delivery of its climax that it always leaves my mood effervescent. It is called Two Organa: 1 (a misleadingly academic title), and Oliver Knussen, who wrote it, is one of Britain’s greatest living artists. If you have not heard of him, that is probably due to the fact that he works in the occluded, occasionally airlocked world of contemporary classical music. This is a great shame. His music is instantly likeable, elegant, melancholy and exhilarating.

Knussen conducted his own first symphony at the Proms at the age of 15. As the son of the principal bassist of the LSO, he grew up listening to the inordinate variety of noises an orchestra can make. This education gave him an expertise in combining instruments to produce exactly the right colour and temperature of sound. He writes his jewel-like scores carefully, with great technical rigour, but there remains at the heart of his music an unanxious playfulness. His works are often set in the childhood worlds of toys and storybooks and in that familiar, phantasmal place between waking and sleeping. He is a conductor famed for his perfectionism and generosity, a rare combination, and he is a significant teacher of other composers. His opera Where the Wild Things Are, written in collaboration with Maurice Sendak, is an adaptation of the book and far superior to the recent film.

He is a very recognisable figure, tall and fat with a Victorian thicket of beard. I’ve never tried to tell him how much I love his music when I see him at concerts. I admire him too much. He has added beauty to the world.

(Source: Guardian)

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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