Howard Blake at 70

Article excerpt

Robert Matthew-Walker talks to one of the most successful composers of our time.

You'd think that a composer, celebrating his 70th birthday on 28 October with a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert entirely of his music and conducted by him, who's completed around 600 works, must have written music all his life. But, on meeting him, you may be surprised. The composer is Howard Blake: the first difficulty is in believing his age, for he doesn't look seventy - 20 years younger is nearer the mark. Nor has he been writing non-stop, for in the early 1970s he gave up for several years. After leaving the Royal Academy of Music, in the 1960s he wrote much music for television and films. He also became a session pianist at Abbey Road, but none of these were areas on which Howard Blake wished to concentrate.

As musical gifts often appear early on, I asked when did he realise he wanted to write music?

"I had a local piano teacher, and I'd make up tunes for my family at Christmas and birthdays. Nobody told me to do it, I just wrote tunes, and when I was about eleven I wrote a march and took it to my teacher who said, "Where did this come from?" I said, "I wrote it". At first he didn't believe me. But he realised I was serious, and took me through all of Kitson's harmony and counterpoint books. I loved it."

From then on, Blake knew he liked writing music more than anything, although his father 'Would not have entertained the idea that I could become a musician.' His mother was musical and played the piano and violin very well. "She encouraged me, and it was through her that I had started the piano." So, with new lessons, I started writing music, which I've always loved doing."

"And you've never stopped?"

"Well, I did stop. I worked hard at playing the piano, getting Grade VIII with distinction. The Hastings Festival the only Southern England festival offering a Royal Academy of Music scholarship - was the first time I entered any competition. I went in for the Bach Prize, the Beethoven Prize, the Chopin Prize and the Academy Scholarship Prize - and I won all four."

What happened to composition?

"Although I thought I might make a concert pianist, I still wrote music, but nobody encouraged me much. At the Academy I chose organ as a second subject, but during the interview the subject got round to harmony, and I was told to bring in some original work. I brought a four movement orchestral suite, and they said, "Shouldn't you be studying composition?" It had never occurred to me!"

I was interested to learn what genre most attracted Howard?

"An idea usually comes because somebody asks me to write something specific. At the moment, I'm discussing writing a string quartet - so I'm thinking about ideas for that work. I've written for string quartet but not a serious piece as such; if it comes off this will be my String Quartet No 1."

Doubtless the answer is whatever Howard Blake is working on at the time. …