Personal: on Art and my father

Every now and then I write a personal blog post. All are welcome to read it, but it will contain nothing which will aid the attainment of a certain grade in any upcoming examinations. It is simply a chance for me to write about something which needs to be written.

This is such a post.

Its genesis is perhaps odd – reading 2 books recently: 1 Elisabeth Wilson’s biography of Shostakovitch and 2 The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. An odd mixture, but two books that in very different ways explore the pain of becoming an artist.

The third influence is the death of my Father during the lockdown, back in March.

I wrote once, long ago, that I was becoming my father in the classroom – he was a great teacher and also a great musician. (more later).

I suppose my point here is that for many students whom we teach, the need to speak, to sing, to poetise, to paint, to dance, to… is incredibly powerful. I am not a wholehearted advocate of the Ken Robinson approach to Arts in schools as presented in his famous TED talk, but I do bemoan the struggle to maintain the value of the Arts in the modern world, both in and beyond school – we seem to crave outcome over process and everyone seems to chase for a short cut to success in so many ways.

Acevedo’s book is justly a prize winner – it is a great exploration of teenage coming of age – the clash of the old and the new and the longing to burst into emotional fruition in verse. Mercifully, Acevedo avoids the easy and we begin to inhabit the mind of a young girl who holds so much of the glorious music of language inside her head, along with all the other torments of teenage life.

Many have written on the text, and I do not feel ready to offer more – that is not the purpose of this piece, which is unashamedly personal.

Reading of Shostakovitch, I came across something that I had never really considered: he composed vertically in full score. Vertically. Let that sink in.

That means that he wrote each bar at a time across the whole orchestra. That means he heard the entire orchestra in his head and could control that thought in such a way that he broke down any melodic idea into tiny compartments of music, hearing and notating everything 1 bar at a time, even if the whole work lasted over an hour.

And that is the link to my Dad. Bob Peel (RHDP) taught at Marlborough College for over 30 years. He taught music – he was a horn player – and ran the college wind band and jazz bands. He conducted orchestras, sang in choirs and gave an opportunity for many to engage in high quality music making, the effect of which has lasted them all their lives. My mother received letters from all over the world when his death was reported. Many were from men and women in their 60s recalling their time under his tutelage as a golden era in their lives. Humbling in the extreme.

My link to Shostakovitch and the Acevedo came when I was thumbing through the piles of manuscript in the house. I recall Dad spending every school holiday hunched over a desk in our front room, writing music. He did not compose, he arranged. This may be seen as a lesser skill -after all, he is not generating the original ideas himself – but what he was doing was hearing an orchestral score in his head and somehow translating that score into a new medium – one with no strings, since he arranged for Wind Band. All year round.

He worked from a score and used no piano or other assistance – he heard it in his head and the sound begged to be released. He also wrote vertically. His inner music was such that he not only fragmented the melodic lines to a bar at a time, but he also could hear the 3rd clarinet off beat quavers or the chord sequences generated by moving parts in the euphonium or 3rd Horn part. And his scores are works of art.

The clue is the hand written manuscript – the bar lines identically spaced, regardless of the sheer quantity of material held within them. I have no idea how it is possible to do this.

However in the same way that a poet holds language within or a sculptor can see the eventual masterpiece hidden within a block of wood and piece of stone, he could hear the whole in his head, and his manuscripts are nearly flawless. He was no magician, he was a music teacher, and a damn good one too.

I used the three pages above, because this was his last piece of major arrangement – Shostakovitch’s music from the Gadfly – the trombone solo was arranged for me at the age of 18. Next time you hear this well known piece on Classic FM in the orchestral version with violin solo, think of this won’t you?

If you have read this far, thank you. This was always a rather personal post and one which filled a specific need for me at this time.

I leave you with one of those pieces of music which makes the world stop – my Dad’s favourite composer – Mahler – and a glorious voice – Kathleen Ferrier :

Thank you for reading.