The Music of Christopher Ball
It has been my very great pleasure in recent months to discover an English composer whose music is new to me. I was given two new CDs at Christmas which I've hardly been able to stop playing. Both are by Christopher Ball. One is his 1st Cello Concerto, the other contains his Oboe Concerto, his Horn Concerto and some wonderful shorter orchestral and instrumental pieces. What both intrigues and saddens me is that I've never seen a review of the Cello Concerto, and the British reviews that I have seen in the major magazines of the Oboe and Horn Concerti have been mostly luke warm. American reviews have been much more enthusiastic, which raises an old question of how we treat our own in this country.
In recent musical history, so many English composers have been overlooked because they had the temerity to write music with recognisable themes and tunes, yet there is a substantial audience eager to hear this kind of music and buy the recordings put out by a few enterprising record companies. Tales of neglected composers in these British Isles are many and scandalous, perhaps a lingering legacy of the notorious William Clock years at the BBC, which denied us the accessibly harmonious and urged us towards music that is austere and cerebral.
I'm reminded of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose superb collection of Victorian art began when he purchased drawings by Bume-Jones for a few pounds each while art critics derided the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian art in general. Lloyd-Webber's experience was that whenever he went into the Tate Gallery [now Tate Britain] there were crowds gathered around pictures by Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais, while few were interested in those artists the critics extolled. Now his collection is seminal to the art of that period and rivals in riches many of the collections in our public galleries. My point here is that critics are often out of touch with what people would actually like to see and hear.
Christopher Ball is a self-taught composer [Elgar and Havergal Brian were largely self-taught] and it is, perhaps, not surprising that it's often the self-taught in most of the arts who have something different and refreshing to offer. Christopher Ball has spent many years conducting, playing clarinet in the Hand Orchestra under Barbirolli and a wide variety of woodwind instruments in his own early music group, The Praetorius Consort. He has been a teacher for many years at the Royal Academy of Music and won prestigious prizes and scholarships along the way.
Eight substantial concertos form the core of his output. Five of these are for wind instruments: horn, clarinet, oboe, flute and recorder, of which those for oboe, clarinet and recorder are accompanied by strings only, and the others are with a modest orchestra. His three remaining concertos are one for violin and two for cello. To date, all except the 2nd Cello Concerto are available on CD.
Not every composer in a given era feels the need to push at the boundaries laid down by his predecessors just for the sake of it, nor when there is much unexplored territory within more conventional forms [witness the sublime symphonies of Edmund Rubbra - also much neglected]. We live in an age where complication for its own sake seems almost obligatory, so when a composer chooses a more direct path within the realms of harmony and tunefulness, he is often dismissed as irrelevant or out of date, which is rather paradoxical.
If we were to adopt the approach of Robert Simpson during his days as a presenter at the BBC when he produced a programme entitled "The Innocent Ear", would we, I wonder, be so dismissive of ar,mible music? For example, suppose we are presented with a piece like George Butterworth's "Banks of Gicco Willow" without knowing who wrote it. Either we like it or we don't. Does it matter when it was written? If we then discover that, in fact, this tuneful piece was written only last week, does that make it less valid or less appealing? It raises the question of what value judgements we place, quite unreasonably, on modem day composers because we have presumptions about what they 'should' be writing. Of course, there must be room for all styles and tastes but when we hear composers whose directness of utterance is both elegant and uncomplicated, we frequently respond with a sense of relief and delight. There is currently a significant upsurge of interest in what we rather glibly call `light music'. Similarly, the rather elitist world of classical music has finally begun to acknowledge and accept the art of the film composer, whose talents are singular and precise, and who usually employs the form of 'theme and variations' [a perfectly legitimate form in symphonic music] with a memorable time at the centre.
Tunes abound in Christopher Ball's works, which to my ears are quintessentially English, but instead of being 'light music', his is accessible music of breadth and substance, which is precisely the composer's aim. As well as sublime and tender slow movements, there are folk-like elements in the faster sections, most of which are tunes created by the composer, though very occasionally, like Vaughan Williams, an original folk tune might be employed.
Perhaps it is Ball's interest in the world of early music that informs some fundamental quality in his compositions, which seem to turn time back on itself so that he stands at the centre of all that defines 'Englishness' in music. As a result, even composers who preceded him can seem like branches reaching out from this central seed.
In the Horn Concerto, there is no obligation to explore the outer limits of the solo instrument to uncomfortable extremes but rather to revel in its mellow warmth. It is unique among horn concertos, a bucolic utterance where rich melody abounds and we discover the magnificent nobility of this rather neglected instrument. The Flute Concerto displays an elegant and subtle orchestration, illuminating not just the soloist but all the other woodwinds that interact with it along the way, while the string writing is of the utmost tenderness.
The 1st Cello Concerto begins with a broad, noble theme lucidly scored in every section of the orchestra. Passages of haunting and magical beauty seem to conjure the same sense of mysticism as the paintings of Samuel Palmer. Occasionally the music strays into the world of Vaughan Williams but it never lows its own distinctive voice as it entices the listener into its rich world of melody and harmony.
"The Piper of Dreams" is unique among Recorder Concertos because it is a 'full length' piece for this neglected instrument lasting around 27 minutes. The three movements explore all the colours and subtleties of the sopranino, soprano and alto recorders against the most elegant string writing. Likewise, the Oboe Concerto is a beautifully warm and lyrical work full of gorgeous tunes and harmonies which certainly ranks alongside the one produced by Vaughan Williams.
As well as the eight concertos, there are several shorter pieces. For orchestra there are "In the Yorkshire Dales", "On a Beautiful Day", "A Summer Day", "Celtic Moods" and "Celtic Twilight". These are miniatures that conjure scenes every bit as vivid as those created by Vaughan Williams, Moeran or Delius. In addition, there are Four Dances for Wind Trio, the very wittily scored "Scenes from a Comedy" for Wind Quintet, and pieces for cello and piano. "Invocations of Pan" consists of three magical movements for solo flute that will surely appeal to anyone who admires the subtleties of Debussy's "Syrinx". It is tedious and pointless to try to describe each work in words. They can only be truly appreciated by listening to the music, which I urge you to do.
We have a tendency in our culture to categorise everything. This being the case, in my view, Christopher Ball rightly ranks alongside Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Gerald Finzi, Edmund Rubbra and George Lloyd, all of whom seem to me to be his musical soul-mates. Christopher Ball offers us many beautiful and memorable tunes in different guises, always imaginatively and skilfully orchestrated, one moment haunting and pensive, the next exuberant and joyous. It is music of inspired and innate beauty which deserves to be more widely known and performed and is much needed in our age of harsh cynicism.
Discography: All the recordings of Christopher Ball's music are performed by hand-picked soloists and the excellent Emerald Orchestra, conducted by the composer, with a sound quality as good as any major recording company.
Horn Concerto, Oboe Concerto & other orchestral pieces: Musical Concepts MC 143 Cello Concerto No.1 & other cello and piano pieces: Musical Concepts MC 142 Violin Concerto, "Celtic Twilight" & other pieces: Omnibus Classics CC 5003 Flute Concerto, Clarinet Concerto & other pieces: Quantum QM 7040 Recorder Concerto, Oboe Concerto & other pieces: Dinmore Records DRD 104 All titles are available from Dinmore Records Ltd: www.dinmore-records.co.uk
Christopher Ball has had no fewer than six musical careers, successively as clarinettist, orchestral conductor, recorder player, publisher, arranger and composer, as well as becoming a distinguished and award-winning photographer. He started composing in his teens (there were early pieces for the piano and the clarinet), but like many other composers of his generation he was disillusioned by the William Glock ethos, and felt keenly that the type of modern music that he personally enjoyed was not welcome in the rarefied avant-garde musical climate of the '60s and 70s. It is only in the last fifteen years or so that his flair for composition has blossomed, and he has produced a clutch of works for the recorder that are much loved and have justifiably taken their place in the instrument's repertoire (as well as other chamber and orchestral music). The composer himself explains this gap in his composing activities by pointing out that he was totally involved in the serious "classical" side of music-making and it was only when he realised that other composers had been continuing to write light classical music in a traditional style, aimed at a much wider audience, that the urge to create returned.
Christopher Ball was born in 1936 and his birthday is shared, coincidentally, with another personality of the recorder world: Michala Petri. His childhood was spent in Leeds, both his parents being lovers of classical music: his father began his working life trained as a piano tuner and his mother had reached a high technical standard as an amateur pianist. Chris used to play the piano by ear and, on coming home from school, would try to pick out tunes and songs he had been taught in music lessons. This led to his mother sending him for piano lessons. Later, having become intoxicated by the beautiful sound of the clarinet in George Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow (which he heard on the BBC radio programme Children's Hour as the introductory music to a play), he gave his parents no peace until they bought him a clarinet. As his skill on this instrument soon far overtook his ability on the piano, he began lessons with Michael Saxton, who played with the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra and had studied at the Royal College of Music with the famous Frederick Thurston. Chris still feels immense gratitude to him for his meticulous early training, and particularly for his concentration on tone quality, breath control and lip development, by the practice of playing long notes. He became fanatical about the clarinet and through his school attended the regular weekly concerts of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra at Leeds Town Hall, where he would sit on the platform seats behind the orchestra in that wonderful building, gaining valuable insights into the technique of the conductor, the quality and idiosyncrasies of the various orchestral instruments and the rapport between conductor and players.
There was a good orchestra at Roundhay School (where Chris played first clarinet) alongside future eminent professionals such as the violinists Barry Wilde (who led the orchestra) and Duncan Druce (subsequently to become a violinist in The Fires of London). The music master at the school, who also had a potent influence on the young Christopher Ball, was Jack Longstaff, a skilled arranger for the school orchestra who was later to visit Manchester to see Chris conducting the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra.
At the age of sixteen Chris left school to study the clarinet under Norman MacDonald (first clarinet in the BBC Northern Orchestra), with piano as second study, at the Royal Manchester College of Music. His scholarship was for four years and during that time he was awarded the Hiles Gold Medal for Orchestral Playing and gained the Performers Diploma with Distinction, the examining panel being headed by Sir John Barbirolli; this was despite being plagued by mouth ulcers from about the age of eleven (which ultimately forced him to give up playing the clarinet). His contemporaries at the RMCM included Harrison Birtwistle (a fellow clarinet student), Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, David Ellis (later Head of Music for BBC North), the legendary pianist John Ogdon and Rodney Friend (who later became leader of the New York Phil and the BBC Symphony Orchestra as well as a concert soloist). He particularly remembers playing at the Manchester Contemporary Music Society (a joint venture of the RMCM and Humphrey Procter-Gregg's University music department), and highlights of those concerts for him were performances of the Clarinet Sonata by Hindemith and the Sonatinas by Honegger and Malcolm Arnold (whose own popular and entertaining music has been a potent influence on Chris's own works). Whilst at the College he gave several performances of both the Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets, one of which was heard (and bravoed) by Sir John Barbirolli; this led to an invitation to perform with the Halle Orchestra, which he did on a freelance basis throughout the rest of his time at the College and beyond.
Eventually Chris moved to London in order to take up a scholarship to study with Jack Brymer at the Royal Academy of Music, but after a year Brymer resigned due to pressure of work; this happily coincided with the return from America of the equally distinguished Reginald Kell, who was invited by the Academy to take up the clarinet professorship. Later Kell was followed by Gervase de Peyer, so Chris received lessons from the three leading clarinettists of the time. During his three years at the Academy Chris also started to study conducting under Maurice Miles, the erstwhile conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, and later he won a Gulbenkian Scholarship for the Advanced Conducting Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Here he won the Ricordi Conducting Prize in his first year and took part in masterclasses with Pierre Monteux, Constantin Silvestri, Sir Charles Mackerras, Norman del Mar and (on TV) with Sir George Solti.
Christopher Ball taking part in a BBC TV Masterclass for conductors with Sir George Solti.
Meanwhile, back in Manchester, the BBC was starting up its apprentice conductor scheme. Chris was appointed to the post of apprentice conductor with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1964, conducting frequent concerts and broadcasts. Shortly afterwards, Meredith Davies was responsible for Chris's appointment for one season as Assistant Conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. This was a very happy period in his life, conducting standard symphonic repertoire in a scenic and delightful city. On his return to the UK, he was immediately appointed as one of the conductors of the Royal Ballet, conducting seasons on tour both in this country and abroad as well as seasons at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This was a post he found very congenial, as ballet had always been one of his interests and he was very familiar with the repertoire. However, the Royal Ballet's financial crisis in 1970 resulted in the touring company being reduced to a third of its previous size and, in addition to the loss of many dancers, economies had to be made in the musical staff, including conductors. In this way his time as a ballet conductor came to an end.
BALLETS CONDUCTED BY CHRISTOPHER BALL FOR THE ROYAL BALLET
TCHAIKOVSKY: SWAN LAKE, SLEEPING BEAUTY
MESSAGER: THE TWO PIGEONS
HEROLD / LANCHBERY: LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE
ROSSINI: LA BOUTIQUE FANTASQUE
MENDELSSOHN: THE DREAM [MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM]
SHOSTAKOVICH: CONCERTO [2nd PIANO CONCERTO]
STRAVINSKY: DANSES CONCERTANTES
GAVIN GORDON: THE RAKE'S PROGRESS
MEYERBEER: LES PATINEURS
RICHARD STRAUSS: KNIGHT ERRANT [LE BOURGEOIS GENTIL HOMME]
BEETHOVEN: THE CREATURES OF PROMETHEUS
MALCOLM ARNOLD: SOLITAIRE
MOMPOU: THE HOUSE OF BIRDS
LECOCQ: MAM'ZELLE ANGOT
This was the era of the early music revival and both Musica Reservata (under John Sothcott and John Beckett) and the Early Music Consort (under David Munrow) were starting to make their names and attracting new and enthusiastic audiences. The striking and unfamiliar repertoire and colourful instrumentation appealed greatly to Chris, who decided to form his own early music group and became almost a resident customer at Richard Wood's Early Music Shop in Bradford. Consequently he spurned two invitations to return to ballet conducting and spent some considerable winnings from commercial competitions on buying crumhorns, shawms, rauschpfeifen, rackets, recorders and the like. In common with many early musicians of the time (including David Munrow) he was entirely self-taught on the recorder, but his virtuosity and breath control stood him in good stead, and he founded the Praetorius Consort with a group of like-minded professionals including the oboist and recorder player Paul Arden-Taylor. In the early days the Consort gave some six London concerts a year and toured both in the UK and abroad. The group had a heyday of some ten years until about 1982 when the sheer volume of work required for programme planning, the logistics, changing fashions in early music and the increasing number of other early music groups made him turn to more rewarding fields. However, the colourful rendition of Praetorius dance tunes and other popular items from the Praetorius Consort's repertoire has led to the reissue to great acclaim of these classic recordings on CD on a worldwide basis.
Six members of the Praetorius Consort at the Archbishop's Palace in Chartres, in October 1973.
Standing: Paul Taylor (wind instruments), Christopher Ball (wind instruments), Nel Romano (harpsichord and percussion), Margret Philpot (alto). Seated: Peter Vel (bass viol) and Nigel North (lute and viols).
Chris's renewed interest in arrangement and original composition was probably rekindled by the many arrangements that he had to make (and write out by hand!) for the recitals of the Praetorius Consort, but the determining factor was the remarkable success of King Henry's Consort. This record of "renaissance pop" was the brainchild of the producer Philip Love of Eden Studios. Chris's collaborator in this project was the lutenist Michael Lewin who arranged five genuine tracks of Renaissance music whilst Chris himself composed seven more in Renaissance style. This recording was taken up by Terry Wogan, Gloria Hunniford, Jimmy Young and other radio producers and was on the airwaves two or three times a day for several months. Distribution problems however ultimately conspired against the record climbing to the top of the charts.
As a result of hearing King Henry's Consort, a producer for BBC Radio 2 contacted Chris with the request that he should prepare arrangements for the BBC Midland Radio Orchestra, and during the following decade Chris regularly came into the Birmingham studios to conduct (and often play in) his own arrangements and original light orchestral compositions, frequently featuring recorders and early instruments with the BBC orchestra. Other recorder players involved in the sessions were Paul Arden-Taylor, Mike Brain, Michael Copley (of the Cambridge Buskers) and Evelyn Nallen. Sadly, the BBC had a policy at the time not to credit arrangers on air or in the Radio Times, but the many pieces that resulted were broadcast frequently over a period of some ten years. Recordings do survive and it is to be hoped that one day these can be issued commercially as a testament to Chris's skills and imagination as an arranger and orchestrator.
Louise Phillips has won the Young Musician of the Year Prize after playing my Recorder Concerto
Serious original composition began in earnest with the substantial Recorder Concerto, written in 1995 (see below), and following the success of this Chris wrote as a companion piece an Oboe Concerto for the skills of Paul Arden-Taylor, who was equally adept on the recorder, and who is the soloist in both concertos on the Pavane label CD. The Oboe Concerto does in fact make use of a setting of John Masefield's "Sea Fever" that Chris composed at the age of eleven. As well as original works for the recorder (all published by Peacock Press and described below), and numerous recorder arrangements, other compositions of the last decade include two works for wind trio (5 Bagatelles and 4 Dances), a wind quintet (Scenes from a Comedy), A Summer Day, Adderbury in Spring, The Coming of Summer, Autumn Landscape, Christmas at the Rookery and Celtic Moods - all for orchestra. Chris has never dated his manuscripts, so he now cannot sure when the various pieces were written!
Some Published Photographs by Christopher Ball
An abiding interest has been photography - Chris won the Zenith Photographer of the Year competition in 1971, with a spectacular picture of a snarling tiger, which was published in photographic magazines worldwide, and which graces this article. Other artwork has appeared on occasions in this magazine. Asked about his love of the recorder, Chris says that this began in his schooldays, although there were no lessons in recorder playing at his school. He played, self-taught, in the incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest and Twelfth Night in school productions and although his chief instrument was the clarinet, his love of the recorder lingered on and eventually led to the founding of the London Baroque Trio which flourished alongside the Praetorius Consort in the 70s and '80s. He played on many occasions in this group using an original Bressan treble recorder of about 1710 which was kindly loaned to him for ten years by Michael Uridge, after he had heard Chris's debut with the Trio at the Wigmore Hall, in which Chris had played a copy of the same instrument by Hans Coolsma. A CD is available which includes this rare, original and beautiful instrument and can be obtained from Recorder MusicMail and the London and Bradford branches of the Early Music Shop. Another CD also available features Chris as a recorder player, early and modern wind instrumentalist, arranger and composer with the group Joyful Noyse performing popular tunes from medieval times to the present day, originally commissioned by the BBC for this group to broadcast.
As the ever-youthful Chris now approaches the age of seventy (it does not seem possible!) he can look back on a career full of accomplishments, with a rich harvest of published compositions, arrangements and recordings, which will continue to give pleasure to future generations as well as his own contemporaries.
By John Turner - The Recorder Magazine Summer 2005
Press Reviews for Christopher Ball