by Murray McLachlan
New York Nights (EVC Music, 2019), a piano snappy, brilliant collection of jazz piano pieces depicting the excitement and colour of the “Big Apple” where composer Philip Martin studied, lived, and performed in the 1980s and ’90s. This exclusive conversation delves into the composer’s upbringing, inspiration and love of American music.
I first heard Philip Martin’s dazzling pianism live on television when he performed Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini’ at the BBC Proms with characteristic aplomb and panache. This was back in the 1980s, but already he was an internationally respected figure with a substantial number of original compositions in his oeuvre- many of which were taken up by colleagues and students alike for performance and study.
Especially notable in this respect is that concentrated celebration of colour and energy ‘The Rainbow comes and goes.’ This was commissioned as a set piece for the Dublin International Piano Competition and was also used (in part) on the grade 8 ABRSM syllabus at one stage too. Certainly, its bravura flourishes, octatonic cascades and sound vistas make rewarding music making, for both audiences and listeners alike.
It almost beggars belief that Philip (Dublin born in 1947) has been able to do so much in his long and distinguished career. In addition to writing four piano concertos and many other compositions (including substantial orchestral works) his discography includes issues on RCA Red Seal, Chandos, SOMM and Hyperion, for whom he recorded the complete solo piano music on Hyperion of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). On top of all of that creativity, Philip’s outstanding work as a mentor and pedagogue have seen generation after generation of students pass through his caring, safe hands. Philip was awarded a Professorship by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (part of Birmingham City University), having served for over thirty years as an esteemed, inspirational teacher there. As a composer, Philip has an enormous range of expression, characterisation, and approach. Recently it was a great pleasure to play through and teach movements from his seven movement, jazzy and advanced level suite New York Nights.
There is certainly no shortage of thrills and excitement in this wonderfully immediate work! Beginning with a thrilling jazz scherzo that is constantly wrong-footing the listener (and player!) with energised cross accents and changing time signatures, this demands an effective fast wrist staccato technique as well as quick wits: the changes of colours and textures are deliciously mercurial. This could be an ideal choice for a post grade 8 student looking for an energised but brief and rewarding challenge. Wistful nostalgia and poetic stillness characterise ‘Night Music for Julia’ where the exquisite chromaticism’s move inevitably over beautifully simple harmonies. There is nothing to prevent a post Grade 6 student from enjoying this beautiful piece.
And the novelty in ‘Alley Stomp Blues’ of tapping on the lid of the piano (in swing rhythm!) should not cause anxiety for players approaching grade 8 either. However, this memorable forty-eight bar miniature does require rhythmic character, and the player would be well-advised to practise clapping and tapping the rhythms on their own away from the instrument before learning the piece at the keyboard itself.
Mischievous filigree is the order of the day in the subtle challenges of ‘Spirit of Liberty Blues’ where the player needs discreet agility for success. Another post grade 8 number of great charm. Perhaps ‘Lozano Blues’ is the easiest piece in the collection, being possibly for Grade 5 players who are comfortable with double notes reaching out in sixths and sevenths. The relaxed flexibility and rich lusciousness of the writing is especially noteworthy here. ‘O’Keeffe Blues’ hovers around the Grade 6-7 mark and makes effective use of sequences featuring perfect fifths. An excellent number not only for performance but also for developing analytical awareness through patterns in the teaching studio.
Finally, a showstopper of showstoppers with thrilling abandon in ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie.’ What a terrific piece! Great for developing technique as well as for having energised fun. Strongly recommended for everyone. Though I have known Philip for many years, working with him particularly on the Chetham’s summer school on a number of occasions, it was wonderful to catch up with him in interview recently and ask him about his formative years and development as a musician.
MM: When and how did you get started writing music?
PM: Both my parents were keen amateur musicians and one of my earliest musical memories is hearing them playing Massenet’s Meditation for violin and piano. My father was somewhat hampered by a broken fifth finger on his right hand which he received playing cricket, but this never stopped him playing through a selection of the well-known opera favourites which he loved. My mother was a student at the Leinster school of music, but her rather naughty nature meant she was always being thrown out of the school orchestra for giggling! My father was also a very talented artist and studied at the Metropolitan school of art. He composed some quite attractive small piano pieces and had some correspondence with Eric Coates in the 1930’s
I showed promise at an early age and was brought to the Patricia Read school of music in Dublin where I was fortunate to start my piano studies with Mabel Swainson. She was about 20 years old at this time and I think, for me, aged 4, it was love at first sight! Throughout my whole musical life, she remained a close friend and inspiration. She seemed to know instinctively how best to guide me, never pushing but always expecting the best one could give.
By the age of ten, I started to improvise and here my father was a constant joy and support, getting me to repeat things so that he could write down in his beautiful, artistic hand what I had just played. I was so fortunate. Although, as time went on, I found it was necessary to go my own way and, of course, this was just as well. My improvising obviously needed some structure so it was decided that I should study theory, harmony, and counterpoint at the Municipal school of music in Dublin. This brought me into contact with other budding young musicians, many of whom have remained my friends to this day.
MM: What encouragement/guidance did you get from childhood onwards as a composer? What are the strongest influences on your music?
PM: Dublin is a very musical city with a tradition of fine piano playing and the local competitive Festival (Feis Ceoil) had a very good and quite demanding reputation. I entered this regularly from age 12 where I encountered repertoire I loved and used throughout my playing career. Composers like Mendelssohn, Brahms and then Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten were favourites at this time.
I gained a high distinction in the Grade 8 Associated Board examination, and this qualified me to enter for one of the AB Scholarships to the Royal Colleges in London. Having been fortunate enough to win the piano scholarship to The Royal Academy in London, I studied with Franz Reizenstein, a fine pianist-composer and teacher. He was the perfect choice for me at this stage. I studied piano with him but attended Composition lessons with him outside the Academy as he did not teach composition there. It was by this time that my love and interest in American music was developing and whilst at the Academy I met Aaron Copland, who, along with Samuel Barber were my particular heroes.
During this time at the RAM, in the mid-sixties, it became painfully obvious to me that the musical world was in a major transition and the big names at this time were Boulez and Stockhausen and their acolytes. Although this type of music interested me somewhat, especially Barraqué’s Piano sonata, I found it was not the sort of music that I wished to write myself as my teacher at the time (Franz Reizenstein) had been a pupil of Hindemith and Vaughan Williams! No, I was quite happy writing melody, rhythm and harmony and seeing how far I could bring those elements to my music.
I left the Academy having been awarded my recital diploma, a Christie-Moore Scholarship, and the MacFarren Gold Medal. I realised on leaving college that the chance of making a living as a composer alone was slim. So, I continued concentrating on my piano performing career. I made my London debut in 1970 in the Wigmore Hall and followed this with regular London appearances.
In one of these recitals, I played Sir Lennox Berkeley’s piano sonata along with the Elliott Carter Sonata for the Park Lane Group. I then had some composition sessions with Sir Lennox who was particularly complimentary about my songs. In 1973, I entered the BBC piano competition, and I was awarded a special prize for my performance of Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Scena’. I wrote to Richard and eventually became very friendly with him. I played ‘Scena’ in New York some years later prior to attending a Summer school with him in Dartington. Although he was never technically my teacher, I found him a great influence and performed his magnificent work ‘Noctuary’ for the BBC and in recital – some beautiful piano writing, imaginative and virtuosic – and a joy to play.
MM: Your oeuvre embraces a most impressive contrasting range. Do you consciously write for specific levels or needs, or do you find that inspiration takes you in particular directions?
PM: Besides piano music and songs I have written something for almost every instrument and in combination, as well as large choral works. I love to work to commission, for example writing music for major International competitions. I also embrace writing for young players and the non-professional. I particularly enjoy the challenge of making something new and exciting whether it is harmonic or rhythmical and to see young people getting joy and pleasure from their music-making. One other major inspiration for me is art in all its forms whether this is painting, architecture etc and I hold a degree in Art History from the OU. Also, I love to travel, meeting different people, visiting different countries, all of which can spark inspiration.
MM: What are the challenges and necessary skills required when writing for children?
PM: In relatively recent years I have found the challenge of writing for young players really enjoyable, and I firmly believe it is as hard, if not more difficult to write a good grade 1 piece than it is a sonata or symphonic tone poem. My own writing for youngsters was enhanced when I had my own children who both turned out to be excellent musicians. The challenges of writing for young players are several depending on their level of ability. The main thing I feel is to make the music approachable.
I quite often use the pictorial approach again so that the player, child, or adult, can use their imagination. This can be helpful for the teacher also. A good title, a memorable melody, a snappy rhythm – these are things that appeal to most youngsters and all players regardless of ability. Different rhythms also are good, different colours, accents, dynamics etc and always a good melody-nothing fails good melodic content!! …and maybe a story around the title. Also, children are quick to appreciate these elements. Appeal to their intelligence and don’t play down to them.
As a teacher as well as composer I have found that one way to interest young players is to introduce them to something snappy and attractive, rather than insisting they plough through a Beethoven Sonata much against the grain. Of course, both are equally valid, and should be part of their musical development, but this is not always the way forward for every student. A healthy mix is ideal as long as whatever music they want to play or are attracted to be of good quality.
MM: Tell us about ‘The Rainbow Comes and Goes’, the commission from the Dublin IPC and the challenges as well as the reactions of writing then hearing the piece in performance?
PM: This was written for the first GPA international competition, as it was called then in Dublin in 1987. The commission was from my lifelong friend John O’Conor, who runs the competition, and it was the first piece he commissioned for it. Besides ‘The rainbow comes and goes’ I also fulfilled two other commissions for him, all of which were influenced by Wordsworth’s long poem ‘Intimations of Immortality.’ These pieces are ‘Ye that pipe and Ye that play’, and, ‘In a Thousand Valleys Far and Wide’. Doing this is something of a delicate mechanism as piano competitors do not want or need to spend an inordinate amount of time having to learn a 5-minute piece they might never play again. Many of us have been in a similar situation, and personally some experiences of this have been quite painful!!
MM: Tell us about each of your piano concertos?
PM: The first work I wrote for piano and orchestra I completed in 1977 and it received its first performance the same year with myself as soloist. Then, in 1980, I was commissioned to write a special work to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Dublin society. This was ‘Through Streets Broad and Narrow’ for piano, strings, and trumpet. I wrote the first of my four piano concerti in 1986, a three-movement work. I played this in Dublin with the RTE symphony, as it was then (now the National Symphony). It was conducted by Albert Rosen, who always took a particular interest in my music. The 2nd concerto followed in 1991 and this was inspired by and written to celebrate the City of Dublin, European City of Culture. The 3rd concerto is the longest of the four and took its inspiration from the ‘Nine orders of Angels’. In nine short movements, it starts in the ‘heavens’ so to speak and works its way to earth with a central movement calling for great virtuosity from both soloist and orchestra. I gave the first performance of this work with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra in 2006. The 4th Concerto, is a Youth Concerto and received its first performance in Manchester with an excellent young pianist from Chethams school of Music with Murray McLachlan providing the orchestral part.
MM: Tell us about the mood and any anecdotes about the creation of each movement of the New York Nights suite?
PM: I have always found great inspiration from being in New York. The suite New York Nights for piano solo consists of seven pieces written between 2002 and 2018. The first two pieces from 2002 are called ‘Spirit of Liberty Blues’ and ‘Lozano Blues’. It’s hard to believe these two were written around the same time. ‘Spirit of Liberty’ is so free and breezy, and the ‘Lozano Blues’, by comparison, reflects my grief at the loss of a dear friend who died too young and in childbirth. ‘Night Music for Julia’, started as a solo piece and became the last movement of the third piano concerto both of which are dedicated to my wife, Julia. ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ conjures up the loud, exciting, Broadway in New York where I lived in the 1980s. ‘O’Keeffe Blues’ is a tribute to one of my favourite painters, Georgia O’Keeffe who gave me the honour of listening to my music in her New Mexico home. Finally, the Alley Stomp is just what it says – a foot tapping stomp.
MM: Tell us about your love of playing, performing, and teaching American Music?
PM: The colourful and exotic music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk might not be known to many, but I have spent much of my career playing and recording all his piano music. Recorded in a complete set of Eight CDs for Hyperion records over a period of 15 years or so. I already knew about him and played some of his music before visiting the US, but while I was there, I spent time investigating his original scores in the New York Public Library and elsewhere.
In 1981 I was awarded the UK/US Bicentennial Arts Fellowship to the United States to study American music in more depth and to meet American Composers. Whilst there I met William Schuman whose lovely Piano Concerto I enjoyed playing in Dublin and for the BBC. At this time, I had correspondence with Samuel Barber and performed his Piano Concerto with three different BBC orchestras. I had the good fortune of playing two Rachmaninoff concerti in Symphony Hall, Boston and was invited as composer, pianist and teacher to two major summer schools at Aspen and Tanglewood. I lived in New York for some time and besides the East Coast I found some more fascinating influences on the West Coast where composers embraced a very different, more exotic, sound world.
Meanwhile, there was also a whole European world of music for me to embrace, study and explore. Studying in London with the Hungarian pianist and composer, Louis Kentner gave me insights into the music of Liszt and Chopin, and being in the presence of one of the last of the great pianists of the 20th Century was a particular inspiration.
MM: How crucial is your playing experience and development in your development as a composer? Have you ever felt a conflict (time pressure etc.) between being a top-flight performer as well as a premier composer?
PM: My performing, composing, and teaching career pathways have always dovetailed in very well together, and as long as I am doing one or the other, I am happy. There has never been a conflict between these as far as my passion for each genre is concerned, but occasionally, there have been time pressures when I’ve had a large commission with a deadline taking some months to complete, and there were also concerts to prepare for at the same time, not to mention my teaching commitments as well. After all, in the 19th Century it was not unusual for musicians to do more than one thing. Most pianists composed, some better than others, but it became part and parcel of what they were as musicians. I feel I am fortunate that one element feeds on the other and that it is a very healthy combination.
MM: What plans and projects do you have for the future?
PM: Along with preparing concerts for the forthcoming season, I am presently involved in writing a second symphony. This is inspired by another Fra Angelico painting, The San Domenico Predella, which hangs in London’s National Gallery.
About Philip Martin
Acclaimed Dublin-born pianist and composer Philip Martin has a unique, sought-after reputation which has made him a distinguished International artist. He has played with most of the major London orchestras and has given hundreds of broadcasts for RTE and the BBC and abroad, for RIA (Italian radio), SFB (Berlin) and for the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), amongst many others.
He made his Paris debut playing the Samuel Barber piano concerto which he also premiered in Dublin, Ireland. This confirmed his passion and interest in American music and resulted in a UK-US Bi-Centennial Arts Fellowship to the United States. Following this, he made his New York debut as part of the Britain Salutes New York Festival. Besides Festivals in England, he has performed as pianist and composer in the Tanglewood and Aspen summer schools in the USA and has held several residencies there in various Universities, such as Syracuse, (NY) Bucknell (PA) and De Paul (Chicago) as well as McGill university in Montreal, Canada. At home, he made his BBC Prom debut in the Royal Albert Hall playing Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for the left-hand with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and returned to play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini two years later.
He has recorded several highly-praised CDs for Hyperion records including a much-lauded boxed-set of the complete piano music of the colourful 19th century pianist-composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He has recently completed two CDs of the piano solo works of Billy Mayerl, and a special CD of his own favourite piano works for Somm records.
Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, London. He is a member of Aosdana, the state sponsored academy of Irish creative artists and in 2012 he was honoured with a Professorship from Birmingham City University in recognition of his creative work. Martin combines a busy solo-performing career with that of a composer and teacher. It is these three elements that make him such a force in musical life today.
About Murray McLachlan
Murray McLachlan has made over 40 commercial recordings and performed on all five continents to critical acclaim. His three books on piano technique were published by Faber Music and have been acclaimed internationally. He is a distinguished teacher and works on the faculty at RNCM as Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and well known for his long-standing column in International Piano Magazine. As founder and artistic director of the world famous Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists oversees an event which has been running for over 20 years as the largest summer school in Europe devoted exclusively to the piano.