Roger Steptoe, the composer and pianist, is a former student of Alan Bush at the Royal Academy of Music, 1974 - 1977.
by Roger Steptoe
I can never escape Alan Bush. His name remains with me in my biographies, his influence, although not necessarily stylistic, remains in my music.
When I left Reading University I wanted to study composition properly and not as part of another full-time course. My composition teacher at Reading, Andrew Byrne, recommended me to the Royal Academy of Music and in particular to Alan Bush. I remember my initial encounter with Alan, my interview with Noel Cox, the Academy's Warden at that time, and Alan's encouragement and willingness to accept me as one of his students. I remember my lessons in a small room on the top floor of the Academy. Each Wednesday I would come to London from my home in Winchester and with I remember his interest in all I wrote and in what interested me musically. A healthy recipe for any student.
I arrived at the RAM for one year and stayed three, thanks to two Leverhulme Awards and Alan's recommendation. During my time at the Academy I was fortunate to win all the internal composition prizes (including the Frederick Corder Prize, after Alan's own teacher) and in 1976 being appointed the first Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse School in Godalming supported by the Vaughan Williams Trust. Unlike many teachers of composition, Alan never impinged a style. Never did he say, "You must do this, you must write like this, you must use these harmonies and these textures". He adapted to each student's artistic and stylistic requirements, learning himself from individual experience. As a pianist keen to play with instrumentalists and singers, Alan commended me to Geoffrey Pratley with whom I learned piano accompaniment as second study. Alan also recommended me to Constance Shacklock, a professor of singing. I played the piano for the lessons she gave at the Academy, learning a lot of repertoire and much about singing and singers. I also appreciated lessons with Aubrey Bowman who used to stand-in for Alan on his visits away. Alan's diligence in writing to each student to explain the change in schedule was an art-form in itself. I remember concerts in the old Duke's Hall and platform rehearsals with Faith Deller, when I gave the first performance of Michael Head's Violin Sonata with violinist, Philip Gallaway, and played the piano in Alan's song cycle Life's Span with Suzanne Webbern. The words of Life's Span were by Nancy Bush and Cecil Day Lewis, the cycle was later repeated on Radio 3 with Laura Sarti and Alan himself as pianist. I remember receiving an SOS from BBC Radio 3 to accompany the tenor, Kenneth Bowen, in Alan's complex Voices of the Prophets when one distinguished pianist found the piano part too demanding for the rehearsal time available. I remember the student parties at Radlett, a little intimidating when we were invited to play our own compositions in front of other students. I remember being impressed by a pianist-composer, whose name I sadly forget who, at those famous parties, introduced me to the piano music of Gabriel Fauré, a composer Alan seemed to have infinite respect for. On reflection and many years later (I live in France and have become interested in as much French music as I can find), I can understand why looking again at the Twenty Four Preludes for piano I see an extraordinary likeness. I am sure if the two composers were together they would have many things to talk about.
I have to admit that when I first entered the Royal Academy of Music as one of Alan's composition students, I was not really conversant with his music. For me the subject of politics was and has never been of prime importance, particularly when allied to music. For me what matters is a strong technique, style and the development of a personal idiom. If this comes eventually through extra-musical sources, then these sources of inspiration should remain personal to the creator. It is not necessary for the listener to sympathise with these sources in order to appreciate good art whether it be poetry, painting or music. Nor should music created from these extra musical sources bask in the shadow of something more substantial and intellectual. Alan's music displays a strong personality that emerges in all his work, from the lengthy and substantial orchestral works and operas to the smaller intimate songs and piano pieces. Take away the background forces in many of these works, his music shines forth and the quality of invention, technique and musicality is unquestionable. It is unfortunate that his music is not more widely known. This has been discussed countless times but I believe it was something that troubled Alan immensely. Always modest, yet not always backward in self-praise, he was always the first to be conciliatory about his position in music. Perhaps he was the first real European British composer in the true sense of the word. Is one currency, one voice, one ideal his thematic message? I remember going to the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House to hear the first performance of his Suite of Six for string quartet, lovingly played by the Chilingirian Quartet for his seventy-fifth birthday. I also remember a stunning performance in the Wigmore Hall by Alan as the gifted pianist he was playing his Twenty Four Preludes for their first outing. I remember my lessons at that time when he always had a copy of his current work on top of the old upright piano at the Academy and produced at some time judicious point in the lesson initiated by innocent curiosity and evolving healthy discussion.
By comparison to other composers of his generation (Tippett and Walton included), Alan Bush has written a considerable amount of music. Ronald Stevenson's expertly edited eightieth birthday tribute, Time Remembered, (also the title of a chamber orchestra work by Alan and dedicated to his wife), cites ballets, incidental music and some six operas including operettas for children, brass and wind band music. Then there is a wealth of chamber and choral music which includes the famous Dialectic for string quartet, the Three Concert Studies for piano trio, the Sonatina for Viola and Piano, and The Winter Journey, a Christmas Cantata with words by Randall Swinger. The concertos and major orchestral works remain golden examples of their genre, as do the numerous piano works which date back to 1921 and even further to 1919 with a sadly destroyed Variations on an Original Theme, first performed by Warwick Braithwaite at the Royal Academy of Music in February of that year. His collection of songs show Alan as the sensitive master of word-setting, putting to music difficult texts by Nancy Bush and William Shakespeare, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Pablo Neruda amongst others. The setting of words was something that Alan was proud to impart, perhaps emanating from his own studies from John Ireland, that irrepressible songsmith and singers' companion. Alan emphasised word-setting as an important tool for a composer interested in vocal writing, and through his enthusiasm for song my own enthusiasm for setting words (my opera of 1979 and various cycles sung by some fabulous singers) has resulted in something for which I consider myself proud to have inherited.
It is with pleasure that I have begun to reread Alan Bush, an 80th birthday symposium edited by Ronald Stevenson full of persuasive articles. Equally, I am pleased to have rediscovered In my eighth decade and other essays with the inside cover containing numbers four and seventeen of the Twenty Four Preludes for piano. Alan's inimitable musical handwriting and his everlasting interest in modes is clearly shown. Above all it has been a privilege to have discovered the beginning of the Alan Bush Music Trust which for me was found through a well-placed advert in a recent Royal Academy of Music Newsletter below a timely article by Timothy Bowers, a contemporary of mine at the RAM and an admirable composer and musicologist in his own right.
Aubrey Bowman has written, "From the small germs and motives of the simple exercises given to composition students through to the great operas, all along one experiences the same sense of proportion, the same sense of inevitability, not in the abstract but as musical reality containing in its very being that inner propulsive force which is characteristic of all great artistic endeavour. Yes, it is his great talent, his genius, imbued in his musical imagery and in his feeling for structure, which gives full realisation to the fervour, the passion and the energy which his exhibits. Is it not true to say that his talent and his achievement has resulted in Alan Bush's being one of the monumentals of this century?". For me, this is no over statement. For me, Alan Bush remembered is a memory to be always treasured in my mind. Both he and Nancy, his wife, remain something I can never forget. Long live the Alan Bush Music Trust and through it his own memory richly remembered by all those who can remember him and those who can discover and rediscover his music for what it really is.
© 2001 Roger Steptoe