Dr Timothy Bowers' motivation for writing this article was to express his "profound appreciation for Alan Bush as a teacher of composition and to publicise his huge contribution in that field".
by Timothy Bowers, September 1999
Alan Bush's teaching career at the Royal Academy of Music spanned fifty-three years from 1925-1978 and throughout this time he also taught privately. His tenure at the RAM was interrupted by his studies in Berlin (1929-31) and war service (1941-45). At first Alan taught 20-minute harmony lessons but his growing reputation as a composer led the Academy to offer him some of their most promising composers and by the time he retired he was the doyen of RAM composition professors. He continued to teach second-study students and his reputation as a pianist attracted a number of fine composer-pianists including Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, Graham Johnson and Nicholas Walker. Other notable pupils included Giles Swayne, David Morgan, Roger Steptoe, Judith Bingham and Edward Gregson, to name but a few.
I studied with Alan from September 1973 until 1978. He taught for one day per week (Wednesdays) in a small corner room on the top floor of the Academy and I had the last lesson of the day, so in all probability I received his last "official" composition lesson. It is sobering to think that if, in the 1970's, the Academy had been obliged to enforce a stricter retirement policy, I would have missed out altogether on the opportunity to study with one of the most experienced teachers and musicians in Britain at a time when he was at the height of his powers as a teacher and composer.
A number of Alan's past pupils have paid tribute to his teaching and their comments tally with my own experiences. The lesson would start with an overview of weekly technical work. In this respect Alan adapted tried-and-tested methods of composition teaching which had served apprentice composers well since the time of Fux. Over a five-year period I wrote exercises in sixteenth-century counterpoint, starting with two-part writing and progressing to four parts. I also worked exercises in eighteenth-century counterpoint, starting with two-part inventions and progressing with fugue. This was not approached as an academic exercise. Indeed one was expected to produce grammatically correct work from the outset. Alan was a patient and tolerant teacher but as soon as he addressed me as "My dear Timothy", rather than "My dear boy", I knew that I'd made a mistake! The object of the exercise was to not produce a series of correct solutions, but in each case to discover better and more satisfying possibilities. The works of Lassus, Palestrina and Bach were analysed in depth and Alan would often illustrate alternative ways in which the composer might have proceeded, giving reasons why the familiar text was superior. From this approach Alan's students built up a solid technique and the ability in their own work to rework seemingly facile writing towards something stronger.
Another reasons why Alan taught sixteenth and eighteenth century styles was that the music syntax of these periods was finite and he saw this as a way of helping his students to define their own compositional boundaries.
Part two of each lesson centred on one's own compositions. Although he taught on a one-to-one basis, Alan's students were welcome to arrive early for lessons and sit in whilst others were being taught. In this way, I followed the progress of fellow students such as Roger Steptoe, Paul Parkinson, Steven Marshall and Nicholas Walker. We were all encouraged to be productive and fluent and one of Alan's pet sayings was that "you should see this work through to the end, even if it is a bitter one". I composed over a dozen pieces in different genres during my five years of study with Alan and I gained from his vast practical experience as a performer. He discussed the artistic and contextual side of music in great depth but defused pomposity with tact; "but my dear boy, where is the tune?" was another of Alan's sayings. As I struggled to find a viable language of my own, I was encouraged to bring examples of music that excited me and we looked for a stylistic "launching pad". Although Alan did not promote his own works as part of his teaching he occasionally brought along a work in progress and shared his working methods. He was always open to comment and respected any criticisms that one had the temerity to offer.
Outside of the weekly lessons there were yearly tea parties in Radlett during which Alan's current and former pupils would gather and talk about their own work. After I left the Academy, I visited Alan regularly to show him new pieces and to keep pace with his own work. I was particularly touched when, in the winter of 1983, Alan took the train to York to hear the first performance of a cantata of mine that was commissioned by York University. There were many other acts of kindness and support both during and after my years as his pupil.
Since completing my studies with Alan Bush, I have written a further fifty works. With the exhaustive technical training that I received from Alan, I'm happy to report that there have been no more "bitter ends".