Reflections on musical life

at The Royal High School and The Open University

by Bill Strang, guest speaker at the annual dinner of the Royal High School Club in London
on Friday 13 March 2020

Our guest speaker is Royal High former pupil, choirmaster and occasional composer Bill Strang who will reflect on musical life at the school and how that influenced his subsequent career. Bill was a pupil at the Royal High’s Regent Road campus under the tutelage of the respected organist and composer William Bowie. His career took him to the Open University
where, as well as contributing to the production of distance learning courses, he has conducted the excellent OU Choir for many years. Bill will reflect on the projects he undertook at the OU working alongside, among others, the famous English composer John Rutter.

Thank you, Fraser, for that introduction and Alex, for inviting me to speak this evening. I
hope I can live up to the billing you’ve given me.
However, I think every talk about music should begin with a musical illustration:

Sing Bass solo from A Shepherd’s Carol:
If Time were the wicked sheriff,
in a horse opera,
I’d pay for riding lessons
and take his gun away O.

And recite choral Refrain:
O lift your little pinkie,
and touch the winter sky.
Love’s all over the mountains
where the beautiful go to die.

Strange music, strange words, but they sent a tingle up my spine, as we sang them in the school choir my first, or it may have been second, Christmas. Music by Benjamin Britten, then the leading British composer; words by WH Auden.

Being exposed to this at age 13 I now regard as a privilege. It was only much, much later that I realised that I had been given this piece to learn when it had only been published a few months earlier. The reason was that the teacher in question was part of that post-war generation which, encouraged by the example of Britten, believed in involving the whole
community, including schoolchildren, in the making of music and art.

I can no longer remember what we sang when but I do remember the impact of my first acquaintance with Palestrina’s suave polyphony, the spare economical setting of the Seven Last Words by Heinrich Schütz, and the delicate traceries of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Succession of the Four Sweet Months’.

Later, there began to appear original compositions by the teacher himself, William Bowie.
First, I think, was Harmonious Young Men (Songs for the use of), settings in three parts –
tenor, baritone, bass – mostly with piano accompaniment. The most memorable perhaps are the epitaph on Prince Frederick, ‘Here lies Fred, Who was alive and is dead’, which we of course took – and were no doubt meant to take – as a dig at Fred Scott, the widely disliked head Latin teacher; and a rollicking setting of Thackeray’s nautical tale, Little Billee, a joke both against, but ultimately in favour of, himself – which I have in turn been able to use to my own advantage.

There were trips to St Mary’s Cathedral to sing evensong – in itself an exercise which broadened the horizons of one reared in a more severe Baptist environment; concerts and services in historic buildings, St Giles Cathedral and the Canongate Kirk; recordings for BBC radio and also for television – even an LP which I would be keen to hear, if only to find out if
the reality matches my memory. On one occasion the Reverend Harry Whitley, preaching on the subject of faith, decreed from the pulpit of St Giles that Bowie should set his text for our next visit – and so he did.

There were combined concerts with Bowie’s adult choir, St George’s Singers, in which more ambitious repertoire could be attempted: Purcell’s Masque in Diocletian (perhaps the first orchestrally-accompanied piece I sang in) and, with separate choirs in both galleries of the old school hall and a third group on the ground, Andrea Gabrieli’s Magnificat – my introduction to the polychoral music of the Venetian Renaissance. Later I would go on to
study with one of the leading experts on this style, Jerome Roche.

But the biggest buzz of all was to have sung in Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium:
this, for those who don’t know, is a short piece on a massive scale, for eight choirs, each in 5 parts, spatially separated. We did it as part of the Combined Edinburgh Choirs, with the three cathedrals, St George’s Singers and others, in St Giles, St Mary’s and the McEwan Hall.
But here’s the thing: this piece is now quite well-known and quite often performed, but it was only revived in Britain in the late forties, recorded commercially in 1965 and published in a practical edition in 1966. And we cannot have been singing it any later than 1967 because that’s when I left the school. So Bowie was well enough respected by his peers that he was able to place his choirs in the vanguard of musical developments.

In my third year, I was offered the opportunity to take a job as the organist in a church in Leith when an older pupil was graduating to a bigger instrument. This involved learning nine hymns and finding six voluntaries every Sunday for about eighteen months. At the end the church closed down – not as a direct result of my playing – and it was suggested that a small choir be assembled for the farewell service. Without the slightest hesitation I directed this group of men and women, not one of whom can have been less than four times my age.
This was the confidence the experience of singing under Bill Bowie had instilled in me.

In sixth year a small group was despatched to, I think, the New Club in Princes Street to entertain the Former Pupils’ Club.

I was detailed to accompany Ian Charleson singing ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, which I seem to remember I did as an improvisation without any written-out music. Ian had a beautiful tenor voice which featured as a solo in many choir concerts. Later he reprised this party piece in Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, alas without my accompaniment – but all the better for it. However, I’m glad to have given him a little help on his way, and was very sad when his life was cut so terribly short.

So much for musical performance. On the last day of each Spring Term the whole school was treated to a lecture, and in my fifth year it was the turn of music. The lecturer was Arthur Hutchings, renowned Professor of Music at Durham University, who spoke about ‘Borodin and Benzene’ – the Russian chemist who was only a composer in his spare time.
Hutchings was the flamboyant opposite of the restrained Bowie. I don’t actually remember much of what he said; but I do remember the huge sheaf of papers which he affected to dispose of as too boring, and him toasting the female members of staff and blessing the first row of gytes with sprinkled water.

I was already keen to go to Durham University and this sealed my fate. At my interview a few months later I sailed through most of the tasks – I couldn’t believe how easy they were – and played my prepared piano solo. Then Hutchings asked if I had ever played the harpsichord. No. He rifled in his shelves and found the score of a Bach cantata, took me downstairs to the concert hall, set the stops on the harpsichord and gave me a moment to
look at the music. So far, fairly predictable. But once I was ready he launched into this soprano recitative and aria at pitch and with great dramatic flourish and much falsetto squawking. A test of nerve as much as it was of musicianship.

Later, when I had a crisis of confidence in the wake of disrupted family circumstances, Hutchings pointed out that I had had an unusually secure musical grounding. ‘I have people wanting to come here who know all about Rachmaninov and nothing else,’ he said. And he was right: by the time I left school I was writing exercises in Renaissance polyphony, which
seemed a natural extension of already having been singing the style in the choir for several years.

Moving on from the Durham experience, I eventually took up a post in the Music Department of the Open University at its headquarters in Milton Keynes, at a stage when both the University and the town were still in their pioneering phases.

I had only been in the place a few months when I was asked to conduct the University’s fledgling choir, of 11 singers of very mixed ability. But with perseverance the choir has grown to some 80 members who perform a wide range of standard and more unusual music.

After a while I was asked to conduct the University’s operatic society as well. This brought me into contact with local Gilbert and Sullivan and light operatic groups and it soon became evident that there was an appetite for what used to be called grand opera, and so we formed Opera Milton Keynes which launched with Bizet’s Carmen and went on throughout ten years to mount productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Verdi’s La Traviata and
others, most boldly and memorably for me, Britten’s Peter Grimes, with young professional singers, producers from Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, and support from staff at English National Opera.

In the meantime my day job involved, at different times, producing LPs, teaching cassettes, computer-generated music examples and extensive compilations of music scores. My final task before retirement was to devise a way of teaching basic music theory and in particular harmony and melody-writing entirely online.

In the earlier years one of my colleagues, undoubtedly the best-known of my colleagues, was the composer John Rutter, a musician of endless enthusiasm and energy. I well remember him bounding into a music department meeting one morning, having just returned from Paris, where he had spent several days in the Bibliotheque Nationale transcribing the original small-scale version of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. He had spotted a
gap in the market and announced that he was going to record it and publish it – and so he did in a matter of a few weeks. And it has become the most frequently performed version of the piece. He allowed me to attend the recording session held, as it happens, in the wood panelled hall of his old school in Hampstead, and the OU Choir to give the first public
performance.

On another occasion I was in the secretary’s office at around lunchtime when John bustled in saying he would have to go now because he still had to write his piece for tomorrow. The piece was some kind of brass fanfare or processional for a graduation ceremony at which Prince Charles was going to be presented for an honorary degree. For all his surface bustle
John’s cool confidence astonished me.

But everything was done at the last minute with John, including writing the drafts of his teaching units. Yet they were always immaculately presented, with music examples in his own distinctive hand, all virtually fit for publication at first draft. And all, without exception, full of telling insights into other composers’ work – I remember masterly discussions and
analyses of the music of Mozart and Schubert in particular.

The OU is a very particular institution to work for. In the early years it employed a lot of very young tutors like myself, but attracted predominantly much older students. At the Summer School in Cardiff, most tutors had to run a practical music-making group of some kind as well as teaching tutorials, and I would sometimes take the choir. On one occasion I used one or two of Bowie’s songs for Harmonious Young Men. After the end-of-course informal concert a student who had been in one of my tutorial groups where he had kept quite quiet made a point of speaking to me. He asked if I had known William Bowie. It turned out that this student had been Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools for music, and he had done his
own student teaching practice at Royal High. Then he said to me very seriously, ‘Bowie was the best music teacher I ever encountered. He had his own complete system worked out.’

I regret that I can’t put a name to this man. Perhaps he meant a system of class teaching but in my experience it was the harmony lessons in our tiny specialist group which stood out.
The others studying for Higher music in my year were Alex Bain who is here tonight, from whom I have just learned that the third member, Derek Watson, has, alas, died recently.
Bowie’s approach to teaching harmony still strikes me as brilliant – it was organic, circulating round the keys so that in doing successive exercises you learn how the system of key relationships works.

He also invented his own tunes as exercises – or so I thought. He would ask us what key and time signature our last exercise had been in, then stand by the blackboard and think for a few minutes and come up with another, in the appropriate next key and metre.

I don’t know whether this was genuinely spontaneous invention or a bit of play-acting, but it worked for, or on, me inasmuch as it was this sense that that man was writing that music, or had written this choral piece for us to sing, or that oboe solo for me to play in one of his Studies for Odd Orchestras that was so inspiring. And that is what has guided my own
activities, consciously or otherwise – more so, I think it would be fair to say, than any of my other, later, mentors.

But the story is not finished yet.

One day in 2009 my partner, Stuart, brought home a leaflet which had been put through the door of his office in Stony Stratford, one of the old towns now absorbed into Milton Keynes.
It announced that the church just across the road was trying to raise funds to restore its pipe organ, which it considered to be historically significant because it had been built by Henry Willis, the pre-eminent 19th-century British builder. It took me just about two minutes to realise that this instrument had, by an unlikely coincidence, come from St George’s
Church in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, the landmark building, with its copper dome, designed as a focal point of the New Town. Moreover, I knew that Bill Bowie had been the organist there when it closed down precipitately – in fact nearly fell down – because of structural deterioration. And so began a series of events which have led more or less directly to this evening.

First of all I agreed to take the OU Choir to St Mary and St Giles Church in Stony Stratford to give a fund-raising concert. And of course I included a couple of the anthems with organ accompaniment which Bowie had written for the school choir while I was in it – despite the fact that this distinguished instrument was by now held together with bits of string and therefore extremely unreliable.

An OU student saw an advert for this concert on the choir’s website and contacted me to say that Bowie had been his music teacher and he intended to travel down from Newcastle for the concert. At the interval a middle-aged man bounded up to me and started gabbling in Latin. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand’. After three attempts he said, ‘The school song, verse 5’. Now I had not retained a sufficient affection for the school song to be able
instantly to recollect the details of verse 5, but they refer to ‘senes rursus meminerimus’ which I suppose is where many of us do indeed find ourselves now – recollecting in old age.

Well, this particular old man, who is called David Appleton, then took one of the anthems from the concert – I believe it was Three Masts with words by the Cornish poet Charles Causley – as the basis for the final dissertation of his OU Music and Literature course.

David was also curious to know if there was any other choral music by Bowie, and he was immediately attracted to Here lies Fred as being suitable for his get-togethers with old classmates. I mentioned that there must be a substantial piece with orchestral accompaniment because that was a requirement for the Durham Master of Music degree which Bowie had completed in his spare time in 1961, but I had not been able to find it.
David tracked it down in Durham University Library and I transcribed and conducted what I suppose to be the first performance of a setting for soloists, chorus and large orchestra of Walter Scott’s poem Thomas the Rhymer. I’ve probably inspected and performed hundreds of choral works over the years and I can say that this 17-minute piece stands up well for
tunefulness, harmonic individuality, effective orchestral handling and structural integrity.

In due course the enthusiasts in Stony Stratford raised £180,000 to renovate their Willis organ. By accident – because the work over-ran – I ended up directing the inaugural concert for the renovated instrument.

So of course I tracked down as much as I could of the music written for St George’s Church, Charlotte Square, which I was surprised to discover included the well-known hymn, ‘Ye gates, lift up your heads on high’, the music having been written by Andrew Mitchell Thomson, the first minister of the church, and also a setting of the Benedictus by his son John Thomson, whom John Murray in his history of the High School identifies as a former
pupil. This is a lovely piece in a sort of Italianate operatic style – a bit like Rossini – that one would have thought quite out of character for a son of the Presbyterian manse. John Thomson went on to become the first Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and indeed the first professor of music at any Scottish University.

I think it was at this point that I came and spoke about the project at a dinner such as this. I was a bit surprised to find a level of hostility to Bill Bowie which I had not anticipated, so I’m aware that not everyone here will share my admiration for him. It seems that there was another side to him that I hardly experienced – punitive, possibly or at least potentially,
sadistic. But I can only speak as I found and, I hope, for those pupils who also found him inspirational. I had already wondered, however, why Bowie did not join the forces during the war – he was born in 1925 and joined the staff in 1946, so he would have been old enough – and what effect it might have had on him subsequently that he had not in fact been in the war. In such a post-militarised environment what would that have felt like? Was
he perhaps compensating?

The thing which struck me most forcibly when I started to come to these dinners and drinks a few years ago was how casually the brutality which was prevalent in the school in the 1960s was accepted. And indeed I myself can recall vividly two specific incidents with other masters which were more heartless and calculatingly cruel than anything I experienced with
Bowie.

In that inaugural concert in Stony Stratford I also included John Rutter’s popular setting of the Gloria so as to give the organ due prominence. This also requires an attractive line-up of brass instruments, which enabled me to revive one of my own compositions, a programmatic elaboration of the medieval Hymn to St Magnus, the patron saint of Orkney, which had first attracted my attention when my family moved there during my student years. As a filler I asked another composer, Liz Lane, who was an Associate Lecturer at the OU, if she had any suitable brass music and she offered to arrange one of her pieces for the 11 players I had available.

This in turn led to the choir going back to her to commission a substantial choral piece with brass and percussion accompaniment to celebrate the 50th birthday of Milton Keynes in 2017.

We had words written specially about the new town by Judi Moore, one of its longstanding inhabitants – and an Alto in the choir – which she entitled A different kind of urban. And Milton Keynes is of course a very different kind of town from the one I grew up in. I am currently preparing to conduct the second performance of this piece later this month. And for that concert we have commissioned a knew curtain-raiser for brass and percussion which I just received a couple of weeks ago. So alongside thinking what I would like to share with you this evening of my past experience, I have been perpetuating the tradition of adding new music to the repertoire which I inherited from my musical education at the High School.

© Bill Strang, March 2020