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30 July 2013

Roger Smalley's homage to music

Roger Smalley after his performance at the Classical Music Awards ceremony in Sydney, September 2007 Image: Roger Smalley after his performance at the Classical Music Awards ceremony in Sydney, September 2007  

Composer and pianist Ian Munro first got to know Roger Smalley's music as a young, prize-winning pianist. This soon led to his commissioning Smalley's Variations on a theme of Chopin. 'These variations were a special kind, which paid homage to music through Chopin, in a way I consider to be profound and original', Munro writes in this article, celebrating Smalley's 70th birthday on 26 July 2013. (Munro's performance of Smalley's work is available as an MP3 download and as a CD through the AMC.)

I had not yet met Roger Smalley when, in 1988, Jolyon Laycock called me to suggest that I might like to choose a composer to write a new piece for me to play at a recital at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. A year after my appearance at the Leeds International Piano Competition, I had had the good fortune to find myself facing open doors to a previously invitation-only British music scene, and had taken the chance to start divesting myself of most of my competition repertoire and to build more personal programs of my choosing. In doing so, I certainly made some questionable choices, but it was an enjoyable and harmless experiment, one all young artists should or must take on if they are ever to find their niche.

Immediately, I decided that it must be an Australian composer, and at that stage I knew only a handful, and had had personal contact only with Peter Sculthorpe, Andrew Ford and Richard Hames. It was a recent premiere recording of Roger Smalley's Piano Concerto and Symphony, however, given to me by my wife Helen, that quickly decided it for me. Still a striking performance of great impact, with Roger himself as the impeccable and powerful soloist, with our friend Diego Masson conducting West Australian Symphony Orchestra, I have ever since admired this music as one of the enduring classics of Australian piano music. For anyone who hasn't heard it, it begins with an aural shock - not an unpleasant one - and a quick scudding follow-up motif like the arabesque of a Ravelian imp.

The effect, then as now, was instantly to invite such curiosity that any listener must hear the rest of the story. The intelligent musical language, moreover, defied the uncompromising modernist-versus-retrogressive arguments of the time, and I think that Roger Smalley's music can, among other things, offer useful perspectives on that futile debate. In a chat I had with him in October 2011, preparing for the Australian Voices recital at ANAM the following month, I asked Roger about how he now thought about his musical journey, and what, if anything, explained his stylistic development from his early modernist days to his latter-day Chopin-allusive language. He deftly put me in my place, I recall, with words that echoed another composer I have come greatly to admire, Arthur Benjamin:

'What change in style?' Neither composer considered style to be more than a surface phenomenon, belying the real 'inner' style of any creative artist; the former easily imitable, the latter essential and truly individual.

Roger wrote to me. He had decided, he said, to finish an already begun set of variations on a mazurka by Chopin, the intriguing fourth piece of the op.24 set of 1835. Now, as it happens, this was the very mazurka that was taught to me by my old teacher Roy Shepherd, who had studied it with his teacher Alfred Cortot in Paris in the 1930s. That Roger, whose early music found admirers among the musically avant garde set of 1960s London, had such an interest and respect for the quintessential Romantic repertoire of the traditional pianist - almost the model for everything a serious young composer might spare no effort to avoid - was fascinating to me, and very welcome.

Roger, then as now, is known to be mordantly critical of the effect of the competition culture on artistry, especially the way it imposes a canonical, exclusive hierarchy of core works, with an outer ring of related but minor art, either 'minor' works of Great Composers or 'major' works by Minor Composers. It's a vacuous and barren way of looking at anything, let alone Art, and relegates the entirety of musical art to a separate world. Like Roger, I find that world not only fascinating but central to the whole attraction of being an artist. Art in the world of the living - the only place it has ever been - is the essence of all who take up pen, brush, instrument, gesture, and the limitations we place on ourselves are almost always unnecessary and artificial. The worst limitations of all are those we cravenly accept, although we don't agree with them.

Chopin, then, evidently meant much to Roger, and these variations were a special kind, which paid homage to music through Chopin, in a way I consider to be profound and original. Composers through the ages have indulged in variation in many ways: as a kind of light fancy, a way of adorning and ornamenting a contemporary popular song; as all that, but also as a workshop for testing developmental ideas (I'm thinking especially of Beethoven); even as the basis for great symphonic creations. Roger's approach, I think, is something different again, and says much about this questing, deep-thinking musician. Listening to Chopin's mazurka again, I'm reminded of the quaint story Dave Brubeck tells of the origin of his ballet for two pianos Points on Jazz. He was on tour in Poland, he says, in a train carriage, when a haunting tune of unknown provenance came to him, and he began to compose a set of variations on it. It's a lovely work, too, but the haunting tune is the very same four bars of introduction that intrigued Roger Smalley enough to write his Variations. I'm tempted to link Bach's so-called 'Wedge' fugue, as well as the loopy variations on 'Chopsticks' by various Russian composers (and Liszt...), but perhaps that is going too far.

I have already mentioned that my piano teacher, Roy Shepherd, was a pupil of Alfred Cortot, the noted Chopin exponent from the early part of last century. Because he insisted on Chopin as an exemplar both of pianism and composition, I was inclined to misunderstand and suspect him. My father, an amateur musician with strong views about most things, dismissed Chopin as a lightweight salon composer, and so I was inclined to look at him more closely and appreciate him. A confused and personally compromised start, but over the years I have come to love and respect the remarkable genius of Chopin more and more, and to be happy in accepting the truism I had so long struggled to withstand: that it is - almost - impossible to gain a whole understanding of modern piano playing without gaining a thorough appreciation of Chopin. More than that, though. Coming to terms with Chopin was also an acceptance of one's place in the great tradition of piano-playing musicians. In the end, one can rail against tradition and point out all of its blatant faults, but all the same, it is one of the only sure things about being a classical musician: we are part of a wonderful inter-generational, international, inter-periodical tradition that is just as much a privilege as a bane. In Roger's respect and fascination for Chopin, then, I sensed a kindred spirit.

When the variations were complete, Roger sent a final draft with a letter that explained that they did not end with the projected lengthy, virtuoso passacaglia that he had planned but with a long, dirge-like improvisatory subsidence, dark and beautiful, ending in a quotation of the original mazurka, which to my mind echoed final pages of both Benjamin Britten's variations for viola and piano on John Dowland's 'Lachrymae' and the quodlibet to Bach's Goldberg Variations. Such a peroration by quotation, serving both as an arresting but subtle reminder of how a journey may come full circle to arrive finally at its own beginning, is unusual in this musical form, and peculiarly affecting.

Subsequently, Roger has written a number of major chamber works of great power and beauty, which have Chopin's music as thematic material in one way or another. I count the Piano Quintet of 2003 and the Piano Trio of 1991 among the finest. If I am left with any overall impression by Roger's various Chopin-inspired pieces, it would be that they are sincere and penetrating acts of homage, less in name than in sheer music. In any set of variations, the most natural thing in the world is to hear one composer quote a theme by another composer - that is what most variations are about - and for the whole exercise to display the invention and ingenuity of the second composer. Here, though, in Smalley's Variations on a theme of Chopin, the quotation at the end, Chopin's own notes without any embellishment or transformation, possibly even more than Britten's slightly startling 'reveal' of Dowland, is aimed at showing us in sound just how modern and marvellous Chopin's original conception is, by taking us on an exploratory tour around it first, before setting his naked notes before us, without further comment, as it were. The understatement is both brilliant and terribly moving, and speaks of an artist completely at home with himself and his place within a tradition which he has spent a lifetime studying, questioning and contributing to.

It is a mature and profound view of musical life which stands like a rock in a torrent, and I find it admirable in the best sense. Having just been privileged yesterday to have joined this rare and inspiring colleague's 70th birthday celebration, I regard myself as having been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to know him and his music, and especially to have been there at the birth of one of Australia's real gems of piano literature.

AMC resources

Roger Smalley - AMC profile
Roger Smalley - Variations on a theme of Chopin - score (AMC Shop)
Roger Smalley - Variations on a theme of Chopin - MP3, performed by Ian Munro (AMC Shop)
Ian Munro - AMC profile
A Patchwork of Shadows - CD (Ian Munro, piano; music by Smalley, Humble, Kerry, Parker, Sculthorpe, Williamson - Tall Poppies)

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This is a wonderful evocation of a composer of whom I, for one, know only too little. Thank you Ian. I will seek out more of his work, and feel more pain at his declining years.