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22 September 2015

Helen Gifford - war, craft, and the making of a modernist composer

Helen Gifford in August 2015 Image: Helen Gifford in August 2015  
© Paul Penton / ABC

In this interview, Melbourne-based Helen Gifford talks about her early years as a composer as well as her regular return to the subject of war. The interview was recorded for ABC RN's The Music Show and broadcast on the eve of Gifford's 80th birthday in September 2015. The following transcript, published on Resonate with permission, features material not included in the broadcast version. The interview was conducted by fellow composer Andrew Ford and began with Gifford's early Fantasy (1958) for flute and piano. See the program website for audio, and a video clip.

Andrew Ford: Let's talk about that music [Fantasy] because, in a way, although it's a lovely piece, it doesn't give our listeners much of a clue of what your music sounds like. This is an early piece, isn't it?

Helen Gifford: It's the second piece I wrote. It was first performed in Holland, as it happens, because I was friendly with a Dutch family out here and they were visited by a pianist, in 1958. She looked at the piece and took it back to Holland, and radio Hilversum gave the first performance. So that was exciting for me, as I'd had nothing done on radio at all.

AF: So suddenly you were an international composer.

HG: Yes. I'd written one other piece, a Christmas carol, just by accident almost, because Dorian Le Gallienne happened to be taking harmony that year, the only year he took it while I was doing my degree. And he brought in a text and asked us to set it. The text was set by Britten in A Ceremony of Carols, 'As dew in Aprille', and that's what I set. It was a long while before it was really performed. We weren't really adventurous, we could have done more, I think, at the Con. That was 1956, and so, in 1958, I wrote the flute and piano piece.

For someone who intended to become a composer there are gaps between these early pieces. The next was a Piano Sonata. I finished the course in 1957, and then I became a librarian with a thought to earning my living in something regular. The Piano Sonata got a broadcast by Margaret Schofield over at the ABC, and I then went overseas for a year and took with me a seven-and-a-half speed tape. That was my audition when I went to see people, or even just to play it to people like Don Banks whom I met for the first time over there.

AF: Can we wind back a little to your childhood, before you knew you wanted to be a composer. What was the music that you grew up with?

HG: Well, both my parents were singers. My father's favourite singers were people like Malcolm McEachern and John McCormack, and my mother's Amelita Galli-Curci and, of course, Melba. And she loved the song 'Si mes vers avaient des ailes' [by Reynaldo Hahn] that was because Melba made it popular. But she was a professionally trained singer. She studied with Alberto Zelman's wife, Maude Harrington, and she also was a stenographer, so this practical sense of how you survive, yet, in the weekends and at nights, you have another life. And she was in the Royal Philharmonic. She taught Zelman and Maude's pupils when they went overseas in 1923. My mother sang all the time in the house and I became acquainted with the way a professional singer keeps a level pitch, produces the voice in a different way. So, I received every encouragement, from my parents, to take an interest in music. They both had a very good 78-speed record collection as I grew up. And the '40s were important to me, those were the years I was at school. I suppose the first piece I remember hearing was the Schubert Rosamunde ballet music. Tchaikovsky of course, and even Peter and the Wolf, but you don't hear a great deal in the schools, really, that sets you alight.

When I was twelve, thirteen, I went to Melbourne Girls' Grammar, and A Ceremony of Carols was performed, and I was in the school madrigal group - just because I could hold pitch, alas I didn't inherit my parents' genes for singing with a beautiful voice. So Britten was a composer introduced to me, but I soon discovered Ravel, Debussy, and I had a great predilection for things French. I believe it is apparent in my music, although people can't quite pin down the composer or the work, but it sounds French in that way.

AF: That piece that we just heard does.

HG: Very much so. This was you could say my model of how to craft music. It really appealed to me in every way.

AF: Was there a moment when you thought you wanted to be a composer, or when you knew you wanted to be a composer?

HG: Oh, at 13. I kept it to myself in the main because they'd suddenly expect you to produce works. That I felt I wasn't quite ready to do. But I was sold on music.

AF: Where you starting to think like a composer?

HG: Yes, I was taking pieces apart seeing how they did it. And so, I started a collection of scores that I've never really stopped. Ravel especially. I started to learn the piano at the age of eight because my mother thought that was a good idea, and she bought a piano for me. Which is nice because she never learnt the piano, and neither did my father. She thought it was also a good idea to progress through the AMEB books. They have a choice across the repertoire, a modest choice, for the pianist, and these little excerpts did possibly whet my appetite - I never encountered Ravel in them!

AF: No, well, that's pretty hard stuff to play isn't it? That music we heard, it sounds a bit French. It also sounds like the sort of thing a student of Dorian Le Gallienne might write. But in quite short order you've discovered other sorts of music, and by the mid-1960s your music sounds as though it's composed by a 'modernist'. What happened?

HG: I was amazed to discover, it was also pointed out to me, that even though you're not coming out with a whole bunch of pieces between your first, second and third, in your mind you are developing. And this is a surprise. You are studying by listening, and looking at scores. And of course I was studying counterpoint, vocal polyphony, and fugue, to the final degree, and also harmony. I say, to the final degree - if I'd decided to become a teacher, that would have been lopped off the course and replaced with a diploma of education studies. Our classes were decimated, everyone seemed to sign the bond, joining the education department. I was quite impractical, had not addressed the question of what I would do after I finished my degree and how I would earn my living. My mother had. And she sent me to the library, and I was very happy to go, because I thought libraries are quiet places, this would suit me well. So, the State Library ran the preliminary certificate of the Library Association, and I quite enjoyed it, it was a nice group of people to work with. That meant I had to find a library to work in, but it happened before I had quite finished the course - someone rang the library and said, 'Is there anyone likely who would come and work at a one-person library at the Commonwealth Department of Works in the City, the Architecture and Engineering Design branch. So I was sent along. These decisions had been made for me, and I stayed there for a few years, then went overseas. And as it was the Commonwealth public service, I'd signed on pretty well for life, full-time work, but, very impractically, I resigned to go for a year or an indefinite stay over in Europe and England.

AF: Was that musically transforming?

HG: It was very stimulating. One thing: I had not realised it was the first time in 16 years the ISCM had met in London, and Don Banks was marvellously helpful, he introduced me to everyone he could think of. They also had concerts in the Maida Vale studios of the BBC, I went there. He was almost a chaperone, he saw that I went to these places, he and Val had me out to dinner. Then I had arranged to go the Edinburgh Festival with two Australian girls I hadn't met before I left: I met them on the Greek ship the Patris, that was an adventure in itself, and then we went up to Edinburgh, and Don arranged to meet me. That year, in 1962, it was the first performance of his Trio for horn [,violin and piano], this was in the Assembly Hall. Don's work was highly thought of but his time was taken up by writing film music all the time.

AF: Let's talk about your musical preoccupations. Are you able to say - because it is a question composers are often asked - what kind of a composer you are? Do you have an answer when you're asked this slightly irritating question?

HG: It is a development from the 19th century in its many forms. I think late Romantic, early atonal... I was very interested in the 78 records of Wozzeck, the excerpts, that did interest me and have a great influence, I was still at school when I bought them. These astonishing, sudden discoveries without any real link between. It was exciting, but you had to assimilate this into your own music, and I don't think I did, but it was somehow taken in. When I went to the Conservatorium, Roy Shepherd very much favoured the French music, because he had studied there under Cortot for some years, so he introduced me to a great many works by French composers. [Ravel's] Le tombeau de Couperin - I was ambitious to play the movements of it that I could, which left out the last movement

AF: Yes, that Toccata is fiendish, isn't it.

HG: Oh! Yes. But it was a discovery, just to play it.

AF: Listening to your music, one of the things I'm very aware of is a sound quality, the beauty of the sound. I don't know if this is something which you work on consciously. There is a tremendous poise, it seems to me, in your music, which may be something to do with this love of Ravel and Debussy. If you take something like the opening of Regarding Faustus for instance, you're seduced by those sounds almost immediately.

HG: Yes, well now, this may owe a lot to my interest in theatre. When I was in London in 1962, I went to more theatre than concerts. I was very strongly interested in theatre and writing for it in some serious way even before, in 1970, I was attached to the Melbourne Theatre Company. But that was a fun way to earn my living after I had, at last, gone part-time in technical libraries. It surely didn't pay enough but it was just fascinating to be asked to write music for a production. I was lucky in that the major productions were the ones I was usually invited to write music for - certainly not all productions, they were running three theatres when I was there - and this is because they had more budget for the bigger productions. And then you also got the overseas directors - like Tyrone Guthrie and Frank Hauser, and Joachim Tenschert came but he came with a score that had to be realised, of the original music for the Brecht productions, the Berliner Ensemble productions. When I was about halfway through my work with the Melbourne Theatre Company, I was also composer in residence for the Australian Opera and that was another whetter of appetite. You saw the rehearsals for... not many modern operas certainly, it was Marriage of Figaro and so on. But to see it all live and coming together was very exciting. So I applied for a special project to write a work for one of their principal singers, Robert Gard and that was how Regarding Faustus came into being. I set the Marlowe play.

AF: Is this a play you had done incidental music for?

HG: No I had not, no. And I chopped out the bits with the comedians...

AF: It's a very long play.

HG: It is. Well, I reduced it by quite a lot by doing that and then I could have it a one-person play as long as he did the part of Mephistopheles as well. And he was also a narrator at the start. And - he's a character tenor, is still at 87! A delightful person, and to work with.

AF: You've written a lot of music, it seems to me, about things.

HG: A narrative composer!

AF: Yes, there isn't such a lot, not so many pieces called 'fantasy'.

HG: No, no. I grew out of that.

[Music: extract from Gifford's Plaint for lost worlds (1994) for piccolo, clarinet and piano.].

AF: Those were the last minutes of Plaint for lost worlds by Helen Gifford, played by the Sydney Alpha Ensemble. Which worlds are those? I'm interested that it's worlds, plural.

HG: Yes... well, that's going back more than 20 years - but it was the worlds that were destroyed in war, the absolute desolation of the battlefields. A place like Ypres. When you think of it, that was never occupied by the Germans but it was besieged by them, and defended desperately by the British even though most of Belgium had been taken by the Germans then. And around the north of France and Belgium there, the water level, the water table is so near the surface, and the dikes were very shortly smashed, destroyed, so you had this morass. The shells never stopped, including before battles, there'd be a week or two of the artillery bombing this. And this is an unbelievable landscape. Somehow the British were determined to advance; the poor infantry, ever so slowly, by 1917 was starting to crawl towards Passchendaele, a little village up on the ridge; you'd think not really worth the loss of life - and surely it wasn't. And the gas was in the earth, it was in the air, and they brought tanks, would you believe, forward, into these, they're like, so many dams... and if you were wounded, you would be very lucky, by 1917, to be rescued at all. And I think most of them weren't. But if you were, it would take four, even eight men to bring your stretcher back just half a mile to the casualty clearing station, you'd be very lucky. Where the service was excellent, devoted nursing, and then, if you had any hope at all, you'd be sent on further to the hospitals. But I think the death rate in the casualty clearing stations was prodigious.

AF: So we're talking in that case not just about lost worlds in an environmental sense but loss of innocence as well?

HG: Yes, yes. In every sense you can think of. That one was probably the predominant one. But there's the lost worlds of the animals that are becoming extinct, and we're gradually fishing out the ocean. This is all dreadful, appalling.

AF: What can music do about that?

HG: Nothing. You can't really be too literal in music. It can move the feelings. I don't know what else it can do. It's not like in literature, you can't express as directly as literature, so we depend on people with words to really make things change. I mean, music just affects the emotions.

AF: But if you call a piece 'Plaint for lost worlds' it makes people listen in a certain way. If you just had called it 'Trio', it wouldn't have had the same effect. But knowing that it's called Plaint for lost worlds, even if you know nothing else, then that piccolo starts to sound like a bird, and there's something about those multiphonics on the clarinet, just before the end, that sound like howls of anguish.

HG: Yes, they're meant to. And this might put people off, but that's exactly what they're meant to be. Good old Bartolozzi! [Bruno Bartolozzi: New Sounds for Woodwinds]

AF: That's the book that has the notation in it!

HG: Yes, and the person who'd perform them. But these are fashions in music that come and go.

AF: Have you been much concerned with musical fashions?

HG: I go for the composer, not the fashion. I was deeply enthralled by the music of Lutoslawski when I first heard Venetian Games in the 1960s. I got the scores before I got the long-playing records - he used chance in a controlled way. I tried, very hard, to do the same but I find that I've always thought there is one definite way of doing, of arranging the notes, I can't leave it to the players. Well, the players are welcome to do it themselves, but I've never written in boxes, or left it to chance.

AF: It's hard, isn't it, to let go?

HG: I can't, I just can't. The effect of the craft of Maurice Ravel is too strong on my music.

AF: You talked about the First World War a moment ago. You've written a lot of music, it seems to me, that touches on the subject of war. Why?

HG: My father was in that war, right through it. He was in Gallipoli, and then the European war, in the 14th Battalion. I just recently discovered another composer who had a great uncle in the 14th, and that was exciting, because I've never found anyone in music: Andrew Harrison. In fact he is going over at the end of this year in October to see where his uncle was killed in Stormy Trench, in February - they should not have been fighting in February! It was appalling weather. So, yes, it was my father's influence, but also because when he came back, he was a signaller, when he came back, he was very conscious of [the fact that] many of his colleagues were not going to get work easily or even at all perhaps. So he and others started up the Battalion Association and they were meant to be a backstop for the ones who could not get settled or established after the war, to help them out, somewhere to call on. It was a lot of work. He died [in '58] after his fifth coronary. So, he did have effects on his health from all those years of war.

AF: As a composer, you find obviously... Maybe inspiration is the wrong word, but you find something in this subject that draws music from you.

HG: My family, my brother and I and my mother, got to know his colleagues, the ones lucky enough to survive, very well. They were wonderful people. One of them was even a first cousin of Percy Grainger, Norman Aldridge. Percy was staying with Norman and his mother in '56 when I was at the Con. He offered to get me an introduction but I wasn't ready, I hadn't really established myself as a composer. But these men were very touching, they were great characters.

AF: We should listen to something to finish with, I think from Choral Scenes. What should we listen to?

HG: Perhaps I would like you to choose. I mean, they are all set pieces of the different poets, the different speakers have their own approach to that war, and they were either combatants or participants.

AF: Let's listen to Laurence Binyon's 'For the Fallen'. It's a beautiful idea... Perhaps you could say something about how you set it, to introduce it.

HG: I was a bit in awe of setting those words. Binyon was a wonderful man. He, in his 40s, volunteered to serve as a medical orderly in a French chateau, and it had no lighting, no gas, and it was a few storeys, and they had to lift stretchers up these stairs, and it was hard on his lumbago. And in the middle of the night he'd be called out to bring in another lot of wounded. He did his job so well that they promoted him to swabbing wounds. But he was almost a cripple after a while and had to return to his family in London. But then they asked him to come back, and so back he went.

AF: But tell us about why you set this poem the way you did, and the cymbal?

HG: Well, it's more prayer-like than anything else I set. It's very sombre. All the rest of the items, probably, are more alert and alive, action pieces perhaps. Actually, the piece that is most descriptive is probably the 'Counter-Attack' by Siegfried Sassoon.

AF: We'll let's listen to that instead!

HG: Nick Tolhurst does a splendid job of that, because - that poem is setting an incident that he experienced. He was the officer in charge - he refers to him as 'an officer blundering down the trench, saying 'man the fire step' . Well that was Sassoon, so he is sending himself up then, but he witnessed this man dying, and I find that very affecting.

AF: Let's listen to 'Counter-Attack', then, from Choral Scenes. Happy birthday Helen Gifford.

AMC resources

Helen Gifford - AMC profile
MP3s of Gifford's music; CDs featuring Gifford's works (AMC Shop)
'Helen Gifford: still writing, still modernist and still brilliant' - an article on Resonate by Rosalind Appleby (28 February 2012)
'Podcast and iPad app of Helen Gifford's opera Exile' - an article on Resonate (7 December 2010)

Further links

Listen to Gifford's 1986 opera Iphigenia in Exile and the 1969 orchestral work Imperium on ABC Classic FM's online Australian music collection Rewind
EXILE iPad app
by Aphids and ChamberMade Opera (aphids.net)


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