Monday, 7 December 2009

Christopher Irvin on composing his horn concerto

Christopher Irvin has just finished the first draft of the concerto, the third movement is in the post to me. Now all I have to do is get is transcribed on to the computer, and eliminate all the inevitable typing errors!

Here is his description of the process.


From the moment Jonathan tentatively requested a horn concerto at the rehearsal for SEA BREEZE in Edinburgh this summer my mind was immediately activated!

The first stage was to rough-draft the entire three-movement piece. This is worked out at the piano in an improvised format directly on to manuscript. Some of the ideas are from previous efforts - this acts as a springboard. Once a theme is chosen, the journey begins. New ideas, or variations on these themes, follow on quickly. Often a new theme appears from nowhere. On a good day there is real joy when a memorable melody materialises.

From these doodlings it is then necessary to create a three-line short score (instrument + piano). First-idea jottings (usually the best and often quickly forgotten) are then preserved. Selecting the better ideas is creative, and requires me to listen to the piece imagining myself as a member of the concert audience. The short score is orchestrated and chord symbols added.

Using landscape format manuscript paper, the score is then framed : horn placed above the strings and below the percussion. I work in 2B pencil which is ideal for subsequent photocopying. I know much erasing is par for the course.

The thirty-two pages (movement one) of score are laid out with a melodic through-line divided between the instruments. The solo horn is written as played. Previously, I'd written horns in concert pitch. However, I'm now learning about the best register for the horn and transposing as I go. I try thinking like a horn.

Key progression is another important consideration. I create a short-score only to find the orchestra is in an uncomfortable six flats. I do this section again but it's still in five flats. However, the tempo at this stage is slow and there should be no problems for the players.

The first page is orchestrated - a whole morning's work. Experience has taught me that on a normal day (with other things going on : e-mails/business/telephone calls) at best three pages of full score are manageable. A concerto requires less orchestral writing, of course, but progress still is on a similar pattern. The mornings are best, or the small hours, when total quiet is possible. The acoustic piano is nearby, and a keyboard with headphones. The scoring and harmonisation are a fused process.

I'm not able to work on the score (beyond my obligatory one page) every day in depth, so progress seems slow. However, a weekend of four days does the trick and I can live and breathe the piece. There is a musical blockage, when a change of key just doesn't work, but by coming back to it after a few hours the impasse is resolved.

The draft score is 'completed'. Bar numbering is added. A thorough read-through is now essential before photocopying - phrasing/dynamics/missed bars and so on. Hopefully nothing too awful! Movement one done. Two
more to go!

The response to the first movement has been very positive ('tuneful' and 'playable'). Enhancing the part by re-aligning the horn to its 'singing' register requires a few adjustments. Articulation issues are also discussed. The end doesn't work, so a new one is composed and sent by post (alas the postal strike still lingers on).

Start gathering my thoughts 30 Oct. for second movement, and framing the entire piece the next day. On this occasion I have a complete piano short-score to follow. First four bars take ages! Slowly build up the movement a page or so a day (if I'm lucky!). Adjustments to refine the harmonic structure is very time-consuming. Dynamics checked as I proceed.

Other musical projects crowding in : I started a choir at the Little Theatre in Hebden in October and we're working hard towards our annual Christmas Concert. A four-horn version of a new orchestral piece to be performed in June needs to be proof-read, and other pieces are in preparation requiring attention!

Draft score completed 11 Nov. and despatched the next day. I describe this movement as a 'wistful lullaby'.

No time to pause : straight on with movement three! This is to be a 6/8 rondo-type, with a core 4/4 slavonic-like 'heroic' tune followed by a cantabile theme. I've upped the horn part, being more confident of the required register.

I map out the form of the movement in my head whilst waiting for a train at unlovely Littleborough station (near Rochdale). The next day (Sunday 15th Nov.) the entire third movement is drafted - simple melody line, chords and orchestral jottings. The draft is then transposed for suitability for the horn. I'm working in keys that, for me, are unusual e.g. A-flat minor (which is very sonorous).

Start framing movement - but deciding on the keys causes a delay. Modulating from one theme to another requires much trial and error! A sense of classical key relationships helps. From Nov. 20th framing is complete, and the slow orchestration of pp50-79 starts. I try hard to make the opening page matter! Have to break off to arrange Sullivan's 'Yule Log March' for oboe, clarinet, violon and piano (for a rehearsal and concert I'm organising on Jan. 10th). After days of work I've completed just 45 seconds! I need to press on. The central section requires very careful treatment, so the (hopefully moving) rather melancholy theme can speak simply with just light accompaniment.

I have a day school (I play oboe) on Beethoven's 5th with the Leeds Summer Orchestra (!) so no work possible for a little while...

On the Sunday I get bogged down, and only complete seven bars.

However, despite a sudden head-cold, I'm on a roll and the concerto is completed over the weekend of Dec.5th/6th. I check the horn part carefully, making sure that tacit sections are kept to a minimum. I'm at the stage of photocopying and despatch.

After the actual despatch I have a holiday feeling!

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