Peter Farnbank, Composer .

Bio (... and "Confession")

 Early Beginnings

I received my early musical training in Malaysia as a boy chorister at St Thomas’s Anglican Cathedral, under the choirmastership of the highly-respected Mr Andrew Chin (pace). Here I was to learn how central melody and counterpoint were to my musical thinking, and this has stayed so ever since. At 13 I was given the Junior Choristers Medal of the Royal School of Church Music, which was so important to me as it was the first ever award I had ever received. At that time (mid-60s) Malaysia was a low-income developing country, and music was not taught in schools. So, I guess I was pretty lucky to be getting what was in effect free musical training from the Cathedral with a God-given instrument (voice). I went through all the voices, first as a boy-treble, then alto (as my voice broke), then tenor (as my voice began to settle) and finally bass!! Now it's probably sunk beneath the level of dignity!!!! (especially after a couple of real ales!!)

My interest in music shifted from the pop of the time (eg Elvis, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, The Beach Boys, The Beatles etc) to classical, and I fell in love with the sound of the violin, especially upon hearing Beethoven’s Romance in F and Massenet's "Meditation". However, there was little opportunity to pursue this new interest in the Malaysia of that time.

New Beginnings

So, back in England, I started to learn the violin a month off my 15th birthday. I gave my first concert three years later at school, playing Haydn's G Major Violin Concerto to the superb piano accompaniment of my fellow music student, Margaret Spink. From school I went to La Sainte Union  College of Education, now New College, an associate college of Southampton University, starting my training as a teacher of music (with Maths as my second subject). I never received formal lessons in composition, but had the good fortune to receive encouragement from my tutors, George Self and composer Geoffrey Boulton-Smith. This furthered my earlier studies in harmony and counterpoint from Geoffrey Tristram, organist of Christcurch Priory, who was my music tutor in Bournemouth.


At the time of my music teacher training, my fellow students and I were being "initiated" into the modernism of Stockhausen et al, the aleatorism of Xenakis et al, and the the mathematicism of Messiaen, to the extent that serial music (I nearly said "killers" then - now, that would be Freudian slip, wouldn't it?) became really quite palatable. And what a treat we got when we first heard (and studied) Alban Berg's Violin Concerto!!! Whoever whould have thought of starting a violin concerto on open strings? That was absolute genius! (It also gave me licence to say to my future violin pupils after a couple of lessons, "Well well well, now you can even play Berg's Violin Concerto!" to which I would receive varying responses of puzzled delight, as you can imagine!) But back to Berg, I'm sure even JS Bach would have been pleased if not thrilled at the new twist to his name and orchestral-chorale writing in the new language of Berg's lovely work, to which we had to listen through very different ears. (It was an especial treat to me as I was the only violin-student in my cohort.) However, when it came to writing compositional exercises serially, we all baulked and reverted to the classical language.

I guess my first moment of liberation from the stoic classicism of the Bach to Mahler tradition came when my college went to a celebratory mass in Portsmouth St John's RC Cathedral in 1974, and I heard Gelineau's Mass being sung by the cathedral choir. What a thrilling experience that was! And what wonderful new (tonal) sounds! What luscious harmonies! And it was that which insirped me to write my "English Mass No 1" (1974). This was quickly followed by "Triolino" for piano trio. And "English Mass No 2" soon followed that.

OK. Let's just take a step back. I began to hear tunes in my head around age 14, whereupon my Dad said that I should start to write them down. Write them down I did, and they sounded pretty much like distant echos of Haydn, Beethoven and the like. Nothing you wouldn't have heard before, and absolutely nothing as sophisticated as those great composers. But it was the Gelineau Mass that turned the new key (excuse the pun!!) and opened the gate to a new world of new sounds, and I began to write something that sounded, well, just a bit "Frenchy" - a bit like Satie's "Gnossiennes", or Debussy's "Jeu de pluie". (Incidentally I was studying Jean Cocteau's "La Machine Infernale" just the year before for A-Level French, as well as dozens of French poems,  so I guess there were some "Frenchy" residues. And wasn't that a strange bit of synchronicity, as "La Machine..." was a modern play - a Parisian twist on the Oedipus story, a story which Freud refashioned as a "complex" in his psychosexual theory.... but I digress!) 

Music in Early Working Life

After college, I'm afraid not much happened in my composing life. Without George and Geoffrey, I began to lose the will to compose and I settled into the challenging life of a music teacher in a high school. I expected I felt a little like Elgar, who became depressed at the new modernist trends in music, as his music was beginning to fade in the glare and shimmer of vogue avant-gardism. And so my last composition "Sonatina-Ballade" for solo piano was left unfinished even by 1983. And this story would have ended there, and this website would never have been thought of.

My other musical life however was different. While teaching music up to A Level, I was playing in the Gibraltar Symphony Orchestra under Hector Cortes, who was trained as a conductor at the London College of Music. I had a wonderful time performing, among symphonies and other things, in the pit of the John Mackintosh Hall, Moreno-Torroba's zarzuela "Luisa Fernanda". This was an experience I particularly enjoyed and cherished. Everything from the opera music and narratives to the menus at intermission was in Spanish, giving the whole experience an air as authentically Spanish as a venture could be.

In later years I was to play also Violin 2, Viola and Double-bass, as string players were chronically scarce in amateur ensembles. I made friends with the inestimable Manolo Montegriffo (affectionately known to us Brit-Expats as "Monty") - father of the consultant psychiatrist there. He greatly influenced my musical thinking and enlivened my soul to the music of southern Europe and South America. His daughter, who lived in Brazil was an opera singer, and treated us to some Brazilian songs at one of Monty's soirees (and almost shattered our eardrums - what a powerful and beautiful voice she had). Dear old "Monty" also invited me to play violin 2 in his quartet, together with Derek Clarke the consultant eye surgeon on viola, and John Spearman the veterenary surgeon on cello. That was to open a new world of musical experience for me, which I have pursued to this day.

In 1980 I guest-conducted the Gibraltar Choral Society for their Christmas broadcast on Gibraltar Radio. I was also asked to give an interview on GR, but I chickened out of that. A couple of years later, Argo Records made a commercial recording of sacred music at the RC Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned, and I was sub-leader of the chamber orchestra for that record. Vivaldi's "Gloria" was one of the items on that recording, which I believe is now out of production.

A bit before, in 1978, I became the Conductor/Musical Director of the Gibraltar Youth Orchestra , which role I thoroughly enjoyed. I was also Music Advisor for the Gibraltar Music Centre, which organised music educational events for the young people of Gibraltar. The Gibraltar Youth Orchestra and The Girls Comprehensive School Choir "made history" when that year we gave our Christmas Concert in the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned - something totally unheard of before as the thought of concerts in churches then was regarded as being rather sacreligious. I also formed, arranged music for, and conducted the Camerata Singers, who gave their inaugural performance that concert. The "Cameracillas" were a small group of young ladies with wonderful voices singing SSA (and at times SSMMAA). They came to the notice of Gibraltar Radio and gave a most charming interview that Christmas.  

In 1981 I formed and conducted the Gibraltar Youth String Ensemble, who performed the Corelli Christmas Concerto with "Muggins" conducting from the violin. However, times changed, and the Gibraltar Government transferred me to the primary school sector, where my work as a teacher in charge of music for two primary schools and my new family responsibilities took over. And so my composing and musical lives gave way completely.


But in 2008, back in England, a strange miracle happened. I was taken ill (Strange notion!!! ... Is illness a miracle???) with a particularly vicious attack of gout (or to use its more dignified term "metabolic arthritis" - ooh yerh, squire!). I had visions of myself hobbling around on walking sticks for the next few years, as I lay there for two months in constant pain. Well, I thought, my legs were pretty shot up, but my brain was active. So I thought I would just amuse myself with my music editing software on the new laptop I bought barely 3 months before.

Before I knew where I was, I had already started to write a string quartet. Wow! I thought, how exciting! For some strange reason, the string quartet just seemed to write itself, and I was going along almost on auto-pilot, following my fingers type into my laptop (which was a Godsend, 'cos I was confined to bed). It was as if another energy, another spirit, was writing it for me.

However, music intellectualism took over, and I began to analyse what I (or rather the other energy) had written so far. Big, big mistake!! And I remembered what Prof Peter Evans (Southampton University, composer) once said to me after discussing my compositions, "Well, you could just analyse your music to oblivion!" For every reason you can find for the existence of a musical phrase, you can find ten for its demise! So the damage was done - my string quartet came to a halt, and I just thought, "Oh well, here goes again, another unfinished work by a frustrated composer!!"

But then suddenly I began the second movement, which amused me no end! Over days, the title "Limping Waltz" came to me again and again, like a childish obsession!! What? I wondered. Why was I obsessing over  Tchaikovsky's Sixth, 2nd Movement - the "not-quite-a-waltz" movement? I was quizzing myself, but... no answer came, and I just let my fingers do the work. Then it struck me! Here suddenly was theme 3 of my second movement, and I found myself typing into the score "Dolorosamente furioso", except that the pain was not an emotional one, but in my feet and legs!!! So!!! Here we have it, a limping waltz in 7/8 time (ie, it can't decide whether to be a Viennese or ballroom waltz, while trying to be elegant at the same time - and occasionally misses its footing)!  

Well, to cut a very long story short (because there are four movements!) I finally finished the quartet! And the illness was what made me compose it! So, whether you believe that there is a spirit out there that helps you to create, or (as my psychology training would tell me) it is an unconscious cognition within, it's not all that important really. Sometimes, often, it is in the face of adversity that we find inspiration. And I expect what I needed to learn from this was: write from the heart and keep your head in check (not vice versa - and I think Prof Evans and John Gardner would agree.)

I hope this resonates with some of your experiences.

(Epilogue -Since this page was first written I have decided to release the string quartet as a String Symphony, as I feel it needs the expanse of a string orchestra. However it should still work as a string quartet, and so both versions are available.)

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