Peter Farnbank, Composer .

 Modern Composers I Most Admire

This page will take some time to build up, so please return again for new additions.


Let me start with a couple of little stories. 

I was once with some musical friends at one of the many musical soirees in Gibraltar given by my old friend Manolo Montegriffo (affectionately known as "Monty" to his ex-pat friends) . We had just finished the Nocturne of Borodin's exquisite Second String Quartetwhen Violeta Benady, then Leader of the Gibraltar Symphony Orchestra, exclaimed with her inimitably fiery passion, "Now, why couldn't my Mozart have written something like this!!" 

To which Marjorie Discombe, a distinguished local violin teacher, replied with her customary courteous smile, "Well, times were different, my dear. Mozart didn't have the language of people like Borodin who came later...."

"But...", replied Violeta, "they have the same heart, don't they? Mozart, Borodin, Ravel. .... ?!"

Silence ensued! None of us could argue with that. Interesting though, that she should have used the present tense, as though the spirit of each and every composer still lives on...

On the flip side, more recently a mature student sighed with dismay after enduring listening to a modern piece by a contemporary composer, "Are there any living composers today who can write nice music? Like the music of ...   ... Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Brahms ....?" 

To which, another aficionado replied, "Well, times have changed, my friend. We live in the modern world, we speak with a modern language, we create a modern music....  Except of course for commercial composers of film, media and advertising..."

I wish to prove that aficionado wrong ... because there are composers today and over the last century of "modern music" who compose in languages in much the same order as the Sibelius or the Mahler or the Tchaikovsky (Russian transliteration - "Chajkovskij" - and pronunciation - "cheekawfskee"). Some of these modern composers are forthrightly neoromantic.

I remember my conversation with John Gardner down at the oldy-worldy pub in Durham. We had been getting deeper into the psyche of modern music that evening as the ales flowed... when I finally summed up the courage to talk about the music of a few contemporary composers (and professors of composition), whose music over the past 5 years since qualifying from college, I had been struggling to understand - let alone "climb on the backs of" (as my own Prof Evans had urged). I went through several trying to be most tactful (as John himself was a composition professor), and on one particular professor-composer, John said, "Well,... he is a brilliant guy, no doubt, but...", he grimaced, "his music is rather dry, isn't it?"

"What do you mean - "dry"?" I enquired.
"Well...'' he cautiously added, "a bit ... lacking in soul ..... all those notes .... on an intellectual scaffold...." 

Suddenly I felt something massive implode inside me.... my "big bang". Those words had the most profound effect on me! And I had never realised till that moment really that it is the soul that is really behind creation. And it was then that John fired his final shot, "I think you should just compose how the h... you like and not care what anyone else thinks!" And then he tottered off to the bar again.... unaware that his words would rest immortal within me. Always made me smile whenever I think of that!

This page then is dedicated to those stalwart heros and heroines who would not let the mellifluent language of the Golden Era of music die. Some of them are neo-romantics (which I'd like to see myself as), others are pioneers, while others still just extend the traditional language of music to the furthest possible reaches of its expressive capabilities. But they are all united in my mind in one common factor - their regard for the the music of the Golden Age to which my fellow music-lover here refers.

Imagine if you like, if it were possible, how the language of Shakesepare could be embellished by our 21st century vocabulary, while preserving its classically exotic character. Jean Cocteau, the French playwright, did something similar. In his classical Greek plays he would introduce anachronisms such as a wrist-watch etc.... but that's not exactly what I mean.

Well, it's a thought ....

Here then are some modern composers (both legendary and contemporary) whose music I love, although of course not all of them can be called "neoromantic". Some of their musics are great not just because of their beauty and power, but on a personal level I want to show and perhaps explain here how they inspired me, and continue to inspire me. Again the views expressed here are my own and do not claim to represent those of any group.


The short list of legendary composers I have included here have perhaps one thing in common: they are as skilled in writing in the language of their own (modern) age as imitating and/or extending the language of the Golden Age. One of Geoffrey Boulton-Smith's most profound statements was that a good pastiche should always subtly exhibit some idiom of the contemporary age of the composer. And so if any work by any of these composer works could be regarded as pastiche, there will be some elements that are distinctly "modern".

William Walton (1902-83) 

Walton's music never ceases to amaze or inspire me. To me he is the ultimate neo-romantic, living and working in perhaps the most turbulent time in the Twentieth Century. A self-taught composer, he seems to have found his language early on. Though he experimented with more advanced techniques, he never lost his traditional roots. The beginning of his Cello Concerto sports some very ambivalent structures, but every now and again we are reminded of exquisite tonality in the form of what I call "Walton moments" where he would simply layer a strand with one of his most gorgeous sounding polychords (in the strings and harp) - which somehow seem to pull together the divergent streams of  ambiguous tonality.

Belshazzar's Feast is a absolutely marvellous work, and will always for me be the "final word" for Walton. The sheer power of the espressionism in this cantata - pride, pain, ecstacy, debauchery, nobility, doom and final triumph over Belshazzar's demise - must surely move even the most uninitiated listener. The whole can be encapsulated in a single line of unaccompanied bass solo, but when the combined forces of a full symphony orchestra, organ, choir and battery of percussion, the effect must surely leave one breathless! And what of the music painting of the exhortations "Praise ye, praise ye the god of... (gold, iron, wood etc)", which is almost ballet like but with a certain paganistic arrogance that mocks at divinity?!

And what about his Violin Concerto (1939). A musical friend once exclaimed "Isn't this just music to die for?" And who could disagree with her, when you hear this?

Big vocabulary, big orchestra, big sound, big colour spectra, deep heart-wrenching reverberations - to me Walton is the quintessential neoromantic!! And the quintessential multitonalist!

Igor Stravinsky (Stravinskij)

No single book or website could do justice to this one greatest of composers, and I won't presume to try that here. I just want give my personal views as to why I admire this great composer so much. 

A wonderful example of a good pastiche can be found in his "Pulcinella Suite". Some passages are unmistakably modern, as though the Stravinsky voice emerges out of the Pergolesi, after having given the latter a good airing!!

Ralph Vaughan Williams 

Who would have suspected that Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony (1943) actually starts in two simultaneous keys - C major (strings) and D major (horns)?

Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951)

OK, I know what you must be thinking, and no, it's not a mistake to include the "father of serial music" here. Schoenberg's early compositions are truly exquisite romantic masterpieces.  Imagine Schoenberg's predicament when he reached what many scholars refer to as the  furthest reaches of tonality (at the time) in his "Verklaerte Nacht" (Transfigured Night") (1899), inspired by the poem of Richard Dehmel. This portrays the "expressionist" ultra-romanticism from pain to ecstacy of two lovers on a slow stroll through a moon-lit wood, from the woman's secret that she is carrying another man's child to the man's pledge to made the child his own - whereupon the night becomes "transfigured" .....

"Du treibst mit mir auf kalten Meer, doch eine einige Waerme flimmert
von Dir in mich, von mir in Dich.
Die wird das fremde Kind verklaeren, Du wirst es mir, von mir gebaeren..."

(You journey with me on a cold sea, yet a certain warmth glows
from you into me, from me into you.
Which will transfigure the outsider's child, you bear him mine to be, by me begotten ...)

Having reached his furthest boundaries of tonality in this most beautiful work, where else in the tonal world could Schoenberg go? And I guess this was where he needed to search for his Ultima Thule .... and invent .. atonality.

Living Composers

Adrienne Albert (b. 1941)

Adrienne is lovely - a lively, warm person, whose sunny character cannot help but breathe life into every musical phrase she writes. (She also has the great fortune of having a name which will always come first in most lists - Hey! Might be a tip there for aspiring artists out there.) A full time composer, internationally acclaimed, admired by such prominent people as Leonard Bernstein, Adrienne needs no eulogy from me. But to me, Adrienne's music reminds me just a little of Robert Schumann, who has been described by various scholars as "the true Romantic" and a "miniaturist". Adrienne could write the shortest piece of music and capture the spirit so exquisitely. She told me once the lovely story behind "Boundaries" (2005) (a miniature for string quartet) - which is one of my favourites - of how she wrote it for a celebratory party in honour of her father's retirement. 

But do visit her website. There is also more music of hers on YouTube such as "For my Mother" (2009) (for piano trio).

Viva neo-romanticism!!

Amy Scurria (b. 1973)

Insipirational! Not just for the music's character - now nationalistic, now playful, now contemplative, now nature-inspired - but for the beauty of Amy's musical language.

The one character-piece I love from Amy's repertoire is "Games Children Play" (1995) (violin and spoken voice). I wish I had heard this way back in the early 70's when I was studying Berio's music in a related genre (couldn't have been possible though - unless Amy is a time-traveller too).

There are some real gems on Amy's website. (I'll come back later and suggest a few.)

Alexander Prior (b 1992)

What can one say about Alex!? Child prodigy, genius etc would just not be enough. But best of all perhaps is "He is ours! Our British Mozart!" Well, the Russians can claim him too (his mother is of Russian descent), but he does live mostly in UK! He is a most prolific composer even at such a tender age, having composed, among other things some six symphonies! And there is an endless stream of commissions, even from such cultural giants as the Moscow State Ballet, Rubinstein Opera etc., as well as being in great demand as a conductor by some of the world's leading orchestras. Have a listen to his "Quadruple Concerto" on his homepage.

Actually, Alex's genius could be quite de-spiriting for aspiring composers, but just welcome Alex in your psyche as a composer who unashamedly preserves the language of the Golden Age, and be heartened!! Thanks also to his Russian composer-mentor.

Heather Schmidt (b 1975) 

Heather hails from north of the 49th Parallel. Listen to some of her music on her own website.

Maria Grenfell (b 1969)

Maria was (like myself) born in Malaysia, although she grew up in New Zealand. Her music has an exotic flavour influenced by Maori folk song. Maria also writes music for children's education. Here are some music samples on her website.

Lee Actor (b 1952)

There are very few contemporary works of the genre whose beauty could compare with Lee's "Meditation" from his Violin Concerto (2005).

John Adams (b 1947)

A great (one of the pioneers) exponent of "minimalism", John's music fascinates me as a psychologist, because of its attributed "hypnotic effects" among other things.

His opera (and later symphony) "Doctor Atomic" displays a rare musical journey of insight into the thoughts and feelings of J Robert Oppenheimer (of the Atomic Bomb repute). As someone deeply interested in music psychology myself, I find John's musical visionary quite uncanny!! Might this be a future trend in music literature, as psychologists research deeper into the realms of musical cognition? 

John Corrigliano (b 1938)

The composer for the film "The Red Violin", John is said by one critic .... as a man capable of expressing the most dramatic with the simplest of structures. (sorry, I'll get the exact quote another time...). Listen to the complex metrical structures, the persiflage etc  on a simple melodic sequence in his Second Symphony (2000) 4th Movement (for chamber orchestra). Notice how he expands the simple melodic theme to the most complex of textures (both metrical and harmonic) and then filters it all down to the bare minimum of a single note. What drama!!

This is probably what Prof Evans meant when he said to me, "Keep it economical - get the most out of your sparsest of material!" 

(I'll return to add more things.)

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