We are thrilled to start the New Year with the World Premiere of Erika Fox’s David spielt vor Saul with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Geoffrey Paterson – conductor and Julian Jacobson – piano on Thursday 13 January at Glasgow City Halls.
This is a work which has been in ‘slow cook’ for nearly 30 years! Erika Fox gives us a fascinating insight into the story of this piece and into the intriguing context of a composer’s life and process to bringing new music to the world:
‘It was almost 30 years ago when I first heard Julian Jacobson, then known as Julian Dawson-Lyall play. It was at a concert at St. John’s Smith Square, where his performance of Janacek’s Concertino was quite brilliant, and I don’t mean technically, although of course that was there too, but a memorably heartfelt musical experience.
Composers are inspired by many different things. For myself it is sometimes a dramatic story, as opera is probably my first love. Often it is poetry, and sometimes the playing of a particular instrumentalist. I thought then how wonderful it would be to write a piece for Julian, and although I didn’t know him at all at the time, I asked him whether he would be interested in such a venture, and he said yes.
I applied to a then funding body and was lucky enough to be given a commission and a little funding. A very little, because then, as now, we in England seem to regard classical composers as funny chaps (usually chaps, certainly at that time) who ought to earn a living in some more fitting way. However, I have to confess that I did not deserve even this amount of trust in my abilities, because I am talking about the early nineties and we are now in January 2022 and the work was finally completed in August 2021.
Why, if I was really keen on writing something for Julian was I unable to do so? There are probably many reasons of which I was perhaps not aware at the time. My music is not concerned with harmony. I think in terms of lines. When these lines come together the effect is heterophonic rather than harmonic. Such an approach is, of course, not particularly conducive to what works for the piano, which is a harmonic rather than a melodic instrument. Moreover, I myself am not a virtuoso pianist. Although I started my days at the Royal College of Music on a piano scholarship, it quickly became apparent that I was more interested in composition. I was of course very seriously determined to write this work but somehow it didn’t happen. I would go to my cottage in Pembrokeshire where I often spend time composing, because of the peace and quiet of the countryside away from the noise of London, and start a piano concerto. I would write reams of music, each time deciding it just wasn’t good enough. I don’t know why I have not thrown all those efforts away, but they lie in piles of wasted manuscript paper.
From time to time I would come across Julian at concerts or even arrange a meeting, and he would say “where’s my piano concerto?” and I would say it was coming along, or I had to start again, (true!) or it was nearly finished. It got to the stage where I would try to avoid Julian and not go to some of his recitals when I had really wanted to be there, for fear of the inevitable question! In recent years we arrived, as I thought, at a sort of truce, in that I did go to some of his concerts and we kept off the subject and I thought it had turned into a sort of mini unspoken joke between us.
Be that as it may, another thing happened in more recent years, in that there seemed to be a bit more interest shown in my work and a CD of a few of my chamber pieces came out and after many years of relative silence, some of my works were again performed, including an orchestral piece by the BBCSO under Ilan Volkov. I received a telephone call from Dominic Parker, director of the BBCSSO offering me a commission. “what do you want to write?” he asked. Somehow, entirely without meaning to, I blurted out that I was in default of keeping my promise to Julian. “Oh good, a piano concerto it is then, for Julian Jacobson”. It was on the tip of my tongue to say I didn’t mean it, but I was too ashamed. Yet I still half believed I could change my mind. Then I had an email from Julian that he had been booked to play the concerto!! Oh dear! He seemed pleased. For which I am indeed grateful. Frankly I could not imagine why he was still talking to me!
I found myself at the cottage in Pembrokeshire having to write 2 smaller pieces: a trumpet solo work for the 200th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Music, and a work for contrabass flute and piano which was not a commission but a promise on my part for my old friend and very special pianist John Tilbury, and Carla Rees. Having completed those works and finding myself in lockdown trapped in the silence I always craved but which turned out, as many will confirm, much too much. And knowing, in intellectual terms, how very fortunate I am compared with huge numbers of the sick and the dead, I knew that this was the moment. I HAD to write the work.
As I said at the beginning, poetry has often provided inspiration for me and this is no exception. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem based on the biblical story of David playing on his harp before Saul, to calm him. Here are a few phrases (translated from the German by Stephen Cohn) ‘King, do you hear the music of my strings project a space we move in like our own………….my premonitions guide and shape my songs to match your memories: where are the strings to make the darkness sound those sighs again?…….King though you hide yourself in darkness you still cannot escape my music’s force……’
Not that I place myself, in any sense, on the level of a Rilke, but I have written a number of works using lines from some of his poems, which imprint themselves in the memory.
My work is probably not a piano concerto in the traditional sense, because it is not particularly virtuosic, nor is the piano always the most important or even prominent voice, but it can be said to be ‘for piano and orchestra’. The orchestral layout is not the traditional one, as I intend some voices as echoes, and independent of each other. So if entries are not simultaneous, that is because they are not meant to be group sounds but separate lines’. (Erika Fox)
We at Composers Edition are really looking forward to this premiere, and to publishing David spielt vor Saul in due course.