Anthony Payne (1936-2021)
Summary with links:
BBC Radio 3 In Tune tribute 30 April 2021 at 1:07
Guardian 4 May 2021
The Times 3 May 2021
Time Out 2013 article (scroll down for article in full)
Independent 60th birthday tribute
Selected Obituaries in full:
Monday 3 May 2021
Tony Payne cast his mind back to the autumn day in 1972 when he first contemplated the sketches for a Third Symphony left by Edward Elgar at his death in 1934. “I had found them reproduced at the end of WH Reed’s book Elgar as I Knew Him, along with descriptions of how he had played them on his violin with the composer at the piano,” Payne wrote. “Reed also reported Elgar’s famous deathbed plea not to let anyone tinker with the work.”
Elgar, best known today for the Enigma Variations and his Cello Concerto, had been championed by George Bernard Shaw who, in 1932, persuaded the BBC to commission a new symphony even though the composer’s health was declining. Like Beethoven and his Tenth Symphony a century earlier, Elgar made little progress.
Payne “became convinced of the power, nobility and poignancy of the often-fragmentary material” and soon had it memorised. “I was already in love with the fragments, and felt chagrined that Elgar had been prevented from completing what seemed to me to be an embryonic masterwork.”
Not everyone agreed. “My rage knew no bounds when a well-known conductor, who should have known better, disparaged the sketches,” he recalled. His own work on them was, by necessity, casual. “My career as a composer was taking its first tentative steps, and journalistic hack work used up whatever spare time was left over,” he wrote.
Eventually he examined the original sketches in the British Library, where he made an exciting discovery: “There were sketches, and truly marvellous ones at that, which had escaped Reed’s attention.” Yet progress remained slow until 1993 when Paul Hindmarsh, a Radio 3 producer who knew of his interest, asked if he would make something of them for the Fairest Isle series.
Such was Payne’s enthusiasm that “I barely heeded Paul’s warning that I had better hold my horses until he obtained permission to go ahead from the owners of the copyright; that is, the surviving members of Elgar’s family”. Instead, he “plunged into work on the spur of the exhilarating moment” and within weeks had assembled a couple of movements. It appeared to have been in vain when the family decided that they could not overrule Elgar’s deathbed plea. Disappointed, Payne “bowed to their wishes with as good grace as I could muster”.
The family did, however, agree to Hindmarsh and Payne making a programme about the sketches and were so impressed by the result that they changed their minds. The first performance of the symphony took place at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in February 1998 and the CD was HMV’s bestselling classical title of the week.
The 58-minute work, formally styled as The Sketches for Symphony No 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne, was featured in a televised Prom in August 1998 and received rave reviews. Over the next four years there were 150 performances of what The Times described as “a landmark in the history of British music”.
Payne’s painstaking midwifery was widely recognised. Even so, the time had come to reassert his own identity. This proved problematic for a composer whose music, carefully poised between conservative Englishness and European modernism, was rarely fashionable and he was driven close to a breakdown, describing it “as if a concrete refrigerator had dropped on me”.
He recovered to produce Visions and Journeys, an orchestral piece for the 2002 Proms inspired by visits to the Isles of Scilly. Unsurprisingly, the audience response was nothing like the tumult that had greeted the Elgar piece. “I look on it with a deal of ironic amusement,” he conceded. “But it’s bound to be the case, because Elgar is one of the best-loved composers in the country.”
Anthony Edward Payne was born in London in 1936, the son of Edward Payne, who had fought in the First World War, and his wife Muriel (née Stroud); their musical horizons stretched from Housewives’ Choice on the radio to Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave. “My most significant childhood memories involved [being] evacuated from the outskirts of London to Godalming in 1941 — and a five-year-old’s sudden intense awareness of the opposite sex,” he wrote in a note for his ensemble piece A 1940s Childhood (1989).
By the time Payne arrived at Dulwich College he was already composing. “If I played you one of those pieces you’d say, ‘Oh, it sounds like 1930s English music’,” he said. After National Service with the Royal Signals he read music at Durham University, where he “was overwhelmed by hearing and learning about Schoenberg, Webern and Berg” but “dried up as a composer”.
The problem was solved some years later when a friend asked: “Weren’t you a composer at university? Would you like to write a Mass for my school choir?” The resulting Phoenix Mass (1969), for voices and brass, turned into a bigger work than planned, incorporating English texts and the Latin Mass.
Before then Payne had been establishing himself as a useful musicologist and critic. In his review of the 1967 Last Night of the Proms for The Times he movingly observed the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent, weeks from death, slipping into the Albert Hall to briefly share the podium with Colin Davis.
The previous year Payne had married the soprano Jane Manning, a champion of contemporary music who died a month before him (obituary April 26, 2021). It was a decade before she dared to sing his music in public, when she performed The World’s Winter with the Nash Ensemble at the 1976 Cheltenham Festival. They had no children.
Meanwhile, Payne was writing books about Schoenberg, Frank Bridge and “his” Elgar symphony, teaching in London and Australia, and composing. He also arranged and orchestrated music by other composers of Elgar’s generation, including Vaughan Williams and Delius, as well as making a chamber ensemble arrangement of Bruckner’s Second Symphony.
A tall figure with bushy eyebrows, he could appear solemn. “I laugh but I don’t smile, so people often think I am a bit unfriendly,” he told Time Out in 2013. Nothing could be further from the truth; he was gentle, kind and witty. His other works for the Proms included The Spirit’s Harvest (1985), based in part on sketches he had abandoned in the 1950s, and Time’s Arrow (1990), a representation of the big-bang theory. Of Land, Sea and Sky, describing galloping horses, wild seas and the landscape of the Somme in 1916, was first heard at the 2016 Proms for his 80th birthday.
The debate over whether the Elgar realisation was the completion of an original work or a homage to the composer continued. “I put myself in his place, in so far as I could, through an act of empathy,” Payne concluded. “But at the deepest level I cannot think of the work as being by me. The seeds are Elgar’s. I merely provided the soil.”
Anthony Payne, composer, was born on August 2, 1936. He died from undisclosed causes on April 30, 2021, aged 84
Anthony Payne, superb British composer who completed Elgar’s Third Symphony using the sketches – obituary
Payne’s own compositions, including A Day in the Life of a Mayfly, were beautifully crafted, lyrical and allied to English Romanticism
ByTelegraph Obituaries2 May 2021 • 12:44pm
Anthony Payne (with Penguin metronome): he was surprised
Anthony Payne, who has died aged 84, was a critic, composer and arranger who took a series of fragmentary sketches by Edward Elgar and transformed them into a symphony; the result, which was heard at a televised Prom in 1998, was considered a masterpiece and within four years had received more than 150 performances.
The BBC had commissioned a Third Symphony from Elgar in 1932 and even announced its first performance. But when the composer died on February 23 1934, he left only a series of sketches, about three-quarters of which were published the following year in The Listener. Later they were included in W H Reed’s book Elgar as I Knew Him (1936), providing the basis for speculation about what might have been.
In 1995 Payne, who had long mused on the possibilities for these sketches, gave a radio talk about the putative symphony, illustrated by a few bars from the music. Afterwards, the composer’s estate, which previously had opposed any further work, commissioned him to prepare a performing edition.
Elgar’s sketches were included in W H Reed’s book Elgar as I Knew Him (1936), providing the basis for speculation about what might have been
In an interview with Gramophone magazine Payne explained how his breakthrough came while putting the sketches away after his talk.
“In an absolute flash all sorts of things fell into place in my head,” he said. “I suddenly realised that about five pages of material, which in my photocopies were faint, seemingly unimportant, are development sketches. It’s from that moment that I thought I could complete the first movement. And then I thought, why not go on and do the finale?”
He went on to complete Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 6, which again only existed in sketches, for his 70th birthday Prom in 2006. He also orchestrated works by other British composers of the era, including Delius (two numbers from Seven Songs from the Norwegian) and Vaughan Williams (Four Last Songs and Three Nocturnes).
While Payne’s legacy is inevitably dominated by his realisation of the Elgarian fragments, he also had his own distinctive and hard-won compositional voice that was allied to the early 20th-century Romantic school of English music.
Payne was a distinguished composer in his won right, even though his legacy is dominated by his realisation of the Elgarian fragments
The Stones and Lonely Places (1979) is a dark and melancholy tone poem that conjures up the bleak coastline of western Britain and Ireland; A Day in the Life of a Mayfly (1981), his best-known work before the Elgarian journey, is a haunting reminder of the brevity of animal life; and Scenes from The Woodlanders (1999) evokes the world of Thomas Hardy.
Yet he was rarely a fashionable composer, his beautifully crafted music poised between conservative Englishness and modernism. “I was absolutely amazed,” he said when receiving the listeners’ award in the first Radio 3 British Composer Awards in 2003, “because I’m one of those composers who never win awards.”
As a result, his composition work was poorly remunerated. “People are shocked when I tell them I earn a lot less than £10,000 a year from composing [about £15,500 today], after 30 years in the business,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2005. “Still, you do it for love, don’t you?”
Anthony Edward Payne was born in London on August 2 1936, the son of Edward Payne and Muriel (née Stroud). He was educated at Dulwich College, where his interest in composition was manifest in several works of juvenilia. After National Service with the Royal Signals he read music at St Cuthbert’s Society, University of Durham, but by then he had “dried up as a composer”.
Initially he was both musicologist and critic, writing for the Telegraph, The Independent and Country Life. He also published books on Arnold Schoenberg, Frank Bridge and the Elgar symphony. What he called his first “real piece”, Phoenix Mass for choir and brass, did not appear until 1969 when he was 31.
‘I wanted to marry English late Romanticism with the European avant-garde of the 1960s,’ said Payne
It was written for a teacher friend’s school choir and demonstrated a distinctive voice: a piquant combination of refined modernism and lyrical amplitude that was distinctly English in tone.
“I wanted to marry English late Romanticism with the European avant-garde of the 1960s,” Payne explained to Ivan Hewett in The Daily Telegraph. “Everyone thought I was mad, to think of [Roberto] Gerhard, [Witold] Lutoslawski and [Ralph] Vaughan Williams all in the same piece. But they were the things I was passionate about, and I refused to believe one had to exclude the other.”
A Day in the Life of a Mayfly (1981)
After a year as visiting professor at Mills College, California, he taught composition at London College of Music from 1983 to 1985. He also spent a year at the Sydney Conservatorium. Later he was visiting professorial fellow in composition at the University of East Anglia. In 1994 he was appointed joint artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival with Judith Weir and Michael Berkeley.
Life post-Elgar was not altogether sweet. Payne tried to reassert his own identity, but his health and spirits cracked. “I suddenly felt as if a concrete refrigerator had dropped on me,” he explained. “It was appalling.”
Ultimately the fridge was lifted and the result was Visions and Journeys (2002), a one-movement orchestral essay inspired by regular holidays in the Isles of Scilly.
Anthony Payne CREDIT: Eric Roberts
One of his last works, Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016), was written for the Proms at the time of his 80th birthday and is packed full of the natural imagery he loved so much: the sea in its angriest mood, the thunderous movement of horses’ hooves, the massing of clouds, and the landscape of the Somme as caught in a painting from 1916 by the Australian war artist Arthur Streeton.
Anthony Payne married the soprano Jane Manning in 1966, but it was 10 years before he wrote his first piece for her, The World’s Winter, which she sang with the Nash Ensemble at the 1976 Cheltenham Festival.
In 1988 they jointly founded Jane’s Minstrels, an ensemble dedicated to modern vocal music. They both received honorary doctorates from the University of Durham in 2007, the first couple to be honoured in this way. Jane Manning died on March 31; they had no children.
Anthony Payne, born August 2 1936, died April 30 2021
Anthony Payne obituary
Composer celebrated for completing Elgar’s Third Symphony but whose own voice was more modernist in style
Anthony Payne, centre, with the conductor Andrew Davis at the BBC Proms in 2016, following the premiere of his work Of Land, Sea and Sky. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC
Tue 4 May 2021 17.53 BST
The composer Anthony Payne, renowned for his masterly reconstruction of Elgar’s Third Symphony as well as his own highly original oeuvre, has died at the age of 84, just a month after the death of his wife, the singer Jane Manning. Though he was passionate about such late Romantic English composers as Vaughan Williams and Delius, Payne’s own more bracingly dissonant music was closer to that of the post-1950s modernists, while maintaining its own unique identity.
His earliest music, including an orchestral suite and a piano sonata, was written while a schoolboy at Dulwich college, south-east London, and more followed as he went on to study at Durham University. However, shortly after graduating in 1961, he suffered a nervous breakdown that caused him to abandon musical composition for four years.
The appropriately titled Phoenix Mass, begun in 1965 but not completed until 1972, provided a symbolic revivification of his compositional ambitions with a newly fashioned method of structural organisation. The form of each individual section of this liturgical mass setting was governed by a single interval – the Gloria by whole tones, the Sanctus by major thirds – with melodic lines generated out of accumulations of those intervals. With spiky, fanfare-like interspersions from three trumpets and three trombones, and shouted acclamations in the Gloria, the work vocalised a sense of liberation for the composer.
Shortly after this, Payne devised a system based on random number tables to determine musical elements such as pitches and phrase lengths, a technique that was to underpin his compositions for many years. The lengths of the seven continuous sections of the tone poem The Stones and Lonely Places Sing (1979), for example, are governed by the proportions 3 2 7 4 1 6 5. The first is 21 bars long (3 x 7), the second 14 bars (2 x 7), the third 49 and so on. Preferring this system to what he regarded as the straitjacket of total serialism as practised by Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and others, Payne found that it provided the anchor he needed to set his imagination free.
Another score that drew on the technique was Time’s Arrow, commissioned by the BBC for its 1990 Proms season and one of his finest achievements. A musical representation of the Big Bang, the work begins, after a few bars suggesting a void waiting to be filled, with a thrilling depiction of material exploding and speeding out into space. It spins towards the still centre of the work, before under a gravitational pull reversing back on itself, accelerating towards a replication of the initial momentum. With its confident handling of denser harmonies and a wider range of textures, generated by a full battery of brass and percussion, than in any previous work of his, Time’s Arrow marked a new stage in Payne’s compositional technique and a peak in his career.
Nonetheless, it was his “elaboration” of the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony that brought him to worldwide attention. Though long familiar with the sketches, he began sustained work on them only in 1993 with the invitation of a BBC producer to assemble them in some form for a workshop performance.
At this stage the Elgar family, who owned the copyright, was still withholding its permission for any kind of completion to be undertaken, but the day after returning home from recording a talk for the BBC about the sketches, the idea struck “with the force of a lightning bolt” that four pages of faintly outlined fragments previously discounted were in fact intended for the development section.
Anthony Payne’s completion of Elgar’s Third Symphony, performed at the 1998 Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis
Over the following 10 years he wove together all the fragmentary sketches left by Elgar, where necessary allowing his own imagination to breathe life into these embryonic inspirations. The whole of the development section and coda of the finale were pure Payne; other parts pure Elgar or an admixture of the two.
Despite disquiet in some quarters as to the propriety of “tinkering” (Elgar’s own word) with the sketches – the composer placed a deathbed embargo on attempts to complete the work – the result was widely held to be as accomplished a realisation of Elgar’s intentions as could be contemplated in the absence of the composer. The first public performance came at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in February 1998 under Andrew Davis. It has subsequently been performed all over the world and recorded six times.
Born in London, Anthony was the son of Edward Payne, a civil servant, and Muriel (nee Stroud). At the age of 10 he heard a radio trailer that turned out to be the start of Brahms’ First Symphony: “It came from nowhere and I was absolutely translated; I thought I was floating upwards. And from that moment I was hooked like a fish.”
Before going to Durham he undertook national service with the Royal Signals, and once he had left he contributed to the Times as well as periodicals including Tempo, Musical Times and Music and Musicians. Even after establishing himself as a composer he continued to write for such outlets as the Daily Telegraph and the Independent.
He was also the author of two books: a slim volume on Schoenberg in the Oxford Studies of Composers (1968) and a more substantial study, Frank Bridge: Radical and Conservative (1984), locating the composer in the productive middle ground between the English pastoralists and the Second Viennese School. It was a dichotomy that informed Payne’s own inclinations, though his mature works were always more dissonant than those of Delius and Bax, for all his enthusiasm for them.
Indeed, an early score such as Paean for piano solo (1971), with its belligerently virtuosic clusters, was as challenging to the listener as to the player. The chamber cantata The World’s Winter (1976), with its disjointed, expressionistic word-setting, featuring cries, whispers and onomatopoeic effects, nevertheless betrayed Payne’s English roots, not least in his choice of text: Tennyson’s diptych Nothing Will Die and All Things Will Die. The cantata was written to mark the 10th anniversary of his marriage to Manning, with whom he founded, in 1988, and ran the ensemble Jane’s Minstrels, which performed works from Purcell and Elgar to Schoenberg and Maxwell Davies.
A more genial style was essayed in the colourfully scored A Day in the Life of a Mayfly (1981), its whirring sonorities imitating insects skimming the surface of a pond. The transformation involved in the life-cycle of the mayfly was a significant element in Payne’s conception and indeed the natural world was, and was to remain, a vital ingredient in his creative endeavour.
Further manifestations of that were seen in various works commissioned for the BBC Proms: the depiction of the golden light experienced on the western seaboard of the British Isles in The Stones and Lonely Places Sing, the pastoral allusions of The Spirit’s Harvest (1985), the ocean swell around the Isles of Scilly in Visions and Journeys (2002) and the mysterious horizons and other natural phenomena in Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016), a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra commissioned to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, for which Payne wrote his own Whitman-flavoured text.
Even the more abstract conceptions such as the Horn Trio (2006) or the Piano Quartet (2014) consciously reflected organic natural processes in their evolutionary unfolding.
Following the success of the Elgar project, Payne suffered a recurrence of his earlier depressive condition, describing it “as if a concrete refrigerator had dropped on me”. In person as in his art, a somewhat forbidding exterior (“I laugh but I don’t smile, so people often think I am a bit unfriendly,” he once told Time Out) masked the warmth and humanity that lay beneath. He and Manning, soulmates for over half a century, were staunch proponents of the new, and irreplaceable luminaries of the contemporary music scene.
He is survived by a nephew and two nieces.
Anthony Edward Payne, composer, born 2 August 1936; died 30 April 2021
British composer Anthony Payne has died
Sunday, May 2, 2021
The composer best known for completing Elgar’s Third Symphony has died aged 84
Anthony Payne completed Elgar 3 (photo: Jane Manning)
The British composer best known for completing Elgar’s Third Symphony has died at the age of 84. He was married to the soprano Jane Manning, who died just a month earlier on March 31, from 1966. Together in 1988 they founded Jane’s Minstrels, an ensemble championing modern vocal music.
Payne was not generally regarded as a fashionable composer (‘I wanted to marry English late Romanticism with the European avant-garde of the 1960s … Everyone thought I was mad,’ he said); he composed for love, not money, and was frankly amazed when he won the Listeners Award in the first BBC Radio 3 British Composer Awards in 2003 because, in his own words, ‘I’m one of those composers who never win awards’.
Elgar’s Third Symphony was commissioned by the BBC in 1932 but when the composer died in 1934 he left behind fragmentary sketches, currently housed in the British Library. When Payne broadcast an illustrated talk on these in 1995, for the first time allowing listeners to hear the few bars Elgar left in full score, Elgar’s family consented to Payne preparing a performing edition. A breakthrough immediately followed: ‘In an absolute flash, all sorts of things fell into place in my head,’ he told Gramophone(3/98). ‘I suddenly realised that about five pages of material which in my photocopies were faint, seemingly unimportant, are development sketches. It’s from that moment that I thought I could complete the first movement. And then I thought, why not go on and do the finale?’ His contemporary Colin Matthews worked with him on the project and told Radio 3’s in Tune: ‘It was an absolute tour de force of insight and imagination into Elgar’s world.’
Recorded in 1997 by the BBC SO under Andrew Davis, the completed symphony received its London premiere and also appeared at the Proms the following year. Payne also completed Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 6 (2006), and orchestrated works by other British composers including Delius and Vaughan Williams.
Born in London and educated at Dulwich College and Durham University, Payne began his career as a musicologist and critic, and also published books on Schoenberg, Bridge and the Elgar symphony. He later taught at London College of Music and the University of East Anglia, and was, in 1994, joint artistic director with Judith Weir and Michael Berkeley of the Spitalfields Festival. His first ‘real piece’, as he called it – Phoenix Mass, for choir and brass – didn’t appear until 1969 when he was 31. This led to commissions from ensembles including the English Chamber Orchestra and the Nash Ensemble. He wrote a song-cycle, The World’s Winter (1976), for his wife – a setting of two Tennyson poems subsequently recorded live at Cheltenham Festival by Manning and the Nash Ensemble and praised in these pages for its ‘divergent tendencies to simplification and elaboration [which] interact with arresting results’; while Time’s Arrow, a 1990 BBC Proms commission subsequently recorded for NMC, was described as ‘an expansive and well-proportioned composition, which has all the substance of a symphony in one movement … Payne’s romantic roots are as fruitful here as his more modernistic attributes.’ (2/97).
Post-Elgar 3, Payne struggled to reassert his own identity but eventually produced a one-movement orchestral essay inspired by holidays to the Isles of Scilly, Visions and Journeys (2002). Among his final works was another large-scale single-movement orchestral work, Of Land, Sea and Sky (2015-16). A decade previously, Payne and Manning had both received honorary doctorates from the University of Durham – the first couple to receive such an honour.
Anthony Payne – born August 2, 1936; died April 30, 2021
BBC News website
Celebrated composer Anthony Payne dies
By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter
IMAGE SOURCEANTHONY PAYNE
image captionThe composer’s death comes a month after that of his wife, soprano Jane Manning
Composer Anthony Payne, who famously completed Elgar’s unfinished Third Symphony, has died at the age of 84.
One of Britain’s most-respected writers, he was also a renowned critic, whose books on Schoenberg and Frank Bridge became standard texts.
His death comes just a month after that of his wife, the soprano Jane Manning.
“They were inseparable in life, and I suppose it’s not a surprise that he would follow her so soon after,” said composer Colin Matthews on BBC Radio 3.
Payne was born in London in 1936 and educated at Dulwich College and Durham University.
He discovered classical music at the age of 10 when, visiting relatives in Godalming, he heard Brahms’s First Symphony on the radio and found himself transfixed.
“It came from nowhere and I was absolutely translated; I thought I was floating upwards,” he told Time Out in 2013. “And from that moment I was hooked like a fish.”
By the time he arrived at Durham to study music in 1958, he had already begun composing his own works, inspired by early 20th-century Romantics such as Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams.
After graduating, he spent a period as a music critic and author, before composing his Phoenix Mass, which led to commissions from ensembles including the English Chamber Orchestra and the Nash Ensemble.
He was commissioned four times by the BBC Proms, which led to his celebrated reconstruction of Elgar’s Third Symphony.
Matthews, who worked with him on that project, said it took about five years to complete, using 130 pages of sketches the composer had left behind after his death in 1934.
“It was an absolute tour de force of insight and imagination into Elgar’s world,” Matthews told Radio 3’s In Tune. “He hadn’t initially intended to try to reconstruct the piece – but eventually he realised there was a lot more there than anyone imagined.”
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Payne’s other works also drew on the romantic tradition, with notable compositions including Time’s Arrow, The World’s Winter, and a Pomp and Circumstance in the style of Elgar.
His “quiet but thoughtful presence in British music always strikes me as a kind of anchorage in sanity, confirming the continuing life of trusted values,” critic Michael White once wrote in The Independent on Sunday.
A fellow of the Royal College of Music, the composer often wrote for and performed with his wife – with whom he formed the ensemble Jane’s Minstrels in 1988.
Together, the ensemble performed works by Purcell, Elgar, Bridge, Grainger, Webern and Schoenberg.
The couple were also keen supporters of the contemporary music scene, regularly attending concerts organised by young and upcoming composers.
Manning died last month at the age of 82. Matthews said the loss had taken a toll on Payne’s health.
“He knew it was coming, but it made it no easier for him,” he said. “When I last spoke to him he was sort of coming to terms with it, but not in good health.”
Payne is survived by a nephew and two nieces.
Time Out Interview 2013
Anthony Payne interview
© Rob Greig
Anthony Payne interview
What’s it like living inside another composer’s head? Payne tells all to Jonathan Lennie
By Jonathan Lennie Posted: Wednesday August 28 2013
‘I laugh, but I don’t’ smile, so people often think I am a bit unfriendly.’ says Anthony Payne solemnly, before bursting into a guffaw. The sprightly and entertaining, 77-year-old composer (‘Tony’ to his friends) is at home in Islington, where he has lived with his soprano wife, Jane Manning, since 1970. And like his unreconstructed house and the ancient Nissan Sunny that sits outside, there is something reassuringly old-school about him.
Inside, Payne’s living room might well be a hard copy of his mind, displaying a serious musical bent and sense of humour. A piano sits by the back window (the score of Hindemith’s ‘Marienleben’ on the stand). On its lid, a range of curiosities includes a wooden gramophone and Nipper the dog (models of the iconic HMV symbol) and a metronome in the shape of a penguin. Everywhere there are teetering towers of books – an overspill from the bookcase crammed alphabetically with biographies of composers. Among them is a generous selection of the English late-Romantics – particularly Edward Elgar (whose Third Symphony he famously finished) and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose ‘Four Last Songs’, he has just orchestrated for this year’s BBC Proms. Written by VW for piano and voice just before he died in 1958, the ‘Four Last Songs’ (not to be confused with the similarly titled cycle by Richard Strauss) are melancholic settings of poems by VW’s second wife Ursula and entitled ‘Procris’, Menelaus’, ‘Tired’ and ‘Hands, Eyes and Heart’. ‘She is not a great poet by any means,’ admits Payne, ‘but she has a gift of every now and again coming up with an interesting phrase that really focuses the attention.’
Music experts are convinced that the composer had always intended to orchestrate them himself. So, who better than Payne, who declares that ‘I have always felt that I am terribly close to VW; he is like my musical godfather.’
For someone of his experience, though, surely orchestrating a finished song-cycle is easy. He frowns. ‘I wouldn’t say it’s easy, as such,’ he says, ‘but the big creative thing has already been done – there are the notes. What you have to do is live in his world. But I am soaked in Vaughan Williams; I have loved his music ever since I was a teenager and know all of his works… It was a very enjoyable task – it is lovely living inside another composer’s head just for a short time.’ The key phrase is ‘a short time’, for Payne is well aware of the dangers of living too long in the mind of another composer, as he discovered while completing Elgar’s half-finished Symphony No 3 from unlabelled fragments. ‘It was just like doing a jigsaw puzzle,’ he reflects fondly, ‘but without the reassuring picture on the box.’
After thinking about it on and off for 20 years, when the commission finally came in 1996, he immersed himself in Elgar’s world. ‘I was composing away for dear life just like I would do on one of my own pieces,’ he explains. ‘It was rather like an actor must feel in a role – I was playing Elgar to the best of my ability. However, I was seriously worried at the end of it that I would not be able to be myself again. For 18 months I was living inside this work. It was fantastic while I was doing it, but I thought: How can I possibly get back to writing my stuff?’
His ‘stuff’ is regularly programmed in concerts alongside English late-Romantic pieces. Why is that? ‘Maybe it is because I have always tried to somehow show my ties with the English Romantics, whom I love,’ he says. ‘But I am equally fascinated with European modernism. So they might just as well programme my music along with Webern’s as much as Elgar’s.’ Born in London to unmusical parents, – his father was a civil servant and mother, ‘a sort of Romantic flibbertigibbet’ – Payne can’t explain where his musical talent comes from. But, as he explains, ‘I had this incredible Damascene experience when I was about ten. The radio was playing one rainy afternoon and I was wishing I could get outside and play with my ball. And this music started to play in a trail for an evening concert. It came from nowhere and I was absolutely translated; I thought I was floating upwards. And from that moment I was hooked like a fish. I wondered what that music was – it turned out to be the beginning of Brahms’s First Symphony.’
Having completed the Third Symphony and written a sixth ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ in the style of Elgar, among other projects, Payne clearly loves engaging with the music of a century ago. But has he ever been tempted to truly inhabit the period by perhaps growing a big Victorian moustache? ‘No,’ he says, betraying the traces of a smile. ‘Nor to ride a penny farthing.’