A chat with Howard Blake...

Posted on: 21 December 2010 by Rhian Mainwaring

Howard Blake, a British institution and the world famous composer of Walking in the Air takes some time out to have a chat with us about musical inspiration, the idea of retirement and what Christmas means to him…

Howard Blake“My mother playing Chopin’s Waltz was my first musical memory," Blake informs us when we start discussing when music came into his life, the predominant answer to all our questions, is young! "The first instrument I picked up was a brass flagellate” (a brass pipe instrument to you and me!)  “I could immediately play it at 5 years old”. This natural talent sees Howard Blake moving from novice to pro on most instruments in a matter of moments, he can play the piano, organ, violin and flute, in fact, you name it and Blake can probably play it!

At the age of nine, he wrote little tunes in the family Christmas cards and by 12 years old, he had written his first score, March in D Major. Although he recalls, “I wrote it all in ink and took it to my piano teacher who didn’t believe I’d written it, in fact he accused me of lying!” Once Blake had proved him wrong, he took him under his wing and taught him how to write harmonies, a skill which unknown to a young Blake at the time, would shape his professional career.

As a teenager Blake never considered being a composer, or  not as his main occupation at least, his talent at the time lay in playing the organ, and it was this dream which took him to study at The Royal Academy on a scholarship, taught by  Harold Craxton for piano and Howard Ferguson for composition. Here he discovered that he just, well liked composing, “I only wrote music because I liked to write, but didn’t think anyone would ever like it. It was a really gradual process and I guess I only became a film composer because people kept asking me to do it.” Well, it’s good work if you can get it, Howard!

One of Blake's lesser-known loves is choir music, and if you know his career then it's no surprise as his contribution to choir music has been immense. The choirmaster who taught Blake to sing was one of his biggest influences growing up and he continued to sing in the choir at the Royal Academy. “I don’t sing in a choir anymore, but I have never stopped writing music for choirs, Lincoln Cathedral are going to record all of my choir music, which I can’t wait to hear, it’s a real honour” he adds.

Coming from a family without a lot of money and earning his scholarship to study at the Royal Academy meant Blake was able to pursue his love of music and carve a lucrative career. However, for a younger generation of scholars the avenues to university and higher education are narrowing drastically. When we spoke to him his views on tuition fees were clear, “I am totally on their side, it is absolutely disgraceful… there should be free education available for everyone around the glove. Everyone should have the opportunity to go to University. Nowadays I would never have been able to afford to go to University and scholarships shouldn’t be the only answer!”

When he's not composing or playing Blake’s spare time, what there is of it, is spent socialising with friends, and it came as a surprise to us when he added, “I don’t really listen to music too much as it tends to get into my head and I might be tempted to steal it! If I go to concerts there mostly classical, I used to go to see The Beatles and Pink Floyd but I don’t really go to those sort of concerts anymore!”

So at 73 with the Beatles and Floyd behind him, we had to ask  whether retirement was on his mind, but his quick response of “I think if I was going to retire, I would have done it already” can only mean that his years of composing are no way near over. “There’s always new things coming up, once I’ve had an idea I try to work out what medium I think it fits with, be it ballet, film or cartoons. In fact, I am thinking about doing another animation film but nothing is confirmed yet…watch this space.”

Having a career that has spanned more than 50 years must have meant a lot of changes, we questioned him on modern technology and if it is an integral part of his work. “Well, I think, yes, it is. During the 1990s, I resisted using the computer for work and I had an assistant who started to set up my music on software. One day when I was snowed in, in Sweden, and I had my laptop with me, I sat down and tried to figure out how it worked. After hours of tears and starting again, I succeeded and since then I have written my music straight onto the computer!”

It goes without saying that you can’t speak to Howard Blake without mentioning The Snowman, but is it like a catchphrase that gets boring the more it’s repeated? “I still love listening to The Snowman and I particularly like seeing how different people play it, which is lucky, because at this time of year it is rather hard to escape from!” So what does Christmas look like in the Blake household, “I love Christmas Day with my family and I also like to go to carol services. I do what everyone else does at Christmas and actually Christmas for me is also the legacy of the snowman!”

If you fancy watching the stage show it’s on every Christmas at Sadlers Wells’ Peacock Theatre, or you can watch it in the comfort of your own home on DVD.

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