From the Sleevenotes: Rick Birley Vol 1

The sleevenotes of the streaming / download-only release Music by Rick Birley: Vol 1 Selected Songs and Orchestral Works

Rick Birley

Rick Birley (b. 1954) is a composer of contemporary ‘classical’ music which adheres to the traditional structures of composition, making his distinctive voice vibrantly fresh yet rooted in well-established forms that render it accessible rather than disturbingly challenging.

Rick studied music at UCW Aberystwyth where he gained his BMus degree and developed his piano technique under the guidance of the formidable pianist Geoffrey Buckley. He later studied education at Cambridge University and was awarded a doctorate from Southampton University in 2008.

After several years as Head of Department in Comprehensive Schools Rick set up and lead the Music Department at Weymouth college very successfully for 18 years. Since 2002 Rick has taught piano, theory and composition privately at home, and had the time at last to concentrate on composing. The majority of the 100+ compositions that make up Rick’s oeuvre date from 2002.

The roots of Birley’s musical styles are embedded in many cultural references, including folk idioms, plainsong melody, the rhythm of poetry and the narrative of specific events in history. His language explores dissonance within tonal harmonic contexts and dynamic rhythm set into many varied but discernible beat structures (metric modulation).

Through the use of sometimes complex, very personal harmonic language Birley’s music reaches expressive depths that are profound yet recognisable. He makes frequent use of counterpoint, canons & sub melodies, using varied articulations and creating fascinating textural underlays. Of primary importance, always, is melody and its development.

Rick has composed piano, instrumental, chamber, vocal, choral and above all orchestral music. His symphonic poems are very diverse in mood, in complexity, in length and in narrative. For example, five “Bishops and Clerkes” poems describe different aspects of a tide-swept archipelago of small, uninhabited islands & deadly rocks off the Pembrokeshire coast; “Nursery Rhymes Kaleidoscope” is a lively scherzo incorporating many traditional nursery rhymes; “Olympian Glories” is a mostly gentle, almost pastoral reflection of an Olympic Games somewhere on the other side of the world; the narrative that drives the “Hebrew Songs of Love, Faith and Survival” is the survival of a single anonymous melody created by a Jew from the annihilated Warsaw ghetto – this is a 40-minute-long single movement for principal solo violin and large orchestra that draws upon many Hebrew folksongs & ancient Chassidic melodies: a Violin Concerto in all but name.

Other substantial symphonic works include: “Peterloo” that commemorates the 1819 massacre; “Maverick”, a joyful burlesque describing a walk with his dog in the woods; “Call to Remembrance” which sets the ‘Last Post’ in the grip of the horror of WW1; Concert Suites made using music composed for theatre performances; and many folksong-based compositions.

Birley’s output is wide-ranging and covers multiple forms and genres. He has also composed two symphonies, many choral works – sacred & secular, accompanied & ‘a capella’, large & small scale, music for theatre, song cycles, folksong suites and instrumental works for soloist & orchestra. Despite deteriorating health his creative impulses are undimmed, and he continues to compose in Dorset where he has lived since 1985. And he also values his strong family connections with Pembrokeshire – its spectacular coastline and the dangerous tidal waters are the inspiration for the five symphonic poems forming the Bishops and Clerkes set.

Currently there is an expansive 4-movement Concerto for Violoncello almost completed; so too is the Fifth Symphonic Poem – “The Ebb” – in the Bishops and Clerkes set. He is planning a new work for Oboe/Cor Anglais & orchestra, and a third String Quartet.

In 2022 Rick Birley began receiving generous funding to pay for recordings to be made of as many of his 100+ compositions as this money might allow. He has set up “Project22”, now operating thanks to a team of seven friends, each of whom has an expertise to offer. This first streaming is of an earlier recording of a song cycle, “Six Hardy Songs”, recorded in the Birley Centre in Eastbourne (named after his father), and 4 Orchestral works that have been “realised” by Sibelius and the East West Orchestral sampling system.

The composer’s notes:

Six Hardy Songs

Three of these poems were set as a group in 1990 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth (nos 1, 2 & 5). The other three were added in 2005. The texts are all from a collection of 21 poems Thomas Hardy published in 1914, called “Satires of Circumstance”.

1. At Tea – in this poem, the young wife is blissfully unaware that the woman invited to tea and sitting next to her was her own husband’s first choice, “till the fates ordained it could not be so”.

2. By Her Aunt’s Grave, the niece and her lover decide to spend the “sixpence a week” saved over “eighty weeks, or near” (“to cover the cost of her headstone”) at the “dance tonight at the Load of Hay”….

3. Proud Songsters – this poem wonders at the “brand new birds” singing “as if all Time were theirs” which not so long ago were mere “particles of grain, and earth, and air, and rain“.

4. The Lodging-House Fuchsias – Mrs Masters’s Fuchsias were very overgrown and any visitor would be unavoidably given “a sprinkle-bath” walking up the “narrow garden path”. But “when the funeral had to pass”….! Well! – of course the “flowery mass” was “cut back” to carry the coffin out for burial. Hardy must have chuckled when writing this!

5. The Faithful Swallow made the decision in the hot August sunshine not to migrate in the Winter to “another shore as fickle they!”, only to realise that “t’was not the same” in the December “frost, hunger, snow”.

6. The Ruined Maid is anything but ruined, of course…. In this chance meeting in town, a maid wonders at Melia’s new-found chic, to which the refrains all say, in different ways, how “some polish is gained with one’s ruin”.

These six songs were recorded in the summer of 2016, by Abbi Temple & Duncan Honeybourne, in the very impressive Music Studio built by Eastbourne College which opened in September 2011. This facility, which quickly became a key venue in the town’s cultural quarter (it is used by nearby Glyndebourne Opera) is called The Birley Centre, named after my father who became headmaster here in 1956, moving from Eton College where I was born in 1954 (my actual birth was in a Maternity Hospital In Maidenhead).

My father was a young (just 35), dynamic, liberal reformer with a brilliant intellect (Double First from Oxford). He banished corporal punishment, took on the first girls and led by example through the ‘swinging sixties’. These were indeed my happy days.

Orchestral Works by Rick Birley

I have composed a substantial amount of orchestral works. So far none have been performed by an actual orchestra but their inclusion in this first volume will hopefully change that. These ‘performances’ are generated by the combination of Sibelius software and the EastWest sound libraries: The sounds are all made using real players and not generated electronically, this extraordinary software is able to realistically shape phrases and notes with multiple different articulations resulting in a perfectly acceptable substitute for a live orchestra.

7 Chamber Symphony No. 1 in Five Movements

This five-movement chamber symphony is a combination of many elements, most of which go back to music that I composed long ago (some of the material is from my student days). The main composing work was done in 1998 as a string quartet, and this was performed by four BSO friends: Jack Maguire, Kate Stear [now “Hawes”], Stephanie Chambers & Jo Koos. They called themselves “I Strumenti” String Quartet. I went to some of the rehearsals – quite lively affairs! – and for the first time in my life listened to professional performers working on one of my compositions, preparing for a live performance. The quartet was performed in St Mary’s Church, Dorchester, in the summer of 1998 alongside the Dvorak piano quintet for which Duncan Honeybourne joined the group.

So, although the work still exists as a string quartet, I was never entirely at ease with it – hence I never posted it on my website (there are several substantial works that I have not included on this website). I felt particularly that the long fugue in the final movement was pretty unrelenting, somewhat austere, and needed more colour than was possible with just the four string instruments.

It is, essentially, this string quartet which, scored out for a chamber orchestra [picc/fl/ob/CA/cl/bass cl/bsn/contra//2 hns/tpt/tbne/tuba//solo string quintet & strings], constitutes this work.

The opening movement has a slow introduction which presents the dominant theme; this is followed by a rhythmic allegro, which is interrupted by slow sections. The material was taken, by and large, from a trio I composed in February 1982 (there were two movements) for 2 horns & bassoon.The second movement (material again from the 1982 trio for 2 horns & bassoon) is an intense, fugal adagio.The third movement – “Allegro Energico” – was originally a piece for clarinet & piano composed in April/May 1981 when I was teaching in Marlborough, for David White and Charles Hickey [clarinet] to perform at the Calne Festival in 1981.The fourth movement is based mostly on a movement originally written up a mountain in Malawi in 1979 as the middle movement of a sonatina for violin & piano – this is posted on my website.

The last movement revolves around a fugue, originally composed when on a camping holiday in France sometime in the late 1980s. It is one of those sizeable handwritten scores that preceded Sibelius and is lost somewhere underneath the mess of books and papers that litter the basement of our home. At some point – in 1997/8 when thinking about the finale of my first string quartet – I transcribed it into the four parts in which it was originally conceived. The movement has an introduction which also serves as the first part of the coda. The movement – indeed the whole symphony – concludes with a reminder of the allegro from the first movement.

8 Maverick – a whimsical burlesque (orchestral version)

(This is a character sketch of my cocker spaniel “Maverick” out in local woodland where the resident squirrels offered much excitement for him….

This piece was originally composed for 13 solo string players [4,3,3,2,1]. I subsequently rescored it for full orchestra which I think better suits the canine character of the music , offering the full palette of sounds of a large symphony orchestra. The ‘barks’ in particular [Maverick used to bark when nervous or excited….] are more realistic. I like both versions – the intimacy of the original version for string ensemble or the brashness, and the cheekiness, of this orchestrated version.

9 Chansons de France

This is a collection of wonderful little French folksongs strung together in a single movement. Actually each individual folksong was arranged for piano duet several years ago, but in the creation of this work there is much new composition. Weymouth is twinned with Louviers [just as Dorchester is with Bayeux] and back in the mid 1980s my friend and colleague Alan Hal, a superb linguist, and I took the first group of Weymouth College students – all music students – in a battered Ford transit van for the first of many cultural exchanges with the students of the Lycée in Louviers. We had quite an adventure, including breaking down on the outskirts of Paris, and many lifelong friendships were formed from this time. I was given hospitality by the English teacher, Ghislaine Lecavelier, who lived in Rouen which was a good 40 minutes away even at the speed she drove each evening after school.

Sadly, Ghislaine died in January 2016 after a year’s illness. Life can be so very cruel. This has charged these pieces with a particular emotional intensity for me.

Although cast in one movement, these are the folksongs I have set:

1. V’là l’bon vent
2. Il était un petit navire
3. La Yoyette
4. La légende de St Nicholas 5. La rose au boué
6. Colchiques
7. Gentil coqu’licot
8. Sur la route de Louviers

I have often asked people I meet in France if they know the songs and nearly everybody knows all of them! They are as iconic as our well-known folksongs and nursery rhymes are for us. And I still haven’t given back the little book I bought my daughter Sam…

10 Peterloo

I am the Great-great-great-grandson of Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, who was one of those in command of the Manchester Yeomanry in August 1819. His portrait has been in my family’s possession all my life. For 35 years it has hung in the stairwell of our house (it is a large painting, so this was the only wall space big enough). As I discovered more information about his involvement in the massacre at Peterloo, I came to realise that his actions on that day were directly responsible for the deaths and hundreds of injuries inflicted upon the large and peaceful crowd gathered to listen to “Orator” Hunt on the 16th.

Captain Birley was not, as I had been brought up to believe, merely the administrative commander whose leadership happened to occur in 1819. He was in charge on that day and led his ill-disciplined (and possibly slightly drunk) soldiers of the Yeomanry in a poorly planned attempt to arrest Hunt. There was a crowd of at least 60,000 – probably more like 80,000 – and Hunt was on a raised platform deep within the masses. Even before the panic that led to the indiscriminate slaughter and violence, the advancing troops knocked over a mother and toddler, killing the child, and also knocked over and killed a special constable (one appointed for crowd control just for this event). The ensuing attempt to arrest Hunt and others, and retreat through the multitude was clumsy and disorganised. Whilst no violence was initiated by the crowd, the individual troops felt hemmed in, and drew their sabres to hack their way out of the constricted space. There were several deaths and hundreds of injuries.

The history is clear to read about in accounts written at the time. I have read these and feel great shame. I gifted the portrait of Captain Birley to the People’s History Museum, where it now forms part of the commemorative Peterloo exhibition. This was several months before the bi-centenary, so the painting was cleaned and displayed as a central part of the Peterloo exhibition that opened in August 2019.

Of course I am not accountable for the behaviour of an ancestor in events that occurred 135 years before I was born. However, on the wrong side of this important historical event, I have made it my business to learn about what happened, and the reasons for it. I also felt a strong creative urge to express myself in regards to the Peterloo massacre in the form of a large-scale symphonic poem. This I composed in April 2019, over a three week period of intense writing. I sent a score to the Hallé Orchestra, naively thinking that the musical atonement by a close enough blood relative of Captain Hugh Hornby Birley might have aroused some interest. My score was specifically addressed to Sir Mark Elder. I don’t suppose he ever saw it, and I received a rejection reply from an orchestral manager. I felt disappointed but not in the least surprised.