Jeremy Dale Roberts (1934) Studied at RAM with William Alwyn and Priaulx Rainier. After graduating he dropped out and spent a year in Cameroon, West Africa. Following his return to UK he taught at Morley College, Goldsmiths College and the RCM where he eventually became Head of Composition. Subsequently he was appointed Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of Iowa.
His compositions include the ‘Tombeau’ for piano, written for Stephen Bishop Kovacevich; Cello Concerto – ‘Deathwatch’, written for Rohan de Saram; ‘Croquis’ for string trio, a large-scale sequence of miniatures commissioned by the BBC and written for members of the Arditti Quartet; ‘In the same space – nine poems of Constantin Cavafy’ written for Steven Varcoe; ‘Lines of Life – Voices/Kinderscenen’, commissioned by the BBC for Lontano.
His song Spoken to a Bronze Head will be performed at the next LM concert (Saturday 6th April) by Robert Rice (baritone) and William Vann (piano).
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the song to us?
Jeremy Dale Roberts: It is a setting of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, in whose house I lived for many years. The words are addressed to a magnificent bronze of the composer that used to stand in her sitting-room, silently keeping her company through all the long years of her widowhood. It is a very fine poem, strong in diction, well tempered: I would say almost ‘Augustan’ in its idiom. My setting is appropriately austere, the voice syllabic throughout, the piano part entirely arising out of a single harmonic progression, grave in character, which eventually reveals itself to be a quotation from the final movement of VW’s 6th Symphony. The poem – one of Ursula’s most personal – suggests to me strongly, in its musing, and almost tactile way, the voice of the poet. It will be very interesting to hear the song sung by a man.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
JDR: I speculate and dream for quite a long time; and that may in the end involve ‘plans’, verbal scenarios, laying out possible structures, directions and processes. The ‘sound world’ may come gradually into focus, and eventually notes and articulated musical ideas likewise. It’s all pretty intuitive. And yes, I do use the piano, as a reference, and as a kind of ‘well’ into which I dip and play around from time to time. I do NOT compose at the piano: seriously inhibiting.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
JDR: I have been very fortunate in having close relationships with some exceptionally gifted musicians. It is a privilege and a joy to have their sound in one’s head, and to draw upon their temperament and behavior in the narrative of the music: to absorb their presence. A rare form of cannibalism, maybe…
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
JDR: I think I try to create a distinct sound-world to match the conception of each new work – or rather to expand my sound world accordingly. It’s one of the first things I start with, in the slow process of fleshing out a poetic idea.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
JDR: (It’s always quite nice to be asked!) Even when things are difficult, dry patches or when the wretched thing seems to be dying on its feet, NOT composing is not an option: as Elizabeth Maconchy confessed, it is a life-sentence. On a deep level, I think the ‘message in a bottle’ incentive probably figures more and more.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
JDR: I intensely admire Pierre Boulez and Harrison Birtwistle, what they have achieved and what they stand for.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
JDR: I guess few composers would ‘open up’ with just a drink in front of them - we’re a fairly private bunch, most of us, and quite shy of discussing the things most important to us with strangers. But, just to pass the time of day, or a night out, Schubert would have been fun, also Berlioz. I would love to have known Chopin.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
JDR: Rather obviously from the canon, I’m afraid! Debussy: L’Apres-midi d’un faune; Mozart: slow movement of Piano Concerto No. 21, K 467; Opening Chorus, Bach’s St John Passion; ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’, from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; Beethoven Arietta and variations from Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111; Wagner: Prelude to Tristan and Isolde; Vaughan Williams: 1st movement of 5th Symphony; Gerald Finzi: Dies Natalis, Intrada and Rhapsody.
All impeccable masterpieces, in which the musical form provides the perfect envelope for the expression.
Beethoven’s Arietta: still challenging and consoling.
SC: …and a book?
JDR: Where do I start! Let’s say Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, because it contains the truth about so many things, as well as an astonishing spectrum of human society. (Though I would trade it in for the Complete Works of any number of poets).
JDR: Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’