Gramophone guest blog

If you want to write symphonies, my advice is to get on and do it!

Christopher GunningThu 5th December 2019

Composer Christopher Gunning explores the difficulties of moving from composing for film and TV to writing concert music

I’ll begin by taking you back to when I was a small boy wandering around the Welsh Harp reservoir in West Hendon - for that’s where I loved to dream with non-stop music in my head, the music that I would one day write and have played in the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I would become Britain’s leading composer, but I didn’t tell anyone about my crazy ambitions. Instead, I battled away at harmony and counterpoint, and composed a little, but the intense pressure of studying for O and A levels prevented exclusive work at music. However, I did know that my real ambition was to compose big orchestral works; these would be the only way I could unleash the torrents of expressive music burning inside.

Later, at full-time music college, I composed a lot, under the guidance of Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett, but the overriding issue soon became ‘how on earth am I going to earn a living?’ Having no great desire to teach, it seemed clear that I had to turn my attention to film and TV music. I wrote some pieces for recorded music libraries, which provided a means of demonstrating my work, and I approached every advertising agency in London asking them to use me. First one, and then several others gave me well paid TV commercials - well the income was certainly better than playing the piano in pubs in the Old Kent Road!

Dudley Moore was composing for some of his films, and employed me to help expand his detailed sketches into full orchestral scores, and what brilliant experience that was! And then came TV dramas, and the odd film. Great! Some of this work gave me opportunities to express myself musically, there were often marvellous people to work with, and I won BAFTA awards and Ivors too. My big break came when I was invited to compose the scores for Agatha Christie’s Poirot and I went on to work on some 40 episodes.

By now the year was 1998, and I was 54. I had composed scores for umpteen TV drama productions and a number of films, as well as Martini and too many other TV commercials to list and a fair number of arrangements for pop and jazz singers. By most standards, it had been a glittering career already, but I, and only I, knew something important was missing.

I continued writing for TV for a few years more and in 2007 wrote the score for La Vie en Rose starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. I loved what I was doing, but was constantly plagued by an interior voice saying ‘Christopher, if you don’t write your symphonies now, you never will!’ In fact I’d already made a start. There was a saxophone concerto for John Harle, a piano concerto, and a tentative attempt at a symphony. Progress! But fond though I remain of these, I knew there was more to come. The problem was I’d left it a bit late. I had numerous conversations with myself and resolved to become super-disciplined and stop working in television and get on with writing those symphonies.

A period of furious activity followed. Symphonies Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5 were composed in relatively quick succession, as well as concertos for the flute, oboe, clarinet, and guitar. All these I recorded with the Royal Philharmonic, but there was another problem; although well reviewed in the music press, my works were not played by radio stations or taken up by other orchestras.

What to do? I sent scores to conductors and orchestras up and down the country, but mostly received no replies. It was perhaps not surprising - why would they be interested when they already had a massive repertoire to get through, including works by Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, and some contemporary composers who were already well established. Nevertheless, not to be discouraged, I wrote Symphonies Nos 6 and 7, and some shorter pieces, and recorded them with the brilliant Royal Philharmonic. Concertos for the violin and cello followed, beautifully played by Harriet Mackenzie and Richard Harwood. But these recordings received very few reviews, so unsurprisingly sold few copies.

Still undeterred, I carried on composing and soon completed Symphonies Nos 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12. Early in 2019, I recorded Nos 2 (now revised) 10 and 12, this time with the BBC’s excellent National Orchestra of Wales. I’d conducted all the previous recordings myself, but this time Kenneth Woods agreed to do the honours, leaving me free to produce. The CD and downloads will be released on December 6, 2019.

What’s to be learned from all this? Firstly, it is important to recognise that the worlds of ‘classical’ or ‘serious’ music and media music are very different. Your awards in media music won’t mean a light when you’re dealing with classical people. Music that might be perfect for a TV drama simply won’t work in a classical concert setting - and I’m saying this in full knowledge that concerts by Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith may temporarily bring audiences in. For years I’ve been bedevilled by my earlier career - I’m still struggling to get my concert music played by symphony orchestras, because the powers that be only know me as the man who wrote Poirot or La Vie en Rose.

Bearing this in mind, if you want to write symphonies, my advice is to get on and do it! Some composers can write a symphony one minute and a film score the next, but I can’t - it’s one or the other for me. My wonderful teacher, Richard Rodney Bennett, could write Far from the Madding Crowd and then immediately turn to his First Symphony, but I couldn’t do that. William Alwyn is another genius who wrote innumerable highly effective film scores during the first part of his career, then ceased all commercial work and devoted himself to five remarkable symphonies. He could not reconcile the two.

If you have a burning desire to compose symphonies, it’s wise to gather a number of people around you who understand and support what you are doing, I mean agents, publishers, concert promoters, and musicians. Composing is a lonely business and the encouragement and practical help of others can be invaluable.

You will need to be resilient to continue in your chosen profession even when it’s not going well. There will be days or weeks when you cannot compose a note, but you have to believe in yourself and what you have to say in your music.

Finally, you have to reconcile yourself to financial hardship. You won’t become super-rich writing concert music, however great it is. But you might, just might, achieve some artistic and even spiritual satisfaction.

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