A House of Ghosts

for piano

duration: Ca 23'00"

published by: Composers Edition

These pieces had to be recorded (many years ago) direct from a high-end MIDI piano to cassette and thence to CD and hard drive. The instrument used is a Technics SZ-PX207/M, a venerable item from the early 1990s, still in domestic service and sounding considerably superior to a great many supposedly more advanced pieces of keyboard technology issued since. Pianist: the composer.

Programme Note

These little pieces were written at intervals. The last of them, which I have no memory of writing, seems to have emerged  a bare two days after the death of my father in 1983, and is, I suppose, a kind of blessing and farewell. But the dates at the foot of the rest seem to suggest that it was a catalyst of sorts. Many of these miniatures were written during very busy years of university administration and teaching. While not exactly the product of white heat of invention, they attest that the urge to commit something to paper somehow resisted being entirely eliminated. They are best viewed as a disparate collection of stray thoughts and modest ideas which accumulated haphazardly, a little like an intermittent diary, but which one day suggested themselves as a set simply because by then there were quite a few of them, each looking a little lonely on its own. I brought them together more for convenience of presentation than through any integrated intention. The pianist is invited to play them in any grouping or sequence, according to whim or occasion, even though the order given is probably my own preferred one for a complete performance at one sitting.

On another level, with one or two exceptions these little pieces set out to offer something approachable – but reasonably thought-provoking – to pianists who might well be non­professional adult players, possibly returning to the piano after some time away from it or else making their musical way for the first time in maturity. Many composers today seem to look slightly askance at ‘received techniques’ of composition, as if they stood entirely apart from original creativity and were somehow separated from it by the exercise of a supposedly arid craftsmanship. But the present pieces make no apology for seeing indebtedness to an inherited past as a necessary – and flexible – proposition within the general spectrum of composition. The decisions and choices which one makes in writing music evocative of a bygone age differ little from those arising from determined (but usually, despite itself, pointless) thirsting after independence: in both cases they are likely to define the person making them, and in the former context there is far more room for subjective selection and creativity than the self-conscious modernist may suppose. Accordingly, the pieces offered here do accurately reflect part of my own creative make-up, even if they are still only a corner of it and may at various points betray all sorts of eclectic tastes and mini-homages. They are dedicated to my two children, who in adulthood have emerged as a singer and a percussionist, but who may perhaps – who knows? – one day derive some interest or pleasure from these pages.

  1. Pageant originated from some ensemble music written for a stage adaptation of Chaucer at Abingdon School, where I was then teaching, in 1986. It bears some relation to the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, and was prompted not by pageantry as such; more by the idea of a large expedition cheerfully setting out on a fine April day.
  2. Minnelied imagines the general character of a mediaeval lute song, if not its literal disposition for the instrument. The ancient but timeless superscription confides that ‘You are locked inside my heart; the key is lost – now you must stay in there for ever’.
  3. Blind Man’s Buff evokes a game of mediaeval origin, a stop-start affair with the blindfolded pursuer either hesitating in uncertainty or rushing forward to clutch his prey. He appears to be successful at the end.
  4. Blondel was prompted by the legend of the faithful troubadour who during the Third Crusade located the castle at Dürenstein where Richard I was being held after being taken prisoner at Vienna on the way back to Britain. Blondel supposedly alerted him to a friendly presence by playing and singing ‘their tune’ beneath the exterior castle walls. The legend has it that they had written it together and it was known only to the two of them, so Blondel had to try every castle until he heard the King respond with the chorus. What Blondel played is unknown, but it might have been something in the melancholic vein of this little piece.
  5. Swallows emerged from a memory of lying somewhere on a hill in open country on a fine day years before, idly watching swallows wheeling high above in a clear sky.
  6. From another part of the wood needs little introduction, but imagines hearing music coming from somewhere in the forest before the singer or whistler comes into view, and perhaps watching from a concealed vantage point as he passes by.
  7. Sine Nomine forms all or part of the title of many choral and instrumental pieces of the 15th and 16th centuries. Literally it can be taken as simply (pace Shakespeare) ‘a deed without a name’; but, when applied to Mass settings for the Catholic Church which might have been based on the contours of a secular tune, dance or song, it was often deployed as a judicious fig leaf concealing thoroughly ribald origins from the Papacy.
  8. …Never the Twain… The Ballad of East and West is a poem by Rudyard Kipling first published in 1889. From its chorus comes the phrase ‘never the twain shall meet’, which at the time referred to fundamental colonial divergences between Eastern and Western culture. It remains unclear whether Kipling himself borrowed this and, if so, how far back its true origins lie. In the case of this little piano piece, which is barely a piece at all but merely a recurrent snatch of some more archaic melody, ‘never the twain’ seemed apt for something where either harmony and melody or two imitative strands of a tune keep amiably trying, and failing, to coincide at a conclusive cadence. The dots in the title suggest something that may have been going on for some time and may have yet further to run…
  9. Revenants is a direct response to evocatively visual and aural lines by T. S. Eliot in the second of his Four Quartets. The music makes as if to keep its distance from what is being described, and the hallucinatory feeling is in keeping also with the lines by Humbert Wolfe which provide this set of pieces with its collective title.
  10. Walsinghame – more particularly, the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in the eponymous Norfolk village – is a place of pilgrimage for the Roman Catholic Church especially. The added e is present in Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem of the same name, and I appropriated it not to imply any connection to Raleigh, but simply because the archaic added letter underlines the sense of a place still seemingly buried deep in the past. However, my own brief visit had been subject to grim interruptions from the present, in that it coincided jarringly with unrest in Romania and the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime, captured with distressing immediacy on television. Another seven years went by before I was able to put that from my mind sufficiently to evoke Walsingham in terms free from those ugly ‘noises off’. The result is something that starts more or less in the manner of a 16th-century fantasia for viols or virginals, but which later slips unobtrusively from ancient to modern without losing the sovereignty of the humble triad as harmonic building block.
  11. Yorick is not recalled here in the melancholic tones of Hamlet, but brought back to life. Although nothing said by Hamlet suggests that anything more untoward than anno Domini overtook Yorick, his madcap antics here are tempered by a note of nervousness. Halfway through the writing of this frenetic little piece, the unscheduled arrival of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in distorted form arose from an involuntary memory of the version declaimed by the Mad Hatter in Chapter Seven of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at! Up above the world you fly, like a tea tray in the sky’.
  12. In extreme contrast, Requiescat is, as already stated, a leave-taking and a farewell to my father, written just after his death from pancreatic cancer on 19th October 1983, aged 59. The manuscript score bears a Spanish inscription from the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges: ‘the voices of the dead will speak to me for ever’. Since permission to reproduce it has proven impossible to secure in this case, the line in its original tongue is omitted from the published score.

© Francis Pott, 2019

Programme Note

Composers' Note

This work is a collection of twelve short pieces written at intervals between 1983 and 1997, all bearing titles and conjuring atmospheres related to a distant past. One or two are relatively virtuosic, such as the frenetic Yorick (no. 11), but nearly all lie within the grasp of a competent ABRSM Grade 8 pianist and some are considerably simpler, calling for sensitivity with touch and the pedal rather than for overt technical aplomb. The collective title of the set is borrowed from a rather appositely forgotten poem by Humbert Wolfe.

A sequel to A House of Ghosts exists in the form of A Room at the End of the Mind (a phrase borrowed with permission from a poem by John Burnside). This is another set of twelve pieces, but they are generally for slightly more advanced players than the first set, ending in a more overtly virtuoso piece. A Room at the End of the Mind also differs from A House of Ghosts in that, whereas the letter was dedicated to my children in hopes that they might derive some playing pleasure from them one day, the later set is variously dedicated to friends and colleagues, each having a prefatory paragraph explaining its provenance.

A third dozen, entitled Gallimaufry, is gradually assembling itself, this consisting of more random items such as a pastiche of Medtner, a quasi-Irish love song, a toccata on two Christmas carol tunes and a deeply-felt elegy in memory of my ‘best man’ and dear friend since school days, Jon Leyne (1958-2013): bassoonist, pianist and the BBC’s talented and dependable anchor news man at the UN in New York, in Tehran and latterly in Cairo, whose death from a malignant brain tumour leaves a lasting void. An unrelated short work also bears a dedication to Jon: the chorale prelude Schmucke dich, O liebe Seele (q.v. elsewhere in this website) commissioned for William Whitehead’s important Orgelbuchlein project which is steadily amassing original modern works based on the chorale tunes which Bach never reached.

Composers' Note