Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Britain, besieged by coronavirus, is still a country for an old composer called Eric Wetherell and his 'My Lagan Love'

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Eric, who is 94 years old and has given pleasure to many thousands of music lovers in his long career as a professional musician. At the moment, he is at high risk and is self-isolated in the present coronavirus pandemic, with his wife, Liz, in their flat, just outside Bristol and has said : "It's a bit like 'War of the Worlds', only this is an invisible enemy which is much more frightening actually." 

Eric has stage 4 prostate cancer, which means he is unable to either write or play music for the first time in his life. He admitted on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' Programme  that : "It's put an end to my composing career, because the bone secondaries killed off the muscle in my right hand thumb meant I couldn't play music that I loved."

Ben England is 43 and works as a freelance conductor, teacher and singer and last month launched his 'Quarantine Choir' to keep people singing during coronavirus outbreak. He has been mentored by Eric and has enjoyed his friendship for 10 years and decided that it might be possible to create, for Eric and Liz, a rendition of  Eric's rearrangement of 'My Lagan Love' working with 4 other singers via the net. A poignant love song, Eric had arranged it some years before when he was working in Northern Ireland. With this in mind Ben contacted Eric's daughter, Sophie, a music teacher in Dubai and asked her to record herself over her father's arrangement and send the recording to Ben, who also contacted three other friends and colleagues who had performed with him over the years and asked each of them to record different parts.

When Eric opened the YouTube link sent to him from Ben his reaction was : "Oh, I loved it. The performers were all part of my musical life, one way or another and my daughter. Very proud relly, that people would want to sing my stuff."

My Lagan Love

Where Lagan stream sings lullaby
There blows a lily fair.
The twilight gleam is in her eye,
The night is on her hair.
And like a love-sick lennan-shee
She has my heart in thrall.
Nor life I owe nor liberty,
For love is lord of all.

Eric, who was born just after Christmas in 1925, in Tynemouth, Tyneside was, by 1936, living in Carlisle and attending Carlisle Grammar School for Boys, a Church of England school with strong links to Carlisle Cathedral. He was 14 when the Second World War broke out and given the fact that he would undertake a degree in music after the War was over, had clearly been busy with his musical studies in both his younger years and adolescence.

Intriguingly, just after he'd left school, after his sixth form studies in the summer of 1943, his name was cited along with 29 other boys and girls from the Girls Grammar School, in an article in the 'Newcastle Journal' under the title '30 M.T.C. Officers resign'. The Mechanised Transport Corps was, in fact, a women's voluntary civilian organisation whose members were conscripted and received pay.

After his Wartime service in the Armed Forces was completed, in the Autumn of 1945, Eric, whose musical gifts had been recognised, took up his place to study for his Bachelor for Music degree at Queen's College Oxford where he was taught by Bernard Rose, tutor in music, and organist of the College, described in his obituary in the 'Independent' in 1996 as 'one of the giants of English choral music in the post-war era. He was one of the defining choir trainers of his generation, a larger-than-life, chain-smoking, colourful, rumbustious personality.'

He was also tutored by Dr Thomas Armstrong, the organist of Christ Church College and studied composition with Egon Wellesz, composer and musicologist, who himself had studied in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg, purportedly his first private pupil, before leaving Austria for Britain in 1938, at the time of Hitler's annexation. He'd been detained as an enemy alien during the War, but was released in 1943 and joined Oxford and by the time he taught Eric was producing his first sympanies and continued to create string quartets.

After graduating from Oxford, Eric joined the Royal College of Music in 1948 to study for his masters degree and was a student of the composer Herbert Howells, distinguished for his choral and organ music in the 1930s and most famous for his large output of Anglican church music.
At the same time he was tutored in orchestration by Gordon Jacob, Professor of 'Music Theory, Composition and Orchestration', whose biographer, Geoff Ogram, noted his reputation as a teacher and the effect he had on a large number of students : 'Many who passed through his hands as students later became famous as instrumentalists, conductors or composers, names like Sir Malcolm Arnold, William Waterhouse, Eric Wetherell, and Joseph Horovitz amongst many others.'

At the age of 24 in 1949, with his career as a student at an end, he began the first phase of his professional career, as a horn player in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also performed regularly with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under such conductors as Beecham, Boult,  Koussevitzky, van Beinum,  Szell and Victor de Sab.

Then, after ten years, in the late 1950s, he changed direction and after attending the National Opera School for a year, he began his career as a  conductor, as a  répétiteur at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, coaching singers and playing the piano for music and production rehearsals and working with such artists as Tippett and Britten, as well as, Solti, Kempe, Walton, Giulini, Dorati, Horenstein.

By the mid 1960s Eric was broadcast on the BBC Radio 'Light Programme' on 'Music in the Air', conducting the London Light Orchestra with Edward Rubach and Robert Docker on piano. Robert, who had studied at the RAM, was an arranger, composer and pianist who began his radio broadcast career with the BBC in 1946 and later, played in a duo with Edward. Eric later worked with Robert on the popular radio programmes, ‘Melodies for You’ and the long-running ‘Friday Night is Music Night’on BBC Radio 2 in the early 1970s.

Jack Brymer was, according to the Times, 'The leading clarinettist of his generation, perhaps of the century', was largely self-taught as a player and performed as an amateur before being invited by Sir Thomas Beecham to join the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1947 and remained there until 1963. Eric recalled : 'I met Jack Brymer in the early 1950s when he was playing at a party to entertain the guests. I asked him if he could imitate, in turn, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Sidney Bechet and he reproduced their distinctive tone and individual style to perfection.' Eric's deep enthusiasm for jazz led to a close involvement with the BBC Big Band, for whom he both arranged and produced. He himself was a keen jazz pianist and played regularly with his quartet. In the 70s and 80s he ran two very successful rehearsal big bands in Cardiff and Bristol, on a voluntary basis, both twenty-piece ensembles using local professional musicians.

At the age of 51 in 1976, Eric became the Principal and last Conductor of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra. However, within a few years, in the early 1980s, the BBC had decided that the regional orchestras were an expensive luxury. Although Eric's orchestra was still giving serious concerts, playing in 'Marching and Waltzing' and a Sunday morning light music series, the BBC felt that their style of music was "not in keeping with the requirements of the early eighties."  Industrial action followed and BBC regional orchestras gave concerts on park bandstands to advertise their cause, but it was to no avail. Eric's Northern Ireland Orchestra was absorbed by the Ulster Orchestra and he was out of a job.

Eric's next move was to take up the post of Musical Director for Harlech Television (HTV), based in Cardiff. Mal Pope, Welsh musician and composer, met Eric at this time when he himself was starting his own career : 'A letter offering me an audition came out of the blue from Eric Wetherell, the resident Musical Director for HTV. I walked into a tv studio for the first time to be greeted very courteously by Mr Wetherell. There was an accompanist  ready to take my music, but when I told them I played the guitar and sang songs I had written myself, I'm sure they must have been horrified. They allowed me to play a couple of songs and we spent some time talking about what type of music I liked. Mr Wetherell said he would give the audition some serious thought and some days later a second letter arrived. It was a very nice letter, but in essence he was suggesting I go for guitar lessons. he was probably right, but I was determined to plough my own field and as I didn't really enjoy piano lessons I had already been forced to take, taking guitar lessons didn't really interest me'

Leaving HTV, Eric made his last professional move to Bristol, where he became Senior Music Producer for BBC Radio 3 in the South and West region and remained there until his retirement in 1990.
* * * * * * * * * 

As a composer, Eric has written orchestral suites, jazz, wind band and brass band compositions, choral works, children’s songs and music for films and TV.

In 1967 his 'Airs and Graces' suite was based on some recorder pieces that were being played, at the time, by his children and included : Round Dance, Gavotte, Air, Trumpet Minuet, Mill Dance and Finale.

In 1969 he composed the music for 'The Pain Train' and made for the British Railways Board, which began with John Slater's narration and "The new Euston, spacious, clean, efficient. A fitting symbol for the new intercity context."

In 1971 he wrote the music for the tv movie, 'Thick as Thieves', a crime drama about a professional safe-blower, Leonard Rossiter and his apprentice, Corin Redgrave.

In 1975 he composed the music for the tv series, 'Sky', in which a young time-traveller with superhuman powers is stranded on Earth after running into a Black Hole and pursued by the evil Goodchild, Sky is helped on his quest to find a way home by three human teenagers.
Surviving episodes still provide evidence of  Eric's accompaniment : 'Burning Bright' , 'Juganet' and 'Chariot of Fire'. In 2018 the blogger 'Wyrd Britain' wrote : 'Scenes of Sky and his cohort being attacked by plants and animals soundtracked with a tumultuous, synthesised, atonal, sonic squall (courtesy of Eric Wetherell) are still as effective as they were 43 years ago and the series remains as disturbingly strange and enjoyable as it ever was.'

In 1976 he wrote the music for the tv movie, 'Machinegunner', West Country slang for a 'debt-collector', played by Leonard Rossiter, who turned amateur sleuth, but found himself in hot water with local criminals.

Of his 'Bristol Quay Suite for String Orchestra' he wrote : 'This suite was written in 1987 and presents a picture not unlike that of Portsmouth Point, albeit somewhat less ribald. The first movement is based on the sea shanty Santiano and hints at the danger, as well as the romance of life at sea. The second is a gentle waltz; perhaps the eighteenth century sailor putting even temporarily into port found an opportunity to show his gentler side. The Polish folk-song River Wisla is the theme of the third movement, and the finale is a fast 6/8 firmly rooted in the English musical tradition.'

In 1992 Eric's jazz-influenced '3 Shakespeare Sonnets for Medium Voice' were published with his song list of : 'Shall I Compare Thee?','Let Me Not','How Like A Winter'.

He was well known as an arranger and rescored four major operas for Midland Opera, reducing the orchestration for chamber orchestra and in 2010 used his reduced score in Offenbach’s 'The Tales of Hoffmann'.

In the same year, Eric's opera, 'A Foreign Field', was premiered at the Redgrave Theatre in Clifton, Bristol. Eric used the true story of a group of British soldiers stuck behind enemy lines on the Franco-Belgian border in the First World War and the impact they had on a family who offer to help them survive. He concentrated on the way in which war changes people in their fight for personal survival and spoke for all wars, past and present."

In 2014 The Redgrave Theatre performed Eric's opera in two acts, 'The Snow Child', which he based  based on the book of the same title by the American author, Eowyn Ivey. Set in Alaska in the 1920s, the story sets out the plight of Mabel and Jack who have come to Alaska from Pennsylvania to pick up the threads of their lives after a devastating still-birth. Their meeting with a strange 'snow girl' called Faina develops into friendship and love and she becomes the daughter they never had.She has a spirit quality and a particular affinity with nature that makes one unsure as to whether she is fairy or human.

In the summer of 2016 Ben England organised a 'An Evening of Music by Eric Wetherell'to celebrate Eric's music in his 91st year, with any profits made, donated to the BUI Prostate Cancer Appeal. In the concert's appeal Ben said : 'Eric Wetherell has been involved in music-making for most of his 90 years, and has devoted much of the last two decades to composing and performing music in and around the South West.  He has composed a huge range of music - from full operas, orchestral works, and choral pieces to chamber music, solo songs and even a saxophone concerto.'  

In addition, over his long career Eric :

* wrote 'A Matching of Powers' for soprano, baritone and symphony orchestra, about the sun and the moon who, through their rivalry, realise that they are intertwined.
* set 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' to new music with the original lyrics.
* arranged the Welsh folk tune 'Along the Shore' for chorus and piano/harp.
* produced 'George Romney – The Painter’s Eye', a solo soprano and piano for the the Romney Society, based on a poem by Elizabeth Major.
* created 'On Westminster Bridge', a choral piece for soprano, alto, tenor and bass based on the poem by William Wordsworth.
* for the BBC Concert Orchestra wrote the Overture : 'Beau Nash'.
* created his orchestral 'Portrait of a City', a portrait of Bristol, through its docks, Cathedral and airfield.
* created , based on the ‘The Diary of Adam’ and ‘The Diary of Eve’ by Mark Twain, as an entertainment for two actors, chorus and orchestra telling Twain's witty and emotional tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
* arranged his choral 'Three Negro Spirituals' : 'Let my people go,'' 'Is massa goin’ to sell us tomorrow?' and 'New-born again.'
*  arranged his 'Three Sea Pieces' for soprano I, soprano II, alto and piano based on Longfellow's 'The Tide Rises', Oscar Wilde's 'Les Silhouettes' and Tennyson's 'Break, break, break.'
* wrote his Vocal Solo, 'Three Summers' and explored 3 aspects of summer : cool, green, lush; grey and damp; hot, dry and arid.
* created for wind band, 'Waters Deep and Wide',  based on the folk tune “O Waly, Waly”.
* wrote,'We Are the Women', a song cycle looking at the First World War from the perspective of the women left behind using seven poems by Elizabeth Major for soprano, mezzo soprano and piano.

* * * * * * * 
When asked, by the BBC interviewer if, when he saw and heard Ben England's version of 'My Lagan Love' : 
"Did it make you feel connected to the outside world ?" 

Eric replied : "Well, very much so. But that is the point of music isn't it ?"

P.S. Like Eric, I have had prostate cancer. In my case my prostate was removed when, because of my bladder cancer, a surgeon removed both my bladder and prostate and the the biopsy revealed that, unknown to myself, I also had, unrelated to my bladder, prostate cancer. I'm sure Eric would, like me, urge all gentlemen of a certain age to age, to get themselves tested.

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