Robin Holloway (King’s 1963), composer and former Professor of Musical Composition, shares the sounds which shaped his student days at Cambridge.
In 1964, I raced back to my room at King’s having bought Vol I of Schoenberg’s complete works – and this is the piece that blew me apart. It’s an incredible expressionist one-act opera, a colour crescendo that is also a crescendo of emotion. It is around 25 minutes long and I must have played it about 20 times that day. The orchestral dazzle, which was also vocal dazzle, was absolutely electrifying. Every note is etched on my mind.
I heard this when recordings and performances were few and far between. My friend John Fletcher, later the principal tuba player of the LSO, got it on the day of release and we all gathered round in his room in Pembroke to listen. I already had the score – I had bought it in celebration the day I met Benjamin Britten for the first time, August 1959, just before my 17th birthday, and dared to tell him I wanted to be a composer.
This was another amazing purchase. First, it was so luxuriously packaged, all crimsons and purples, very exotic. And inside was this most over-the-top, extreme music. It’s the Tristan and Isolde story recast, and Messiaen uses an Ondes Martenot, capable of a very large amount of noise, for all the erotic bits. It burns right through you. I had one or two friends who would gather to listen – we were 18 or 19 years old and it blew our little minds!
This was an incredible Guildhall concert moment as an undergraduate, hearing Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears giving their fantastic all to Schubert’s desolate song cycle for tenor and piano. It is a piece that bites you to the bone. As we left the hall, I spotted EM Forster. I was just longing to ask him what it was like to write for Britten as Forster had written the libretto for Billy Budd. So I did, and Forster very kindly invited me to tea.
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