daughters Anna and Paula at BFI for the launch
of his box set recordings of Symphonies 1 - 4
Interview with Andrew Downes (AD)
and Cynthia Downes (CD)
CD My husband Andrew composes in his head all the time. He gets up very early and then at 8 o’clock he writes down all the ideas he’s been mulling over in his mind in the last twenty-four hours. He works very methodically every day. It’s all there in his head, he spends two hours just to put it down.
AD I hear it pretty much exactly. When I put it down, I try bits of it on the electronic keyboard, but it’s really just to check that something’s right, a balance or something like that. Then I just put it straight into Sibelius 7. Then after the day’s session is over, it just evolves into the next thing, usually overnight, and I wake up with new music in my head.
CD We have to be quiet while he’s actually writing it down; I always say the music pours out of him. But for the rest of the time we’re not aware that he’s quietly composing in his head.
AD I do live in quite a quiet world. I don’t actually talk that much. I used to write it all out by hand, but the computer program makes it so much easier. You can just produce the parts immediately from the score. The best thing is that when you get to rehearsals you know that the parts are correct and you’re not going to spend a lot of expensive time putting things right.
CD He handwrote symphonies 1, 2 & 3 because they were written in the 1980s, before the Sibelius program came out. He used to pay students to write out parts for him.
AD I’ve just recorded and released my first four symphonies. It all started in America with Stanislav Suchanek who was the second horn in the Czech Philharmonic at that time. He had a sabbatical year as Professor of Horn at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I went over there, I was commissioned to write a sonata for 8 horns, he played first horn. He liked the music and took it back to Prague. They recorded it and put it on the radio. They’ve commissioned other pieces since, including a concerto for 4 horns and orchestra. That was the first time I worked with the orchestra itself and we gradually developed this link. Ondřej Vrabec is first horn player of the Czech Philharmonic and also an Associate Conductor. He performed as Horn soloist in my concerto for Horn and Symphony Orchestra at Birmingham Town Hall, so that’s how it linked up. He ended up conducting my symphonies.
I was able to commission the recording of my symphonies because I’d had compensation for a medical negligence case and was compensated for the things I could no longer do.
CD He broke his back and the hospital didn’t diagnose him until thirty hours later by which time it was too late, they didn’t immobilise him. He was paralysed from the waist.
AD I’m unable now to travel to places like Prague or anywhere else, so we thought, rather than spend the money on things I could no longer do, it was better than spending the money actually making the recording.
CD I always was upset because when he had Symphony No. 1 first performed at the Cheltenham Festival the organ was at the back of the church, so in the amateur recording the organ just didn’t come over. In the second performance the organ was loud and clear but the tape recorder didn’t work so we still didn’t have a good recording. I’d always been bothered about that. Our son-in-law, David Trippett, was very keen for Andrew to ask a good orchestra to record Andrew’s symphonic works and I thought that was a perfect opportunity to get that symphony heard, rather than it being stuck in a trunk. What better orchestra than the Czech Philharmonic where Andrew already had contacts!
AD As soon as you get something on recording and people start listening to it, then you get other orchestras interested. The Central England Ensemble will perform it in the Autumn as part of my 65th birthday celebrations, they’re doing it in the Cathedral on September 3rd.
CD We had recordings of the 2nd and 3rd, good performances but there some wrong things. Composers are judged on their symphonies so it was an inevitable decision to use this money to record the first four symphonies.
AD It took from end of February until May 2015.
CD The Czech Philharmonic recorded when they had a free morning or afternoon and they were incredibly efficient. It was all streamed through to us in Birmingham during the recording sessions taking place in Prague so we could hear exactly what it sounded like.
AD We were listening live during the recording sessions so we could say if we heard anything wrong.
CD I was following it very closely on the score to for things that weren’t quite right, and it was very, very rare I have to say.
AD And I was listening and saying if I felt the interpretation felt right to me. Very rarely did I have to say anything; between the conductor and the producer they were really getting it right.
CD There was a huge exchange of emails between Andrew and Ondřej who was making sure he understood how Andrew wanted different things done. And getting hold of one of the instruments, the native American flute, was difficult. We sent the one over that we’d bought in America.
AD Yes, and the first flautist in Prague actually learned the instrument specially, and he played it beautifully!
CD Symphony 3 has a lot of multi-time and Ondřej asked how to conduct it. So we said just beat the crotchet beat and every player will just fit into it.
AD It went very well. Ondřej is very talented, there was absolutely no problem. Once you’ve written the piece it doesn’t really belong to you anymore. It belongs to the players. It was quite a relief in many ways when it was over, but we still had the documentary to make.
CD That was very stressful for Andrew. He couldn’t compose during that time.
AD I had a brain haemorrhage last year and since then I’ve been focussing on small scale pieces, songs …
CD He first of all wrote 7 Postludes for Piano, because he’d already written 7 Preludes for Piano. Then he went on to songs with small ensemble. I think he will build up again. He hasn’t lost any of his flair, perhaps just some of his confidence to start off with. He’s written 109 works in total. I’ve always loved music and although I did French and German at university, I learned violin from the age of 11 and have never stopped playing since. I’ve run various musical groups and I support Andrew. It works out well because there’s no rivalry between us. I’m his publisher, personal assistant, promoter, I sell his music and CDs.
AD Yes, we’ve retained control over all of the music.
CD Faber are publishing one piece. It’s very hard to get in with a publisher; we discovered that composers signed to publishing houses often couldn’t have a piece performed because the publisher would charge too much. Often a group wanting to play a work has no money. We’ve put all of Andrew’s music into the library of the Birmingham Conservatoire so groups can borrow the parts. Or we can lend them out too, so players come directly to us to borrow the parts. You can’t do that if you’re signed to a publisher. Because Andrew had a really good job as Head of Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire and I’ve always worked in teaching, we’ve never been financially dependent on his composition.
AD Imagine being dependent on PRS! Before being a composer, I was a choral scholar at St John’s Cambridge, then I went to the Royal College and studied with Herbert Howells, then Lennox Berkeley. I was a counter tenor for a number of years and did the London circuit. I ended up going to the Gottingen Handel Festival and singing the part of David with Fischer Dieskau in Handel’s Saul. Fischer Dieskau was a very heavy smoker and completely besotted by his wife, Júlia Várady who was soprano soloist in the production. It was an incredible, nerve wracking, gorgeous experience, but it really didn’t do my nerves any good and I decided that my singing career should end on that high note. (Andrew Downes and Cynthia Downes were speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence, Lola Perrin, 2016)
Connect with Andrew Downes at http://www.andrewdownes.com/
Andrew Downes new box set CD release of Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 4, including a DVD documentary about the making of the CD, was launched on Sunday April 17th at the National Film Theatre, South Bank Centre, London. The launch was hosted by Laurence Lewis, Managing Director of Czech Music Direct. The 2CD + DVD set can be purchased from Lynwood Music (the composer will sign any copies sold from this outlet), Czech Music Direct on 020 8346 0088 and the major retailers and online music sites.
Saturday September 3rd 2016, 7pm
St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham, UK
Andrew Downes 65th Birthday Concert
Symphony no 1 and other compositions
Paula Downes (soprano)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano, organ)
Central England Camerata (leader and solo violin Anna Downes)
Conductor Anthony Bradbury