David Earl in touch with his SA roots

David Earl in touch with his SA roots

South African born composer David Earl has enjoyed a long and successful career as composer and pianist. During his formative years in Cape Town he received piano tuition from Sona Whiteman, and made his professional debut at the age of sixteen. In 1971, having performed further broadcast recitals, and the Tchaikovsky 1st and Rachmaninoff 1st and 2nd concertos, he moved to London. He studied performing and composition at the Trinity College of Music. In 1975 the then Greater London Arts Association selected David as one of its Young Musicians of the Year. This, and winning first prize in the 1976 SABC Piano Competition, brought further performing exposure, including annual recitals at the Purcell Room and Wigmore Hall. In 1977 David premiered his own Piano Suite No 1 Mosaics at Wigmore Hall, launching his career as a composer. His Concerto for Clarinet, created for South African clarinettist, Maria du Toit, recently premiered in South Africa.

You have been living in the UK since 1971, when you moved there to study. Do you still feel in touch with your South African roots?

DE: I have returned to South Africa annually ever since that year; this, plus the fact that most of my family live there, means that the link is as strong now as it was back then. When one talks about ‘roots’, this word has different meanings for people. For me, having been born in Stellenbosch, and growing up in the south-western Cape, it specifically encompasses a love of Cape Dutch architecture, the art of that region, the winelands, and especially the extraordinary natural beauty - mountains and coastline - that exists there.

You left South Africa at quite an early age. Do your compositions reflect an African or South African flavour at all?

DE: I cannot say I have consciously chosen to reflect a South African flavour. What is true is that the European cultures which are so unavoidable in the Cape (Dutch painting, and the architecture just mentioned, and the English and French influences) all went into a melting pot which made me feel, as a child, that Europe was very near. I remember something that John Joubert once said, which was that he felt akin to Henry James, an American who lived in England and was profoundly influenced by Europe. I would echo that, and add another example: John Singer Sargent, although he of course was born in Florence of American parents. I lived in Cape Town till I was 19, so those formative years are quite substantial.

Who were your musical influences in South Africa?

DE: My first musical influence was my father, who had been born in Cardiff, and had sung as a boy chorister in Welsh cathedrals. Although he was not a singer as such, his love of music meant that we had recordings in the family as far back as I can recall, and he and my mother took me to concerts throughout my youth. When I was 6 I began piano lessons in Cape Town with the British emigré pianist Sona (sic) Whiteman, who had been a pupil of Tobias Matthay, and I remained with her till I went to study in London. She and her husband, Michael Whiteman, were great mentors during these years.

You had a very successful career as a pianist before launching yourself as a composer in 1977. When did composition, rather than performing gain the upper hand in your career?

DE: I knew from early on that I wanted to compose, and for a time I thought this could be combined with performing. However, the life of a pianist requires a particular type of psychological and emotional make-up; having a degree of pianistic talent is not everything. Performing, when it involves travelling, and constantly meeting new people and adjusting to strange places, can be unpleasantly stressful. And it is an incredibly solitary profession. I still love to play but the composing urge is stronger these days. Very few musicians have combined successful performing and composing careers - they are both full-time jobs!

Would you say it was easier to achieve success as a pianist, or as a composer?

DE: Neither one nor the other is easier, and it depends anyway how you measure success. I feel my compositions are giving me more pleasure, so perhaps that is a way of assessing the two pursuits.

How would describe your style of composition?

DE: Essentially tonal, and using traditional compositional structures, such as sonata form. I have no interest in breaking barriers.

As a pianist yourself, do you prefer writing for the piano/feel more comfortable writing for it, rather than other solo instruments?

DE: I have no particular preference for the piano. I find I can hear the sound world of an instrument, and if it is, say, a cello piece, then I imagine how that instrument expresses itself. I love string and woodwind sounds, so it is not difficult dreaming up music for them to play. In any event, the compositional process – in my experience – is a kind of psychic involvement. I constantly feel I am merely hearing and writing down what is coming through some sort of channel.

You have done several compositions for ballets. Do you have a specific affinity for dance?

DE: I have loved dance – specifically classical ballet – all my life, although I never wanted to be a dancer (well, not apart from five minutes when I was 4!). I think creative physical movement is the oldest form of emotional expression, and possibly the oldest form of reverence (spiritual or otherwise). Music enhances this, and, whether it is a narrative piece or abstract, music written for dance can inspire the composer to great heights.

You’ve mentioned an opera you are working on about Alexander the Great and Mary Renault, the historical novelist who lived in the Cape for much of her life. Please tell us more about this project.

DE: It is based on a play I saw two years ago in Cape Town - “Mary and the Conqueror” by the young South African writer Juliet Jenkin. In it, Alexander and Mary Renault meet as ghosts and look back on their lives. There are many subtexts to the play: what happens after physical death, the sacrifice one person has to make in order to live with a famous celebrated partner, the choices we make between careers of pacifist passivity (the arts, in this case writing) or domineering activity (leading armies to questionable ends), and how those two career-paths can reflect back on each other. Above all, what appealed to me was the story of two same-sex couples – Alexander and his life-long soul-mate Hephaistion, and Mary and her partner Julie Mullard – who Juliet Jenkin brilliantly mirrors, even giving the two pairs the same lines at times. I came away from seeing the play convinced it would make a wonderful opera. The vocal score is now finished, and I have just made a demo-recording of it to send to opera companies. The work is not a commission, so the hunt is on for sponsorship! I would love Cape Town Opera to do it, not least because Mary Renault lived in Camps Bay for half her life. She was, and remains, one of Cape Town’s most famous residents. Robin Lane Fox, the Alexander scholar in Oxford, said that classics students constantly read her because her research is so accurate.

You lecture piano at Cambridge University. Do you still ever perform as pianist? If not, do you miss performing at all?

DE: I am not actually a piano lecturer at Cambridge, because the Music Faculty there is not a music school. But since 1989 I have worked with many undergraduate pianists, and also supervised composition students in preparation for their Tripos exams. As for performing myself, at present there are too many compositions waiting to be seen to! But that is not to say that I won’t be playing ever again. At the very least I have to present my own piano works!

I noticed the work Scenes from a South African Childhood - 9 pieces for solo piano (2013) on your list of compositions. Was this work a commission?

DE: Yes, it was a private commission from a friend, Clare Drummond, who had previously commissioned a similar set of pieces about her own childhood in the English Lake District.

What is still on your bucket list as musician/composer?

DE: Right now, I am finishing a new Sonata for Viola and Piano for next year’s Cheltenham Festival (a commission from The John Ireland Trust), and I am planning a suite for the Cape Philharmonic Youth Wind Ensemble called The Wineland Suite, inspired by the great wine estates in the Cape. My next big project is an opera about Rupert Brooke, the centenary of whose death is in 2015.

What does David Earl do when he is not teaching or composing?

DE: I love visiting art galleries – my favourite building in the world is the National Gallery in London; watching films; and reading eclectically. In another life I would be either a painter or a novelist. And I love walking.

Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler
Published 18.10.2013

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