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Robin Walker at 60

Appeared in Tempo, July 2013

I first met Robin Walker in 1976, when I was living in Oxford and he was a 23-year-old postgraduate student at Keble College researching the influence of Wagner on late-romantic French music. I spent a lot of time at the Bodleian writing my biography of Tippett, and a kind Danish librarian, Anne-Marie Køllgaard, introduced us, thinking we would find one another sympathetic. It led to a friendship that has lasted until today.

Robin Walker was born on 18 March 1953 and brought up in York, where he was head chorister at the Minster. He did his undergraduate degree in music at Durham University. After Oxford, he spent two years in London, where he had further composition lessons at the Royal College of Music with Anthony Milner, and also taught at King's College and the Royal Academy of Music. In 1980 he became a lecturer at the University of Manchester and as well as teaching was actively involved in conducting and running the Electronic Music Studio. In 1987 he resigned his post in order to devote himself to full-time composition. He moved to Delph, a village on the western edge of the Pennines. In 2007 he moved from Delph to Todmorden in the Calder Valley, where he now lives in a hillside house on the edge of the town.

Moving from the city to the country profoundly changed Walker's attitude to life and to composition, especially since he has lived in Todmorden, where he is surrounded by moorland sheep farms and has an extensive view of the Pennine landscape. He feels that he has slowed down to the pace of nature, no longer needing to force the pace of events. At the time I met him, Walker was a committed modernist, having been trained in serialism at Durham by David Lumsdaine. Like me he had great admiration for Tippett, but his hero among younger composers was his fellow northerner Harrison Birtwistle, with whom he still feels significant kinship. Since 1987 he has gradually abandoned an adherence to modernism in favour of a language he has described as 'modal chromaticism'. He has written of serialism and other non-tonal languages in severely critical terms: 'They are all linguistically inferior in their capacity to make intelligible forms, and offer evidence that the broad territory occupied by the language of music has shrunk to a small hinterland of extremes. The posture created by the musical manner of such composers is self-consciously adopted, rather than arising from the well of tradition and related to the deepest need for personal integration.' [1]

This is not to say that Walker has renounced all his early music, though he acknowledges none of his pieces earlier than 1979. Acquiring technique and self-confidence in what he was composing was an arduous process for him and occupied most of his twenties. In 1980 he visited Ladakh, where he heard Buddhist temple music, a crucial experience, and in 1983 he went to Bangalore to study Indian drumming and to observe Hindu dance at the College of Percussion. David Lumsdaine had already introduced him to Japanese music, and what is probably his most significant early work, Dance/Still for chamber ensemble, completed in 1982, has a consciously Eastern character. The title is precise: the two parts express, in the composer's words, 'concurrently a ritualised vitality and a religious stillness.' The piece begins and ends with twelve repetitions of the same hieratic chord, stridently underlined by a bell struck with a triangle stick. The spiky melodic lines and varied dance rhythms of the first part recall the Stravinsky of Agon, and the exquisite chords of the 'still' section also have a Stravinsky-like precision. Everything is beautifully proportioned. Walker mastered a particular manner, before moving on.

Another formative experience came from reading Jung. Walker would, I am sure, agree with Tippett when he wrote, in 1938, 'Modern people are not polarized, they are split' [2] - no doubt hinting at his own quest, soon afterwards, to reintegrate his personality through Jungian self-analysis. The Jungian ideal of psychological wholeness Walker sees as essential for any composer who aims to produce a successful expressive form - form, as distinguished from structure, being 'a musical shape perceived in its totality after its unfolding in real time.' [3] The balance between intellect and emotion that was achieved in the music of Beethoven, Wagner or Sibelius was largely lost in the second half of the twentieth century, when most serious music became dominated by intellect, and popular music by crude emotion. We cannot expect popular music to provide much intellectual satisfaction, but we have every right to expect serious music to return to the expression of true feeling. As Walker has written: 'the artist… must suppress the postulating intellect in favour of intuiting the unfolding of his material, through its latent, almost physical, properties. He must be, in fact, a contemplative craftsman.' [4] He will be an introvert, who 'in Jungian terms, places Feeling over Thinking in the valuation of experience.' [5] In contrast to this 'introverted feeling type', Jung's 'introverted thinking type' may not be able to open himself fully to the emotional experiences that inspire real art, whether from love, the apprehension of beauty, the contemplation of Nature - or simply, as Tolstoy puts it in What is Art?, the transmission of a feeling one has experienced to make it available for others to experience. Walker has summed up his approach to his work in three aphorisms: live in your own reality; be solaced by nature; compose with eros and wild spirituality.

When Walker gave up academic life, which he had come to believe was threatening his creativity, and settled in a Pennine village, he found the space and freedom to try to put these precepts to the test. It took him some time 'to face the stress of not being what I thought I was'. [6] It was not until 1991, for instance, that he first felt able to use triads in a piece (in Blenkhorn KLR, for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band), something that initially caused him 'intense fear'. But it was in Blenkhorn (named after a great uncle who was in the King's Liverpool Regiment and was killed in the First World War) that he first found his real musical language. The piece only lasts four and a half minutes, but it doesn't feel small-scale. The first four minutes are relentlessly fortissimo, with savage drumbeats underlining the brass fanfares and fierce harmonic progressions: one seems in the thick of battle. At the end the sound quietens to brooding chords, before a final explosion.

While he was writing Blenkhorn, Walker had already begun a large-scale orchestral piece, The Stone Maker. He worked on this for eight years, finally completing it in 1995. The Stone Maker expands the language and, to an extent, the emotional world of Blenkhorn on a grand scale: the piece is an uninterrupted span lasting just over half an hour. Like Blenkhorn, The Stone Maker is a memorial piece - for Reginald Cant, Canon of York Minster and a mentor to Walker in his youth, when he was a devout Christian. Walker now rejects Christianity, though his thinking remains religious in the deep sense of finding the world a sacred place, so that all his music is infused with pantheistic spirituality. Stone, as a symbol of permanence, and the Maker, the source of creativity, are the work's starting points; it develops a small number of elemental ideas slowly and carefully - the process is clearly symphonic, and Walker's succinct description of it should be quoted: he was 'making a path through a landscape, where the features were musical objects constructed from my own experience. I saw these objects at a distance, approached them, passed by them, and then looked back as they receded.' The Stone Maker presents a vast panorama of often terrifying grandeur. Much of the time the music has a restless momentum, but there are also austere sections of brooding stillness. Although the overall mood is dark and intense, there are occasional shafts of luminosity, like the sun momentarily emerging from cloud. The music gradually builds up to a sustained climax of phenomenal elemental energy, perhaps unsurpassed since The Rite of Spring, before it returns to stillness and a mysteriously quiet ending. The Stone Maker is I believe one of the great orchestral works of our time.

In 2003 Walker was commissioned by the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester to write a 40-part choral piece for the Tallis Scholars, to be performed alongside Tallis's Spem in alium. Walker describes his piece, I have thee by the hand, O Man, as a 'sacred madrigal': it is a dialogue between God and Man, with the choir (Man) pleading to God (the initial solo voice) for wisdom and protection. Like Tallis, Walker divides his forces into eight choirs of five voices (SSATB), and the music moves in waves of ecstatic tonal harmony towards its final sustained A major added sixth. In contrast to The Stone Maker, this is a radiant piece, but its joy is hard-won, and strong. It is in every way a worthy companion to Tallis's sublime work.

Two shorter, and quite similar orchestral works have followed The Stone Maker: the Funeral March, Great Rock is Dead, and another symphonic poem, The Stone King. This was premiered by the BBC Philharmonic under James MacMillan in 2009; Great Rock is Dead remains unperformed. The mood of The Stone King is again much less dark than The Stone Maker; in a direct line from Wagner and Sibelius, its music is grand, noble, heroic - words that are hardly ever applied to anything written today. Within its eleven-minute duration there are two huge, surging climaxes, where tonality is used with all its old power. It ends with a completely fresh look at C major. There is no hint of anything like film music. Walker can write like this because he believes absolutely in the values he has struggled so long to achieve. His re-creation of real tonal music - no post-modernist promiscuity here - is an extraordinary achievement.

I cannot do justice here to the remainder of Walker's large and comprehensive output. For some years he has been interested in opera: he has written an opera for schools, Odysseus and Penelope, and two short chamber operas, The Fish and The Bells of Blue Island, the second of which was performed at the University of Manchester in 2001. Since 1996, Walker has been writing a trilogy of operas of Wagnerian size and substance based on Homer's Odyssey, of which Odysseus on Ogygia is the first. It ends with Odysseus being released from the seductions of the nymph Calypso who has tried to detain him with the offer of immortality, but which - as spiritual death - he has refused. He has adapted his own libretto from Homer. All three operas are composed; the orchestration of the first will be finished this summer. What I have seen of the music and the libretto looks most impressive; but the opera was uncommissioned, and unless a contemporary King Ludwig appears, a performance in the near future seems unlikely. It exists, however.

The fragment of the Greek poet Archilochus that inspired Isaiah Berlin's essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox, reads: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' Robin Walker is a typical hedgehog, and the big thing he knows is how to create a wholly satisfying musical form. Like another northern artist to whom he feels close, L.S.Lowry, Walker has stubbornly pursued his individual path, often lonely and unappreciated, but remaining true to principles he knows are right. In his 60th year, I salute him in friendship and admiration as a composer of the first rank, whose time will surely come.

[1]    Robin Walker: 'Form and Meaning: the inner life of music' in Peter Davison, ed., Reviving the Muse: Essays on Music After Modernism Brinkworth: Claridge Press, 2001) p.118.
[2]    Michael Tippett, 'Music and Life' in Meirion Bowen, ed., Music of the Angels (London: Eulenberg Books, 1980) p.31.
[3]    'Form and Meaning', p.112.
[4]    'Form and Meaning', p.115.
[5]    'Form and Meaning', p.116.
[6]    Personal communication.