DEREK BOURGEOIS (1941-2017)
MY TEACHER AND MENTOR
I was not a normal schoolboy. I played the violin, which was suspect, I was seen as a sissy, and I had written, at sixteen, an opera, which was a huge secret to all but my closest friends. I was regularly asked to help out to bulk up the violin section for concerts at the local cathedral school; and their music director, Ian Fox, to whom I had shown my first compositional fumblings, said I should go and study with Derek Bourgeois. He was described to me as an eccentric bon viveur, a larger than life figure, who had the most infallible technical skills, was inclined to be gruff, and who didn’t suffer fools or lazybones. So it was with great trepidation that I went for an interview at Bristol University and was admitted to his inner sanctum.
I found him disarming, smiley and, indeed, a bit gruff, which I warmed to—more playful than intimidating. His persona was further tweaked by a startling outfit of clashing checks, striking me at the time that he was more a candidate to play the next Doctor Who than a musical mentor. He relieved me of my opera score (a farrago of half-digested Wagner starring a wizard, Khazzar, who had a spear that shot lightning at people) saying ‘We don’t get too many of these,’ and proceeded to pound through it at the piano. Those of you who have heard his particular brand of piano playing are unlikely to forget it. At one point he suggested, ‘How about this, instead?’ and segued into the opening of the ‘Firebird.’ of which my passage was a blatant knock-off. Of course I recognized it and was crestfallen. ‘That’s OK,’ he beamed. ‘We all do it. Always steal from the best stuff.’
At Bristol I was tutored by Derek once a week and took two of his classes: twentieth century harmony and orchestration. Orchestration was a revelation, as well as being huge fun. His knowledge was encyclopedic and he would delve into enormous detail about balancing between sections and voicing wind chords. We went through Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ suite with a fine tooth comb; and Ravel’s ‘L’enfant et les sortilèges’ too, though a few of us who loved that work noticed that while he would pay enormous attention to the fireworks and the hi-jinks, he would talk over the magically simple heartfelt passages—like the child’s aria on one note ‘Toi le cœur de la rose’ and the final passage — as if he were afraid of acknowledging something so simple and touching.
My individual sessions with him were demanding. He wanted to see a new composition, however embryonic, every week; and having showed off with score-reading a Tchaikovsky symphony movement, he calmly sat me down in front of a full score of Richard Strauss’s ‘Don Quixote’ and made me play it. No surprise that the task soon proved impossible; but then he would make me play separately every single line and marvel with him at how, in even the most cluttered textures, each strand was audible. He encouraged me to try out many styles for size; he may have been allergic to the likes of Boulez and Maxwell-Davies, but he made sure I listened to them and once made me spend a month writing a serial piece. Mainly he was content to let me find my own way, but was very stern about any of my technical or notational shortcomings.
‘Do you know how hard professional players work?’ he asked on more than one occasion. His plain-spoken pronouncements only drove his point home. ‘You’ll have a three hour rehearsal at the very most for the largest piece. Do you expect them to listen to guff about your vision, if your score or parts are full of errors and impracticalities? They’ll eat you up and spit you out. It’s your responsibility to make sure everything will work and to find the easiest most practical way to convey what you want to the players.’ To this day, Derek perches on my shoulder when I am writing, even if I do look at his work and marvel how he wrote passages which look as if they are beyond impossible.
He had a fair number of commissions and premieres around Bristol at that time. He held a wine- tasting event at the university to coincide with the premiere of his Wine Symphony (no 4) given by Vernon Handley and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Each of the nine movements were preluded by a sampling of the relevant vintage, and of course, we were all totally blotto by the end. To this day I remember the opening well, that popping of the cork! - and the symphony gets hazier as it proceeds.
He lost his temper with me only once. I had a lazy depressive phase in my middle year at Bristol, and wrote something very sloppy. He threw the music on the floor and stamped on it and chucked me out. I was ashen. I turned up a week later with reams of impeccably written out material, and he bestowed on me his widest cheesy grin. ‘I thought that would work,’ he said, and carried on as if nothing had happened.
Anecdotes about Derek’s oblique humour are legion, from singing Verdi in a gorilla mask to crooning wrongly transposed horn parts in class exercises. His lesson on the setting out of orchestral string parts comes to mind — when a string section divides into multiple parts you write divisi, and comes back to play together, unis. (short for unison) - he would always write ‘Eunice.’ He just couldn’t help himself and it still makes me chuckle.
I realized that his humour masked a deep seriousness. Beneath the devil-may-care façade was a real anger at the way much post-war music had gone, and how irrelevant it was to so many musicians and listeners. More personally, I learned from him that humour was not the opposite of seriousness; rather, it was a remedy to the all-pervasive earnestness and holy-than-thou-ness that can infect creative circles.
Derek became conductor of the Sun-Life Stanshawe Band while at Bristol, and from the mid 1970s onwards started writing his major contributions to the brass/wind repertoire. He asked me, a twenty year old novice, to write a piece for his band, which became my very first broadcast on BBC Radio 3. He watched over the emerging piece very carefully as I witnessed his efforts to make sense of it to these no-nonsense players. In Derek’s own words: 'A no bullshit approach to music-making.’ I remember that just before the concert, in the green room, a lead cornet player came up to me and said, in full earshot of Derek and many other players:
‘So what’s this piece about then?’
‘I’m not really quite sure’.
‘Yeah, we figured that. But keep writing. One of these years you’ll know. And by the way, some of the boys are starting to like it!’
Derek’s signature cheesy grin—worthy of the Cheshire Cat—was a sight to behold.
As a thank you for this extraordinary opportunity I cooked Derek and Jean as lavish a dinner as I knew how in my dank Bristol basement digs. They were incredibly gracious, though it couldn’t come close to the many riotous evenings that they had hosted in their cork-walled palace (with a swimming pool filled to the brim with inflatable beasties) in the Forest of Dean.
It was at an earlier premiere of mine, for the University chamber orchestra, that I first encountered Jean, very much the vision of a retro ’60s model, leggy in a short skirt and sporting multicoloured plastic toilet earrings. Hypnotized by her quirky beauty, I found it incredible that a professor—even Derek—could have such a wife. She represented him well, always knowing what to say when he was at his most uncomfortable—in public situations requiring small talk. With Jean in full and charming sail, he visibly relaxed when she took up his slack.
When Derek became the director of the National Youth Orchestra in 1984, he asked me to be a housemaster and to ‘assist the composing talent there.’ I would have sessions with various kids (as he did occasionally as well) and look after composers invited when their works were programmed, notably Nicholas Maw and Giles Swayne. It was exciting to see him have his way with programming, presiding over a procession of red-blooded orchestral repertoire with the likes of Messiaen’s ‘Turangalila’, Shostakovich’s 4th symphony, Mahler 2, and for the orchestra’s 40th anniversary in 1987, Schönberg’s ‘Gurrelieder’ with Jessye Norman and Pierre Boulez!
Boulez was recording for CBS while rehearsing the NYO for the Proms—organized by the BBC —and everybody thought that someone else had laid on a car. Derek asked offhandedly if I had my driving license. Next thing I knew I was en route to Heathrow to pick up one of the most famous musicians on the planet. I don’t think I have ever known such terror. M. Boulez appeared with his kindly valet, Hans, and insisted on carrying his own luggage. Sitting in the front of the car with me, he was smiley, sweet and chatty, the antithesis of the firebrand who once stated that all opera houses should be blown up. Hans was obsessed with campanology and was excited about the bells at Guildford cathedral, very close to where the course was held. He would tear up describing the sounds of various bells and was adopted on one of his days off by the Guildford campanology society which gave him a tour, the making of his trip. He also confided to me the best way to make monsieur’s eggs. I had to drive M. Boulez hither and thither, from the course to his agent in Kensington, or to recording sessions in Watford. My composition students were agog wanting a verbatim account of matters discussed on each trip. At that very time, the press were braying over the case of Jeffrey Archer, the conservative MP and pulp novelist, accused of handing a prostitute £2000 on Victoria Station. Boulez was highly amused by such a fit of morality thrown by the British press—in France, who would notice?—and a whole car journey centered on this bit of tittle tattle. He wondered aloud about whether or not to read a Jeffrey Archer novel; and by the way, who is that funny lady in pink who writes saccharine romances? My students just wouldn't believe that I had passed time with the great maestro discussing Barbara Cartland. Derek laughed so long and hard at my recounting of these tales that I almost wondered if he’d organized the whole thing on purpose. He confided that had he known, he would have chauffeured Boulez himself!
In the early 90s, Derek and Jean sold up their manse in the Forest of Dean, and headed for London where he took up the post of Music Director at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. I was living in London as well, and they met my partner, Peter, a world travelled American China scholar and banker, who appreciated Derek and Jean’s very special brand of English eccentricity. They were very supportive by coming to several of my opera premieres; and when I was savaged by critics after one, he said darkly, ‘Ah, now they’re starting on you. You’ll see how it feels. It’s how you write, not how well’. By now he had become entrenched in his musical tastes, getting very riled up on one occasion when I played him some Morton Feldman who I had encountered in Canada. Derek riposted by playing me a seemingly endless set of variations by Max Reger, dripping in glutinous counterpoint, to which I remarked, ‘I just want you to know that if this isn't over in two minutes, I will start screaming.’ He had given up promoting his own work by now, I think. Though very much in demand for his brass and wind band works, he knew he would never be taken seriously in the form that meant the most to him: the symphony.
Despite this, he led an exclusively musical life, with most conversation centered on the musical. He was uncomfortable with small talk, though I do recall inviting Jean and Derek to our tiny London flat with an elderly gay activist novelist and a very funny actress friend who could talk to anyone. We ate moules and had a thoroughly ribald drunken evening where music barely got a look in. He revealed a very different side and I felt privileged to witness the slipping of his guard.
In 2002, I returned to London after living in Hong Kong and Japan for six years. I had been in intermittent touch with Derek and Jean but hadn't seen them during that time, and was surprised to receive a peremptory invitation from them to supper. Peter and I went (the numerous miniature Eeyores scattered about took a bit of explaining) and Jean, in particular, was really curious about our new family (we had adopted our two girls in Hong Kong). Not surprised by Derek’s indifference, I could not help but notice Derek’s insistent queries about my professional prospects—a bit touch and go, having been away for so long. We passed a pleasant, silly evening quaffing much.
All was revealed the following morning at 9am when the phone rang. It was Derek. I now knew why he had been so interested in my next steps.
‘They’re doing a final round of interviews for my job at St Paul’s next week. I’m retiring, and they want a composer to carry on in the footsteps of almost all of their music directors - Holst, Vaughan Williams, Howells, John Gardner and so on. We can’t find anyone that excites us. I told them about you and said you were an off the wall choice. They want to see you.’
‘I’d sooner put needles in my eyes,’ I said, without a moments hesitation.
‘Now don’t be silly,’ he barked ‘This will be interesting for everyone. And, by the way, I have no say in the process or outcome.’ He rang off.
The official phone call came an hour later. I was presented with a schedule. I had no clue what was expected or what A levels or GCSE exams looked like those days, having been long out of the loop. However, I always regarded a job interview as a piece of theatre, and felt I ought to do it, just to keep my hand in.
As it happened, the interview was on the same day as the premiere of a short opera of mine, with a Q&A before, and then a radio interview, so the school obligingly scurried to adjust my schedule. I was to teach a couple of classes, conduct the orchestra and be inspected by various important folks, culminating with the High Mistress. One of the slots in my schedule gave me pause for thought: a harmony class teaching Bach chorales. I was feeling particularly rusty about those so I had run out and brushed up with a little manual. It was with particular dread that I was led into that class, and the first thing I noticed, aside from the intensely concentrated 16 year old girls, was Derek sitting right at the back, grinning. There was a sheet, with a chorale melody on it, and the entire class was stuck. I wrote it up on the board and soon realized I was, too. The chorale didn’t seem to conform to any of the rules, though it was a photocopy from the standard edition: ‘Bach’s 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies with Figured Bass’ edited by one Albert Riemenschneider, an American musicologist—a tome that had terrorized us at college, the basis of every music student’s training in harmony and voice leading. Although Bach did leave a few maverick ones, this piece defeated us all. I caught Derek’s eye. He was beaming, all of a sudden, I had a hunch. I asked the class: ‘Has anyone got a copy of Riemenschneider?’ Various copies were produced from bags and the offending chorale was found and compared to the photocopy used. A ha! A crucial key signature had been tampered with—the chorale was in F major (one flat) which had disappeared in the photostat. The class and I went from a modal limbo into a nice F major and dispatched the chorale together quickly and efficiently. Derek never let on, and I never knew whether the girls were in on it or not; but I KNEW. That pleading glance from me to Derek; and all he could do was grin back. He was imperturbable.
I completed my day of interviews and a taxi was arranged to whisk me to my broadcast and premiere. While in the taxi, to my horror, I received a call offering me the job. At a boozy party after the performance, Peter said, ‘Oh, just accept it. They’ll either fire you in the first week or you can always chuck it in if you hate it’.
In fact, I loved it. Derek knew me better than I did.
We saw much of Derek and Jean during the handover months. He prepared me assiduously and there were many dinners en famille. They even got used to being around our two little girls. I realize only now that Derek had never mentioned anything about his own family, upbringing, or anything very personal at all.
I visited Derek and Jean, happily retired in Majorca, in February 2003, for a long weekend. I was on spring break from St Paul’s. The weather failed us, the pouring rain seeping through the leaky roof. We lolled about inside, chatting about music and gossiping about the school. When I left them, I could not have imagined what was in store for Jean—and that that I would never see her again. She would be dead in just over three years, withering into a shell of her whimsical, talented and charming self, a victim of ALS.
Derek and I emailed regularly as Jean declined, marking the start of his compulsive symphonizing—a coping mechanism, to be sure. He would send me Sibelius files, the music coming thick and fast. I was finally defeated, unable to keep up with the listening as I witnessed the heartbreak of their dream retirement turning to ashes.
With Jean’s death I wrote a musical tribute, ‘Three Island Tales,’ for viola and piano. It occurs to me that with Derek’s passing I am resorting to words.
In 2010, our family moved to Princeton, New Jersey. Peter was now my civil partner, and shortly to be my husband, and our girls were 12 and 14. Peter had returned to live in the USA after 28 years abroad. I had completed five years at St Paul’s Girls’ School, and three living in Beijing. Derek had remarried, and was living in the USA briefly; and he and Norma came to visit us in Princeton. I was nervous, unable to imagine someone taking Jean’s place. My anxiety was unfounded. Norma had left room for Jean and made her very own place, very special in her own new way. We all took at once to Norma who radiated warmth, grace and and a brand of new humour which Derek wore well; and it was wonderful to see him obviously so happy. He seemed mellower and more prone to conversations beyond the realm of music; and I sensed that Norma had enabled him to reach beyond his confined old self. We all passed a most delightful time together during a freezing January day, noteworthy for Derek’s ease in so ordinary a situation. Dinner en famille was jolly, with Derek, most uncharacteristically, very much in the mix. I waved them off at the station.
I never saw him again. The symphonies continued to tumble out, but our computer systems became incompatible, so I truly couldn’t listen to them. I began to get mass e-mails from him when his health started to fail, and I marveled at how such a withdrawn private person could broadcast such personal medical details to the world. At first I would respond with a newsy e-mail. If he did respond, he would rarely mention anything personal. I wondered how Norma was doing, in the middle of Dorset with Derek obviously composing all the time in declining health. Our last meaningful correspondence centered on my seeking his advice in 2013-14 when writing a large (for me, not for him!) 25 minute orchestral piece. He answered straight away, unleashing a flurry of communication. He was very censorious about my use of musical quotation, questioned some of the orchestration and picked apart some counterpoint. I was, after all, still his student. I did notice, though—and it surprised and disarmed me immeasurably —that he began signing off his e-mails with ‘love from us both’.
RIP Derek. You were a wonderful teacher and guide.
© Julian Grant 2017