One of the highlights of the Orchestra of the Swan’s Armistice Day concert in Stratford-upon-Avon on Tuesday will be the world premiere of A Dream of “Peace for our Time” by the Leicester-based composer Philip Herbert.
“It’s inspired by Neville Chamberlain’s ill-fated declaration on September 30, 1938, after his meeting with Hitler,” says Philip. “But after 70 years there’s still turmoil in the world, and we need to reflect and remember. The piece is a reflective prelude for 12 strings. It’s English in style, and contains references to Holst’s I Vow To Thee, My Country hymn-tune.”
Philip’s compositions display a deep political and humanitarian engagement.
“Everyone who creates something is under pressure to tick all the boxes of political correctness,” he declares. And he worries that this creates a cultural malaise where the artist “panders to the lowest common denominator.
“It’s the composer’s duty to be in tune with what’s happening in the world. He needs to speak with integrity and passion.” And he goes on to quote the great choral conductor Robert Shaw: “In a world of political, economic and personal disintegration, music is not a luxury but a necessity, not simply because it is therapeutic nor because it is the ‘universal language’, but because it is the persistent focus of man’s intelligence, aspiration and goodwill.”
As a black composer Philip has much to speak about, and he is continually aware of his cultural heritage.
“Last year marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and the Oxford Companion to Black British History was launched. It was edited by scholars from the University of Warwick’s Centre for Caribbean Studies, and I was invited to contribute biographies of black classical musicians and composers. That tied in with a report from the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that said that too little attention is given to the black and multi-ethnic aspects of British history.”
This experience inspired Philip to devise the concert programme “Lost Chords, Unsung Songs”, drawing on the Harlem Renaissance, with spirituals, jazz and blues melded with classical forms.
The line-up of composers represented includes the reasonably well-known (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still), but there are many less familiar: Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, Betty Jackson King, Julia Perry and Florence Price – not only black composers, but women as well.
This was toured across Britain as a part of the Arts Council of England’s initiative Decibel 2007, ending up in the Purcell Room in the South Bank Centre. There was even an appearance on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme. Philip was also commissioned by Baroness Lola Young to write a piece for the International Freedom and Culture Conference, at the South Bank Centre in November 2007.
“I decided to write a piece for trumpet, strings and timpani. Its title was ‘Oh Freedom’, from the Negro Spiritual.
“Thinking about the slave trade, I was also thinking about the many peoples across the world who do not enjoy the freedoms we enjoy in the UK. It was premiered by the Philharmonia Orchestra.”
Among other works is Elegy – in memoriam Stephen Lawrence, recorded with the London Mozart Players and broadcast on Classic FM and BBC Radio 3, and he is also writing arrangements for Birmingham a capella group Black Voices.
Philip was also music co-ordinator in the Richard Attenborough Centre at the University of Leicester, and is now teaching at the Martin High School in Leicester.
How does this busy man relax?
“I enjoy cooking a meal and having friends round, seeing a good film, or seeing music or contemporary dance performances. Living in a rural location also enables me to go out on some good walks – but now I think it’s time to go and chill out on the veranda of the family house in Nevis – and take in the sun, sea, and the tranquil surroundings...”
* A Dream of ‘Peace for our Time’ is premiered at the Orchestra of the Swan’s Armistice Day concert at the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon on Tuesday at 7.30pm (Box office: 01789 207100).