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The Composer Who's Written Music for Every Shakespeare Play

Guy Woolfenden

John Robert Brown

Guy Woolfenden
Guy Woolfenden

Guy Woolfenden was born in Ipswich in Suffolk. Appropriately, he names Benjamin Britten as his favourite composer. However, when Woolfenden started playing the horn as a fourteen-year-old, he was living in South Croydon.

"There was a Croydon Symphony Orchestra," he says, recalling that the Croydon orchestra had two conductors whom he rates as extraordinary. "One was Colin Davis. The other was Norman Del Mar, who was later head of conducting at the Guildhall. He taught using the old, best, way, which is where you have two pianos. You seat four of your conductors, two on each piano. You make them score read, while another of their colleagues conducts." Del Mar was also a horn player, eventually to become number two to Dennis Brain in the Philharmonia. "When I decided that I wanted to get on with this conducting lark, I thought I'd better go to someone I knew and trusted," says Woolfenden. After Cambridge, Woolfenden went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Woolfenden describes himself as largely self-taught, though he did come under the influence of several prominent composers. One was Mátyás Seiber. "I sang in his choir, the Dorian singers," Woolfenden remembers. The founder and musical director of the National Youth Orchestra, Ruth Railton, used to invite composers to National Youth Orchestra courses. "Benjamin Frankel, the film composer, was one," says Woolfenden. "At Cambridge, one of my tutors was Peter Tranchell, who wrote his opera The Mayor of Casterbridge for the Festival of Britain in 1951, which I conducted in 1959 with the Cambridge University Opera Group. Peter was helpful.

"I was a choirboy at Westminster Abbey. Many of us wrote anthems and chants. We had to sing them every day. I thought: 'I'd like to have a go at that!' When I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon, I went as a music director. I found that I could do something rather unusual, which was to turn up at rehearsals and watch the actors and directors at work on the productions. Sometimes I took my horn along. I busked a few fanfares, or suggested something from the old upright piano in the rehearsal room. They were delighted. I became a hands-on composer, which was different from the modus operandi of some of the earlier composers, who would write their scores and post them in without being invited to attend rehearsals at all! What I produced was relevant to the production. I became a theatre composer.

"To compose, I don't go straight on to Sibelius [software]. I'm still old fashioned enough to get a tune in my head, then work it out on the piano. I hack it around on Sibelius later.

"I'm a deadline person. I was at the RSC for 37 years. I haven't counted it totally accurately, but I wrote around 150 scores. In those circumstances you can't suddenly have a hissy fit, saying the music won't be ready. The director might get a bit worried! But unless I have a deadline, there ain't going to be anything. I find it difficult writing a symphony that's never been asked for, or has no performance date. I need to know that somebody wants my music.

Woolfenden claims to have a bottom drawer containing most of those 150 scores he has written, an impressive total. "That has been source material for a huge number of my works. The first wind band work I wrote was called Gallimaufry, which was based on the music I wrote for the opening of the Barbican Theatre in 1982. I had already written the music for RSC productions of Henry IV parts I and II several times before. When Trevor Nunn originally asked me if I would mind if, on this occasion, he asked Andrew Lloyd Webber - for whom he'd directed Cats and Starlight Express, to compose these scores, I was quite relaxed. But, in the end, Andrew had to hit another deadline. He dropped out. I was left writing 104 music cues in a short time. But, as always, Trevor described precisely exactly what he wanted to achieve with the music. I worked it all out thematically, rather in the style of the leitmotif in a Wagner opera.

"The plays were an enormous success. I remember bumping into Trevor as he went around the dressing rooms after the performance. He suggested that I took some time off to mould the music into a suite. I thought this was unlikely, that after the production was over the music would go into a drawer, never to be heard again."  A few days later Tim Reynish asked Woolfenden if he would like to write a piece for wind band. The piece is called Gallimaufry, the first commission for BASBWE.

"I first met Tim Reynish in the horn section of the National Youth Orchestra," says Woolfenden. "For three or four years we played together on every course. Ruth Railton felt that I needed a different teacher. She suggested I went to Aubrey Brain, father of Dennis, which was a wonderful idea. Tim and I then found that we'd got scholarships to Cambridge University. We went up there on the same day. We spent the next three years playing in every orchestra, pinching all the best horn parts. I also started conducting, which Tim resisted until later. One of our tutors, Raymond Leppard, was the Music Adviser to the RSC, which needed a Deputy Music Director. He thought I would fit the bill. Initially I turned the job down as I was expecting to be called up to do my National Service as soon as I finished my degree. Tim meanwhile continued his professional horn playing career. He moved to London, where he was principal horn in Sadler's Wells Opera Company (now English National Opera). When they needed a fourth horn doubling second, he suggested me. I was auditioned by Colin Davis, and got the job. Thanks to Tim I had a wonderful year playing under many fine conductors, including Charles Mackerras and Reginald Goodall.

"Then our ways parted. I went to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I was deputy Music Director, then Music Director, then Head of Music. Tim started conducting, and founded BASBWE. Later on I was Chairman for a while. What he's done for wind music in this country will never be forgotten. I take my hat off to him.

"The reason I took the job was that the theatre had a band the size of which may amaze you. We had two flutes, two oboes, one clarinet who doubled bass, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, trombone, percussion, and a harpist who played piano, all on a weekly salary. Alas, when I first started writing music there was a financial crisis. Economies had to be made, which included the music department. I wrote the music for Peter Hall’s epic production of the history plays, called The Wars of the Roses, which was one of the most extraordinary achievements in the RSC’s long history. The RSC Wind Band became simply brass and percussion, although gradually I was able to bring back the woodwind - necessary for the lighter plays. In Stratford-upon-Avon an experimental theatre, called The Other Place, was built. Then, in the eighties, the beautiful Swan Theatre was opened on the site of the original Shakespeare Theatre.

"On any one night, I'd had to provide musicians and music for three venues in Stratford-upon-Avon and two or three theatres in London. Peter Hall had first taken the company into London in 1961, where we played at the Aldwych Theatre. When the Barbican was built, the company occupied the Barbican Theatre and the experimental theatre, called The Pit. On top of that there was a season in Newcastle-upon-Tyne every year, and frequent world tours. It was a huge job.

"The reason I left in 1998 was not that I didn't love my job any more, but most of the directors I'd worked with had moved on. Both Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn went from the RSC to the National Theatre. Terry Hands, another wonderful RSC artistic director, with whom I had also worked at the Comédie Française in Paris, the Burgtheater in Vienna and at the National Theatre in Norway, was also off to pastures new.

"I'm possibly the only composer in the world who's written the music for every single Shakespeare play. Plays that Shakespeare collaborated on keep being discovered. But of the thirty-seven plays that we know he wrote, I've composed music for all of them - most of them twice, some three times. When I wrote the score for David Thacker’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which, in 1991, was the only play I had never done, the director decided to set it in the raving thirties, with a live dance band on stage. So my setting of the play’s famous song Who is Sylvia? avoided being haunted by Schubert’s famous setting."

Woolfenden has one composing ambition left: "My four wind concertos are totally separate from that huge archive of Shakespeare tunes. There's a pattern in them, in that I'm fond of the music of Carl Nielsen. Every woodwind and horn player has played Nielsen’s wonderful Wind Quintet. He knew all the players by name and by nature. He promised them all a concerto. The flute concerto is one of the great early twentieth-century flute concertos. The clarinet concerto is rather mad, because the clarinettist was obviously crazy. Then Nielsen died! I'm two ahead of him.

"I started off with an oboe concerto, dedicated to my wife, who has heard it many times but not yet performed it. I don't know what that says! I wrote the clarinet concerto for Jack Brymer's seventieth birthday. I wrote a horn concerto, then, a bassoon concerto for Meyrick Alexander, principal bassoon in the Philharmonia. It only remains for me to do the flute concerto."

First published in Winds magazine. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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