I recently posted an article about Richard Stoker’s piano suite A Poet’s Notebook- I have known this work since reviewing a CD of the composer’s piano music. However, a few weeks ago, I discovered copies of the sheet music for this piece and also for From an Artist’s Sketchbook Op.7a in a second hand music shop near Edgware Road Tube Station.
The Sketchbook was written in the 1958 and was dedicated to Nicolas Berkeley, the third son of the composer Sir Lennox. The work was actually published by Hinrichsen a few years after it had been composed.
Richard Townend, writing in The Musical times in May 1968 was keen to point out that one of Stoker’s main interests is “providing music for the young and technically inexperienced amateur to play and enjoy.” There was a definite attempt in this present work along with the Notebook and The Little Giraffe (a Peter & the Wolf type of narrative) to write easy music which is real music. There is never an attempt to ‘write down’; there are no concessions made to musicality other than in technical content. I understand that this interest in ‘playable pieces’ dates from the composer’s attempt at finding suitable chamber music to play when he was studying at the Art School in Huddersfield.
The ‘Artist’s Sketchbook’ has six ‘easy’ pieces. They are all named after a genre of painting. The Portrait is an 'andante 'written in a gently rocking 2/4 time with a ‘confusion’ between the keys of A minor and major. The difficulty here it to ‘pull off’ the single bar phrases and maintain interest. Yet it is a good opener and certainly needs a wee bit of study.
The Still Life is ‘easier’ yet here there is a danger of spoiling the piece by lack of attention to the dynamics. There are a few interesting dissonances that need to be managed discretely. Cartoon is perhaps the highlight of the suite. Written to be played ‘presto’, this piece fairly rollicks along. The left hand carries most of the technical interest and little fingers as well as mine can get tied up – especially at the speed indicated!
The Study is another piece where the unwary can come to grief. For much of it the left hand has to play both quavers and crotchets –and it is easy to have an uneven touch and destroy the movement of the piece. The right hand swaps between a short three note phrase and an octave scale that appears to be in the mixolydian mode!
The fifth movement, Abstract is a little piece of counterpoint that utilises a kind of ground bass. Here again the phrasing needs to be cerefully attended to with this number.
The last ‘sketch’ is a Landscape. This is great music that sounds so much more impressive, and actually quite moving, than the notes on the page would suggest. It is a dialogue between a succession of three-note common chords in the left hand with and interesting Britten-like melody in the right hand. There is a harking back to the opening sketch with an alteration between A minor and major once more.
Interestingly, Richard Stoker is also an artist –in fact he told me recently that he hopes to spend more time painting in the next few years. As he is approaching his seventieth birthday in November, I just hope that it is not to the detriment of his composing!
Unfortunately From an Artist’s Sketchbook is unrecorded. I understand from the composer that there was a plan to record this and a number of other ‘children’s’ works – but this did not come to fruition. Naturally, for a minor work such as this there is little critical comment in the musical literature – however one reviewer in the Music Teacher has written that “all [these pieces] show a good sense of style, and have many useful educational points.'
Fortunately the music is available at Tutti and certainly represents a good investment for the any child wishing to break away from the ‘Teddy goes for a Walk’ type of juvenile teaching music – or perhaps for an adult who does not go beyond about Grade 4 but wishes to play something fresh and stylish that sounds like ‘real music’.