A few weeks ago, I received an interesting CD from the composer Robin Field. It contained music by him as well as works by fellow ‘Lakeland Composers.’ Field’s contribution was an evocative song-cycle ‘When I was one and twenty’ which, as the title may suggest was a setting of six poems by A.E. Housman. Fortunately, the composer also included the vocal score, so I was able to study these in some detail.
I had not heard of Robin Field. In fact, of the eleven members of the Lakeland Composers group it is only the late Arthur Butterworth and David Jennings that are known to me.
There is little biographical detail available about Robin Field. He was born in Redditch, Worcestershire in 1935 and duly studied music with Hugh Allen. Later he had lessons with James Murray Brown (of A Handbook of Musical Knowledge fame) in Durham and in London. He was fortunate to study with the Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999). Field was not a ‘professional’ composer in spite of having begun writing music as a teenager. His occupation was that of an industrial chemist.
In 1962 he moved to the Lake District and has latterly devoted his post-retirement years to composition. In 1971 Field won a composer’s competition which had been organised by North West Arts with the winning piece being a Fantasia Concertante for oboe and string orchestra.
Robin Field’s webpage is a part of the Lakeland Composers site.
It is always very difficult to try to evaluate a composer when there is so little music available to be heard. The catalogue gives some clue as to the direction of Field’s interests, but clearly until at least some of his music (other than the Housman songs) is recorded it will be a very tentative conclusion.
Robin Field has written large and small-scale works. There are concertos for oboe, for clarinet and for violin. A tantalisingly named Far in a Western Brookland is a ‘diptych for orchestra which further explores the Housman theme. Then, one wonders about the inspiration behind On Seeing the First Swallows in Spring. Could this possibly nod to Delius? I am not sure what Rohan rides to Gondor is all about: I assume that this is a Tolkien/Middle-Earth influenced piece.
As a pianist (amateur, Grade 6 and a bit) I always look at what a composer has written for ‘my’ instrument. There are three considerable Sonatas, an interesting sounding ‘Tunes from Arran’ and Fliskwood (A Tay Side Suite). I hope to be able to see the scores for these one day. The Cumbria Suite for oboe and piano sounds as if it may have considerable ‘local’ potential. I notice that there is a Scottish interest in some of Field’s music – this includes the Three Island Sketches for violin and piano which has movements entitled ‘The Sound of Mull’, ‘Archie MacFadyen’s Ploy’ and ‘Tráigh Cadh’an Easa’ which is a lovely beach on Mull.
Field has composed music for virtually every genre, including films, electronic media, songs, choral, liturgical and chamber. There are eight string quartets which could be an important cycle. Let us hope we get a chance to hear them.
I notice in his catalogue that many of these works have been produced on the ‘Sibelius’ music writing software package which means that it is probably possible to play-back using ‘Scorch.’ Maybe this will be the way that Robin Field’s music will reach a much wider public.
I cannot at this stage know if Robin Field’s song cycle ‘When I was one and twenty’ is representative of his stylistic achievement across the wide range of his catalogue of music. However, listening to these songs, I am impressed by the subtlety of his word setting and the provision of an effective piano part that adds considerable atmosphere to each poem. His musical language (at least in these songs) appears to be largely tonal, but with occasional modulations into remote keys. The melodies of the songs are clearly attractive to sing and are typically memorable. The accompaniment is written in an effective and sometimes technically difficult pianistic style. Harmonically, there is little to challenge the listener, however there are a few moments where a bitter-sweet mood adds to the effectiveness of the setting. I have heard many Housman’s songs over the year, some of which are excellent, a number that are derivative of much that has already been written and not a few that seem to miss the point.
Robin Field has created a fine cycle that is effective, original (but well within the fine tradition of English song) and most important of all able to move the listener.
In preparing this note I did a number of web-searches. Unfortunately, very little appears under the composer’s name. I would have liked to have read a few concert reviews: I can only hope that more material will become available for making an evaluation of Robin Fields music in the coming months and years.