Wednesday, 10 January 2018

William Blezard: Variations on a Sea Shanty for piano

William Blezard was born in the North Country at Padiham in 1921. His parents worked at a local cotton mill. However, there was much music in the household as William’s father sang tenor on a semi-professional basis. After some self-taught practice on the piano and harmonium, Blezard was discovered whilst playing at a local cinema. Apparently, a member of the audience was so impressed with his performance and recommended him to her brother, a local mill-owner, who paid for the young man’s lessons.
Later, he was then fortunate enough to win a Lancashire County scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. He studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and Frank Merrick and composition with Herbert Howells. A further study of orchestration was taken with Gordon Jacob. Unfortunately, his academic career was interrupted by five years of war service in the RAF. During the war he served in the North of Scotland as a Morse code operator.
After early success in winning the Cobbett chamber music prize in 1946, Blezard was appointed student composer at J. Arthur Rank’s Denham film studios where he worked extensively with the ubiquitous Muir Matheson. He married Joan Kemp Potter who was a fellow student at the Royal College of Music.
Much of his subsequent career revolved round the theatre where he was well regarded as an accompanist and musical director. Some of the big names he has worked with include Honor Blackman, Marlene Dietrich, Max Wall and Joyce Grenfell.
William Blezard died in Barnes in 2003 aged 81. His final musical performance was the night before his death.

The Variations on a Sea Shanty is one of Blezard’s longest piano pieces. And I must say that it is seriously impressive from start to finish. It has everything one could possibly imagine about a work with that title. Yet this is not ‘drawing room’ music nor tunes to be played by ‘Grade 5’ students. This is a full-blown set of variations that requires all the resources of an extremely competent pianist. Parkin himself likens the scale of parts of this work to Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.
The work was written in 1939/40 at the beginning of the Second World War – presumably when the United Kingdom was suffering great losses to allied merchant shipping. The theme is ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor.’ It is often hidden in the pianistic outworking and then suddenly become quite explicit. Some of the variations are aggressive and angry – suggesting storms or violence on the high seas. Often calm descends on the evening scene. Perhaps the sailor has moved on from being ‘fighting drunk’ to a more reflective mood? Or maybe he is thinking of his girl in Liverpool or Southampton? I think that what raises these Variations from a good work to a great one is the skill that Blezard has used in transforming and reworking the basic material. He has used a variety of pianistic styles -from John Ireland through English pastoralism to ‘Savoy Hotel lounge.’ Dissonance is well used in conjunction with more conventional musical devices. Yet the styles never seem to clash or be out of balance. The theme and the variations are well unified in both their design and implementation. One of the techniques that Blezard used is a variation within a variation. The closing pages are totally triumphant – the drunken sailor has sobered up and is now quite simply one of the Royal Navy’s finest. 

Variations on a Sea Shanty can be found on The Piano Music of William Blezard: Volume 2 SWCD27. Alas this CD now appears to be deleted from the catalogues. It is worth hunting down in the second-hand record stores. 

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