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Empress of Blandings

A soufflé for orchestra

The NDR symphony orchestra grew from an ad hoc orchestra started by the British occupation forces immediately after the second world war, and to celebrate this fact they are opening their 2013/14 season with a programme subtitled Made in England.  An enterprising mixture of Elgar, Britten and Sullivan with something by Henry Bishop (the composer of Home! Sweet Home! whose wife, ironically, ran away to Australia with the criminal harpist Nicholas Bochsa) thrown in for good measure.  Their request to the one living composer in the concert was to write them something really English.  At first I considered a Boythorn overture, after the character in Bleak House: he, like me, is big, noisy and combative but fundamentally harmless and there is a further connection in that my house stands beside the St Albans brickfield that features in the novel.  But I wasn't feeling particularly Dickensian (when am I ever?) so I turned to the idea of PG Wodehouse overture.  Great fun it was to compose but had I thought a little harder, I might have wondered if a writer whose virtue resides so completely in his use of English idiom might be known outside England, even in a country as highly educated and cultured as Germany.  Well, you can buy Der unvergleichliche Jeeves on Amazon.de but it is clearly a minority interest and none of my German friends have heard of PG.  Heigh ho.  Never mind; it is a very silly piece, something of a Goat! for orchestra - though the flexitone only gets used once and there is no dustbin: I must be growing up.

The first performance was in Hamburg on September 6th and there was a repeat at the Beethovenfest in Bonn the following evening. Such frivolity in such venerable places. Life is strange.

Here's the programme note:

If you really want to understand the English, don't try to learn the laws of cricket; its very vocabulary - slips, gullies, silly mid-on, square leg, googly - would drive any sensible person insane.  Instead, listen hardest to what we don't say, remember that we love triviality - especially when applied to serious matters - and read the works of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.  P.G. is no Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, still less a Milton or Shakespeare, but he is our most widely read and perhaps our best loved author - and he defined an important component of the national character.

His novels are comedies of errors set in a sunlit tranquil England of the 1920s.  It never existed but it should have done; it is a land populated by choleric dukes, terrifying aunts, baffled village policemen, rugby-playing clergymen and, most important of all, the archetypal English upper-class twit with his willingess to help, his sense of fair play, kindliness and complete absence of intellectual ability or common sense.  In this world, everyone lives happily ever after, often brought to that enviable condition by the machinations of an omniscient butler, a sort of  promus ex machina.  This author was never going to win the Nobel Prize, but the English language dances at his command and if you love a flawlessly constructed phrase, you will love Wodehouse.

He described his novels as musical comedies without the music - so I have written a musical comedy without the words!  I had no particular book in mind, merely a general state of farce; I nearly subtitled the piece A Silly Story in Sonata Form.  Since we are talking of the 1920s, the rhythm of the jazz age - especially the Charleston - is never far away.  It was great fun to write and contains not a single serious bar: it will not change the way you see the world but if it raises a smile then I am content.  

I nearly forgot: Empress of Blandings is a prize pig, cherished by my favourite Wodehouse character, the supernaturally absent-minded Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth.

Listen here

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