We were saddened to hear of the passing of an old friend and colleague, Carey Blyton, in July of this year. It is almost exactly forty years ago (December 1962) that I attended the first performance of his Suite: The Cinque Ports in the Royal Academy’s Duke’s Hall. It was performed by the Strolling Players Orchestra, London’s leading amateur orchestra, under Terence Lovett. Retiring to Carey’s nearby flat for celebration refreshments and chat I then met his wife Mary.
In 1965 the Blytons moved to Swanley in Kent, not far from Eynsford where I and my family lived. Mary recalls our first visit to their new house and me sitting with their six-week-old son Matthew on my lap. (Our ten-year-old Hilary’s memory was of how tall Mr Blyton was and how she didn’t feel comfortable until he sat down!) Carey was not a composer to sit back and wait for things to happen. In 1965 he masterminded a concert in the Dartford Rural Arts Festival with a string orchestra and wind group, earning the gratitude of the two other ‘Kentish’ composers featured, the late Ted Shipley and one Ernest Tomlinson. Carey’s fascination with electro-acoustic music evidenced itself in the novel sounds he produced from my grand piano in the John Cage Prepared Piano tradition.
Carey was born in Beckenham, Kent in 1932. Not originally interested in music, he learned to play the piano during his convalescence after contracting polio as a teenager. He had a keen interest in natural history and went first to study zoology, but since he had already begun to compose and was increasingly drawn to music, he changed tack and went to study at London’s Trinity College of Music, where he won the Sir Granville Bantock prize for composition, and later studied in Copenhagen. From 1958–63 he became Music Editor to Mills Music, at that time very supportive of British composers. From 1964 he was appointed music editor to book publisher Faber and Faber’s newly-set-up Music Department. As such he became the personal editor of Benjamin Britten, Britten having severed his long association with Boosey and Hawkes.
From 1963–73 he was Professor of Harmony, Counterpoint and Orchestration at Trinity College, then Visiting Professor of Composition for Film, Television and Radio at London’s Guildhall School of Music – the first example of such a position in Britain – where his unusual and unexpected teaching style won him many admirers.
From an early age Carey’s compositional output was so fluent and varied – in writing works for so many different media, often recycling works from one medium to another – that summarising his work is inevitably inadequate and one can only oversimplify. There were many ‘normal’ concert works, such as the orchestral overture The Hobbit, and suites including The Golden Road to Samarkand written for the West Kent Youth Orchestra, followed by other works for young performers. He wrote several works in the ‘serious music’ vein, notably his one-act opera, but his melodic gift was most effective in the lighter vein. He called himself a miniaturist, composing many songs and much chamber music. At other times he called himself a ‘jobbing composer’, a term which to me distinguishes him from those composers to whom posterity means more than practicality. He had the good sense to write for ensembles on the look-out for additions to their repertoire, including Saxophone Quartet, Clarinet Choir and much music for guitar. He had a flair for intriguing titles too. His work for television included music for the Doctor Who programmes and award-winning documentaries and he provided the background for many an advert.
As befits a composer whose aunt was the best-selling author of children’s stories, Enid Blyton, Carey’s music for children has been amongst his most successful and demonstrates his own skill as a wordsmith. What better subjects for spoof melodramas than Sweeney Todd, Dracula and Frankenstein? But undoubtedly the most successful in this genre has been the Bananas in Pyjamas opus. Written to keep young Matthew quiet in the car, it has assumed almost folk-song status after the issue of 100 5-minute films for children by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
In spite of being crippled by polio he contracted as a teenager, Carey lived life to the full. The tribute to him by Gary Higginson in this month’s British Music Society newsletter brings home how he endeared himself to his colleagues and the students who studied under him. Gary mentions his ever-ready sense of humour (not always appreciated by a certain Mr Britten) and we have on the wall a postcard from him depicting a group of ladies and gentlemen, with ears covered and faces showing extreme distress, with the caption ‘The British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest was a firm favourite with the judges’! He was writing to comment on our own newsletter quote from the Law magazine, “Essex Police Band is planning a bras workshop next month”, which had appealed to him greatly. His comment? “Music of the spheres, no doubt…!” And he signed it, “West Bishes”.
He will be sadly missed and we extend our sympathy to his family and many friends. But how good to know that there is so much of him left in the music he so loved to write.