An Anniversary Reminiscence
Written to mark Carey Blyton’s 80th anniversary in 2012
The year 2012 marks Carey Blyton’s 80th anniversary. Born in Beckenham, Kent, Blyton attended the Grammar School there and up until 1948 actually felt a marked hostility towards music, claiming that he “loathed the teacher and he didn’t like me!” However, convalescing from polio during the summer of 1948, a neighbour offered to teach him to play the piano and, by the summer of 1949, he was writing his first piano pieces.
Natural history was also a passion – an abiding one throughout his life – and he began studying for a degree in Zoology at University College, London. But after a year the pressure to study music became too intense, and in 1953 he entered Trinity College of Music, London, where, in the four years he studied there, he obtained all the diplomas (Associate, Licentiate and Fellow). Then, in 1954, he won the Sir Granville Bantock Prize for Composition and followed this with a BMus (London) and a Winston Churchill Endowment Fund award, which enabled him to study composition in Copenhagen with the Danish composer, Jørgen Jersild.
Carey Blyton was, by his own definition, “primarily a miniaturist,” composing mainly songs and chamber music, as well as writing short stories. However, he did also write a one-act opera, The Girl from Nogami, and an extended travel diary, called In Search of Serendipity, the latter of which is due to be published to coincide with the 80th anniversary year.
In an interview with the East Anglian Daily Times on 6th November 1997, he said, “I have always thought of myself as a jobbing tunesmith, not a great composer. You want music for a particular purpose, I will write it. You pay me for doing it. It is a job.”
This modest professionalism was key to his writing, but there was a lot else. He had a vast array of interests and passions, most of which found their way into his work (amounting to 111 opus numbers) – from natural history to Japan; Gottschalk to Sherlock Holmes; Warlock to world music; fly-fishing to ragtime; Scott Fitzgerald to the Orient: the list is seemingly endless and multi-varied.
Continuing in the interview, he said: “In the ’60s and ’70s I did a lot of TV and film music. I never ever did a feature film. I have always been rather sorry about that. On the other hand, critics are always saying that I am a miniaturist. Maybe if I had a great big canvas, which a feature film would be, I might have made a dog’s breakfast of it. I was very happy doing documentary films, for the RSPB or whatever. That suited me very well.” As did writing music for a number of early series of Doctor Who, for which he conjured many sci-fi soundscapes before the BBC Radiophonics Workshop arrived.
So, too, television commercials: “All those strange things like Lux toilet soap, Elastoplast, Nimble bread – which always came up on my Performing Rights return as Nimble bread! That is satisfying. The session players, on the London scene, they are so brilliant. They will play anything you put in front of them, any style, and they’re tremendous to work with.”
All this ‘jobbing’ music, now a valuable snapshot of social history, is available to hear, performed by those very session players, in their original recordings, on four Apollo Sound discs.
But whilst this work brought in an income for the composer in the 1960s and 1970s, his tuneful and attractively written concert music struggled in a world where (to paraphrase Bax) the ‘cerebralist’ composers were dominant. That’s not to say that there weren’t performances – performers almost always warm to his scores – but these often took place in small venues and, despite much networking, the BBC showed little interest in playing this concert music.
In my own interview with him on 30th December 1999 (as published in this booklet), I suggested to him that the 1960s and 1970s were perhaps the worst time to be writing tonal music. He replied, “Yes. Very, very hard. I mean, I won’t mention any names – what do they say, ‘no name, no pack drill’ – but I’ve had more than one letter from distraught performers saying: ‘I had a broadcast all lined up and I’ve had a letter from the BBC saying: “Will you remove the Carey Blyton work from your programme and substitute another work of the same duration by another composer.”’ I think the word is probably ‘petty-minded’. But there we are.”
Then, after years of what to his admirers was nonsensical, that this charming, lyrical and entertaining music should get little look-in when all that was ‘establishment’-promoted seemed so barren and ‘plinky-plonk’, it was one of those intriguing coincidences of fate that the battle to have his concert music established in its own right should be won by the aid of a single nonsense song, composed in the back of a car during a long journey!
I refer, of course, to Bananas in Pyjamas, a song that has taken the infant world by storm for over two decades now. Because of this explosion it is hard to estimate how many adults now know, from their own infancy or that of their children, the work of Carey Blyton. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has made a phenomenal success of the show and continually reinvents and distributes it worldwide.
And so, from the late 1980s, Carey was enabled to fund promotion of his neglected concert music with proceeds from “the Banana plantation,” as he put it.
Much of this music is now published and recorded. There is a Carey Blyton website (www.careyblyton.co.uk) and the nucleus of a Carey Blyton Society. What is more, since his death, some of the orchestral music has now been taken up and there are recordings available of The Hobbit (Sanctuary Classics) and The Golden Road to Samarkand, El Tango Ultimo and Cinque Port (all by Dutton, in the British Light Music Premieres series).
Whilst all this music may not have been commissioned for large sums of money – but, on the contrary, for relatively small sums, or because he had been asked to write it, or even, simply, because he just wanted to write it! – it is all, nonetheless, imbued with that professionalism alluded to earlier: “You want music for a particular purpose, I will write it.”
For example, nobody asked him to write Vale, Diana!, yet it serves many purposes – not least perhaps to express the poignancy of the hunted – and it is brilliantly written for string orchestra, and eminently playable.
In fact, the more you look into Carey Blyton’s music, the more the phrase ‘jobbing tunesmith’ assumes little relevance. The practical, extrovert side to him stressed it: he was looking for work, yet much of the recital music seems to have been written for the sheer delight of writing it, a small commission merely being an excuse. A good example would be A Shoal of Fishes from 1983, where the fisherman and lover of natural history urged him, and where the contemporary composer delighted in exploring the ‘beautiful colours and effects’ of harp writing highlighted by Carlos Salzedo, and the admirer of Japan and Japanese art was drawn to illuminate prints by Hiroshige and anonymous poems of the period, published in 1832/3. The result is a magical suite for harp solo. But no-one paid him for it!
If you do not know the music of Carey Blyton, I would certainly recommend that you taste it: maybe your spirits will be lifted, or a smile be somewhere aroused by its gentle humour; he is a miniaturist, yes, but also a great original, and thanks to the ‘Banana plantation’ his music is easily sampled. The first port of call is www.careyblyton.co.uk. Much sheet music can be obtained from Modus Music (www.modusmusic.org – 020 8363 2663), and recordings from Upbeat (www.upbeat.co.uk – 020 8668 3332) and Apollo Sound (www.apollosound.com – 020 7435 5255). The later music can be obtained from Fand Music Press, which also distributes the recordings (www.fandmusic.com – 01730 267341).
Carey Blyton’s 80th anniversary was commemorated by a song recital, Carey Blyton & Friends, given by soprano Alison Smart and her accompanist Katharine Durran at The Warehouse, Waterloo, London on Saturday, 19th May 2012. The concert featured songs by Blyton together with others by Warlock, Moeran and several of Carey’s pupils and friends.