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Howard Blake: The Snowman – the Show

Raymond Briggs The Snowman (1978)
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Jeremy Young (MD)

Peacock Theatre, London – 02 December 2009


Love it or hate it, The Snowman (1982/1993) is back in town for its annual Christmas run and, to be honest, I love it and am very excited by this.


Ever since Raymond Briggs’s delightful book The Snowman appeared in 1978, and especially since the cartoon film was first shown in 1982 this has become a staple of Christmas, and why not? It’s a real joy of a show – it is not a ballet – and, from my experience, it’s not just children who enter into the spirit of a snowman and little boy flying and meeting Santa Claus.


Although without Raymond Briggs (no relation) the show couldn’t exist, this is wholly Howard Blake’s evening for it is his work which, ultimately, captures our imagination and commands our attention. Overall, the show follows the book quite closely, but with an extra scene added – that of Jack Frost and his attempts to seduce the Ice Princess – to give more variety to the second half.


The first half shows us the little boy at home, building his Snowman and starting his adventure by flying to the North Pole with his new friend. The staging is simple and the music tells the story with a clarity lacking in many contemporary stage shows where pressure is put on the music to drive the narrative – with music this strong, the narrative is clear as day and can flow easily. After the interval the boy and the Snowman land at the North Pole and have adventures which are, quite frankly, beyond a child’s wildest dreams; he meets various Snowmen, Chinese, Scottish and Morrocan ones, not to mention Santa, three of his reindeer, a couple of penguins (at the North Pole?!) and the Ice Princess and Jack Frost, plus a cowboy and Fred Astaire from America.


Finally the boy and the Snowman have to return home. The following morning the Snowman has melted but the boy still has, in his pocket, the scarf Santa gave him as a Christmas present – so his adventures were true and not just a dream.

In this production it seemed as if everyone was having a really good time, and the band played Blake’s long score with an extra special brilliance; they seemed more in tune with the piece than last year.


Don’t miss this for it is one of the most truly enchanting things in the theatre at this time of year - and allow yourself to enjoy some real, quality, home grown music.

Bob Briggs


Howard Blake – Birthday Concert

Four Easy Pieces, op.608 (1956 – 2009)
Variations on a Theme of Bartok, op.3 (1958)
5 Pieces from Lifecycle, op.489 (1975)
Pennillion, op.448 (1975 – 1994)
Three Film Themes (1977 – 1982)
Violin Sonata, op.586 (1973/2007) (London première)

Madeleine Mitchell
– violin, Howard Blake – piano

Methodist Church, Barnes – 28 October 2009

Last year, to celebrate his 70th birthday, the prolific composer Howard Blake gave us a concert which included his wonderfully lyrical Piano Concerto and the British première of his oratorio The Passion of Mary.

This year we got something smaller in scale but no less important for we heard the London première of his big Violin Sonata, played by Madeleine Mitchell – although Mitchell has recorded the work [Naxos 8.572083] this is the first time she has played the work in public.

But to go back to the beginning. Blake took the opportunity in this recital to talk to the audience, regale us with anecdotes and lead us through his musical life. It all started with what is now known as the Four Easy Pieces, written for Doreen, a girlfriend of his pre–college days. Doreen had knitted Blake a yellow sweater so he reciprocated the present with these piano pieces, which he bound in cardboard and which she quickly returned to him! We are to be grateful that the MS was returned, for here are four delightful little pieces, unassuming and entertaining, and better value than a yellow sweater! It’s quite a shock to the system to hear the Bartok Variations immediately after, for a mere two years separate the works and by now Blake was studying with Howard Ferguson at the Royal Academy, and it his teacher’s idea to write this piece. It’s very strong in construction and succinct in utterance. This could be a real winner if it were allowed out in the public arena.

Lifecycle is a large scale, multi movement, piece created after a conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the work is dedicated to him. The 24 pieces are a compendium of Blake’s musical interests and include genre pieces, teaching pieces and technically demanding concert works. Tonight we heard five – a delightful Impromptu subtitled The Watermill; a Tap dance called Toccatina, and a Mazurka in A minor, a Chaconne in D minor and a bright Scherzo in D. This was a lovely introduction to the work for anyone who either hasn’t heard the pieces before or doesn’t own the ABC Classics CD of the complete work played by William Chen. The three film themes brought the first half to a relaxed conclusion - The Music Box from The Changling (1979) he gorgeous Laura's Theme from The Duellists (1977) and the utterly unforgettable Walking in the Air from The Snowman (1982).

The rest of the show was made up of two works for violin and piano. Pennillion is a set of six variations and was originally written for violin and harp but it works just as well with the more solid accompaniment of piano. The Violin Sonata is a powerful piece which starts in a most unprepossessing way and gradually builds up the tension and emotion. It is a fine essay in the genre and it is one of Blake’s most impressive, and enjoyable at the same time, chamber works. Mitchell really has this music under her fingers and after hearing this excellent performance it is to be hoped that she will be giving many more performances for she has the right amount of poetry and fire in her soul – qualities necessary for the successful interpretation of this work.

As an encore we were given the seventh of the nine Jazz Dances, op.571 and the performers let their hair down in fine style. A fine show which was enjoyed by everyone present.

Bob Briggs