The Emperor's Orchestra


12th December 1999

The Emperor's Orchestra.jpg

The Emperor's Orchestra
The Emperor's Orchestra

Synopsis: The Emperor's Orchestra concerns a band of players whose performances are going downhill because of considerable boredom, and the threat of the Emperor's impetuous daughter to leave the palace if things don't improve. The Court Adviser recommends finding a composer (which is what all bored orchestras need!); a proclamation is issued; several turn up but none impress the Princess. And then a pipe-playing woodcutter is found whose magical gift brings about the revival of the orchestra's former glory - and the Princess marries him!


Standford was invited to share the commission process for this work by Music & Vision: Classical Music Daily.

19 December 1999

In my capacity as Yorkshire Post music critic, reviewed North of England Chamber
Orchestra's Christmas concert this evening. Last year they did Peter and the Wolf and Howard Blake's 'Snowman'. This year Poulenc's Babar the Elephant and Howard Blake's 'Snowman'. O dear. The orchestra is excellent (they are the Northern Ballet orchestra) and conductor John Pryce-Jones an enthusiastic and highly skilled dynamo! Afterwards at a reception in the beautiful Dean Clough Galleries in Halifax, I suggested to John and the narrator, the ebullient Yorkshire actor Barrie Rutter, distinguished founder and director of Northern Broadsides company, that it was time for a change. What else is there? 'Why don't you and Barrie write something,' said John. 'Send me a musical story and I will,' -- which is the sort of silly thing I would say at a bibulous reception.

8 April 2000
Letter from John P-J; we'll take you up on that musical story idea; will continue to encourage Barrie to send you some of his sample tales. Hopefully for our next Christmas concert.

26 May 2000
Another letter -- 'Great news that Ian Killik has now joined us as General Manager. He will pursue Barrie Rutter who hasn't yet come up with anything.

20 June 2000
Two stories from BR. Both attractive little pieces -- The Girl who Swallowed the Wind and Muscovy Duck's Red Berry. But reading them through several times over the following week or so, I felt neither needed any music. Which is my complaint about Blake's Snowman -- a film with attractive music, but not a concert story needing an orchestra. Neither for that matter is Poulenc's Babar.

7 July 2000
Wrote my reservations to JP-J and Ian K. Not the best way to make a friend of Yorkshire's leading -- and now award winning -- Shakespearian director. However, I should suggest something positive. Would search my own resources for a story.

24 July 2000
After a third weekend of searching among stories from Britain, Scandinavia, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic, Icelandic sagas, I thought to look in a dusty file of my own writing -- why not? Years ago (in the mid 70s perhaps) I worked on various commercial projects with a former student of mine, by then an invaluable colleague, Jerry Lanning. He established Middle 8, an ingenious music publishing enterprise, and among the plans was a series of musical stories for children. I found typescripts of some of them. On re-reading last night, one immediately appeals to me. I think I wrote it, but more than likely Jerry and I wrote it together. A second reading and I felt hooked -- again after 25 years! The Emperor's Orchestra -- concerning a band of players whose performances are going downhill because of considerable boredom, and the threat of the Emperor's impetuous daughter to leave the palace if it didn't improve. The Court Adviser recommends finding a composer (which is what all bored orchestras need!); a proclamation is issued; several turn up but none impress the Princess. And then a pipe-playing woodcutter is found whose magical gift brings about the revival of the orchestra's former glory -- and the Princess marries him! Re-typed and sent off to the Management.

8 August 2000
Brief letter from JP-J: The Emperor's Orchestra seems a great idea -- did you write it? Am sending a copy to Barrie and will get back to you.

14 September 2000
Phone calls from Ian K. Dates of performances will be March 2001; Barrie Rutter unlikely to be the narrator, pressure of work (true, he's planning productions of King John in the spring and, it seems, he doesn't much like the story!). And most important, what is my fee? Applications to the RVW Trust and Yorkshire Arts are in preparation to be sent next week, latest. It would seem that the project is on. Better wait to see if they can get any money together.

19 September 2000
Received funding application forms to sign. Wrote a short fanfare for the Emperor. Can't get serious about it until there is a contract; composers should always be careful to secure the business side before devoting too much time to what could be an involved and intricate task. Stravinsky always recommended having the piece written before getting the commission for it. But he always was ahead of himself.

8 October 2000
But one has to be prepared. Knowing that something might be wanted is too inviting to prevent some preparatory work being done. Began some preliminary drafting and decided it was going to be difficult to create a distinction between the orchestra's bored and inspired times. Sketched out a few bars of 'boring' music. Became rather suspicious that this was quite easy -- and I was unable to think of anything 'inspired'. Is there going to be something in this project that tells me more about myself than I want to know? Wrote another fanfare which was supposed to be good; played it to my son (who generally visits on Sunday for food) and he thought it was awful. And he's a typical member of a 'family audience'.

22 October 2000
After last night's performance of Gerontius I'm not sure what is good or bad. Phoned in my review, then spent a couple of hours writing about a minute and a half of what seemed, in retrospect, rubbish. However, this story has a place for that too, so it probably isn't time wasted.

1 November 2000
Phone call from Ian K. Barrie has definitely stepped down. Have I any ideas for a narrator? Decided to scrap everything but the three-bar fanfare I began with last September and start again. Real structural business this time, dividing up the story into sections, each of which might instigate a musical response. Design becoming clearer, though still not enough time to think about it. Need a holiday over which to concentrate.

17 November 2000
Orchestra most likely to be double woodwind, horns and trumpets, harp, piano, percussion and strings. Will confirm later when programme is decided, but expect Falla El Amor Brujo and Stravinsky Pulcinella. The first performances are going to be part of educational residencies, lots of GCSE and Performing Arts students, so I am asked if I like the idea of local footballers for the narration; does the narrator need to be musical? I suggest the narrator needs to be able to read, act, project! In short, no to the footballers. They clearly want to appeal to young local audiences. Appeal yes, but not sink!

15 December 2000
Funding confirmed and contract in the post. Probably no harp or second bassoon. Agreed to deliver completed score and a set of orchestral parts on 21 February; performances 22 and 23 March. Surprising how much of a stimulus these practicalities are (though it shouldn't be by now!). Thankfully I have the Christmas academic vacation during which to give it some uninterrupted time. One thing is certain: it must be made up of a limited amount of material used in a variety of ways. Peter and the Wolf is economical, whereas Poulenc's Babar is an extravagant and therefore unmemorable score. I'll go for Prokofiev. They have taken my point about footballing narrators and are now in pursuit of Richard Whiteley.

23 December 2000
With the story typed out again, trimmed a little in places where there are too many words, and with cues for music indicated, I can now see the whole plan of the piece clearly. There will be recurring 'themes': one for the orchestra at its best (opening), adapted for nostalgic remembrances and for eventual return to glory; another for the Princess, who is the cause of the complaints and the attempted remedies; and one for the Emperor's adviser, who must recommend remedies. Among these design stabilisers will be woven short contrasting 'episodes' -- the royal proclamation; attempts of three composers to be interesting (a march, a romance and a waltz); and the discovery of the piping woodcutter. The proclamation music, designed as a stately dance suitable as background for narration, could also be designed for re-use, but the others will only make single appearances -- substantial miniatures, but not part of the thematic whole. The feeling of having three clear weeks for concentrated work is a strong incentive. Still no response from Richard Whiteley's agent.

30 December 2000
Good progress, though little actually fits together yet. I have concentrated on the fragments ('better than the other bit you played, Dad, but there's too much narrator -- can't you cut out the boring chat?' Critics!) No from Richard Whiteley. They are apparently trying for Ross Kemp from Eastenders as narrator. I suggested Richard Wilson would be far better for this kind of story. Or Pete Postlethwaite. He's done similar things with the Grimethorpe band, I'm told.

2 January 2001
No second oboe, no second bassoon, definitely a trombone. El Amor Brujo is out; probably some Poulenc pieces instead. I have a satisfactory (for me!) opening for the orchestra at its best, and its adaptation and reprise for the ending. I do like to have the beginning and end of a piece drafted out first; it creates much needed security. The Princess theme works well in seven different guises, which is good because I won't need them all. The adviser's music has been ditched; a new form is emerging, perky, with a touch of xylophone. (I wonder if there is still a percussion player?)

9 January 2001
Definitely timpani and a percussion player, but no harp or piano. Ian K promises no more changes! Took time off to try photographing the awesome eclipse of the moon. There always comes a time in creating pieces when one is no longer pushing; suddenly the work begins to flow. Everything falls into place. It doesn't stop the rubbish from appearing, but it becomes far easier to dispose of it! Such a time has arrived. But the next two weeks are plagued with meetings. Boards to appoint a new artistic director for the Huddersfield Festival and two London trusts to attend. All part of the challenge! As I want to overlap narration and music on occasions, timing is vital. I have decided to draft this out crudely, but having the computer play back to me the relevant sections whilst I narrate -- a curious experience for those around me hearing me give out dramatic eloquences to sounds I alone hear over headphones. Experimenting with metronome markings and giving the story a steady pace for a large hall seems to do the trick.

21 January 2001
Intend to begin orchestration next week, though most time so far has been given to transforming the main material into suitable episodes and calculating time spans for the narration. Still need the march, interlude and waltz. A month to go and a touch of panic flutters by occasionally. I need a week for the orchestration and at least three days to put the score into the computer. And then extracting and editing the parts. That means the score should be finished by St. Valentine's day latest. It will be.

26 January 2001
An interesting problem. At one point the Emperor, who thinks the orchestra makes its own music as it goes along, storms into one of their weary rehearsals and demands some new music from first the flutes, then the oboe and so on. After several unsatisfactory attempts, this has now become an aleatory section. It works well, but has certainly lost me quite a bit of time in coming to it. Ian Lavender has agreed to do the narration. I remember him well from Dad's Army and more recently a number of successful pantomimes. Things are now looking good.

5 February 2001
A good waltz yesterday and, in spite of wanting the day off for my birthday, a pleasing march today. The end is in sight. Just a few bricks need re-arranging. Sometimes it is simply the order of two or three little events that needs changing for things to fall into place.

12 February 2001
Scoring completed this evening, with a great feeling of satisfaction. It has to be alright -- too late to go back over it now. Orchestration is a process I very much enjoy. The tough composition being done, it leaves this wonderful jigsaw of colour to sort out and arrange. I copied the first three pages of score to the computer and estimate from my pencil score another sixty typeset pages to go. The aleatory bits will be time consuming. Can't do any more until Wednesday, and have a completely free weekend ahead, so an optimistic confidence swathes me!

15 February 2001
Just what I don't want! Ian K. rings to ask when they can expect three copies of the score please. Quite reasonable of course, but a slightly dented optimism has to be mended with determination. I say, firmly, 'next Wednesday, as agreed' and he says 'Great!' I only have to keep my word. Appointed the new Artistic Director of the Huddersfield Festival this evening -- Susanna Eastburn -- who takes over from Richard Steinitz in April. I now have a clear five days at the computer without meetings, teaching or concerts to review.

16 February 2001
One full day at the screen and my eyes are ablaze already! Shall allow myself to watch Alan Titchmarsh this evening.

20 February 2001
Score in the post, recorded delivery. Awarding myself a few days off before extracting all the parts, which they would like by 1st March. Have resorted to Broline for the eyes; surprising how sore they become with this close and concentrated work.

21 March 2001
Rehearsal in Leeds. Delighted to meet Ian Lavender who is very efficient, colourful and thoroughly good natured. Very few problems arise, which is very pleasing. One slight miscalculation in narration over music, but that is probably JP-J taking the waltz a little too quickly. My timing has been a bit too tight here, but for the most part it all works! Everyone delighted -- even the brass.

22 March 2001
First performance in a school hall near Rotherham, very difficult to find, but we made it as the overture began. The main item in the first half is an item devised by a composer who has been resident in local schools for four weeks, and helped GCSE students to add sections to episodes already written for the orchestra. Graham Coatman was its director for this evening, a clever composer who was once (in the 1970s) a postgraduate student of mine at the Guildhall in London. The merriment of his ingenious production was much appreciated. Sadly, however, only a small number of the children involved stayed for the second half of the programme, reducing further an already quite small audience. Ian Lavender was excellent. The Emperor's Orchestra was given a splendid première.

23 March 2001
The second performance in Grimsby, to which unfamiliar Methodist Church Hall venue my son thankfully drove us, for I am not the best of navigators and would certainly have arrived even later for this. Had I done so, I would have missed a spectacular piece devised by Barry Russell, a former member of my staff at Bretton Hall and a composer with a strong, colourful imagination and exciting ways of persuading his army of GCSE and performing arts students into completing his outlines of a cartoon piece called That's All Folks. About 40 children were on stage, mingled with the full orchestra. There had been over 100 children during the day taking part in this residency, yet only 12 stayed to hear the second half of the programme, which was, like last night, The Emperor's Orchestra and Stravinsky's Pulcinella. Overall however, the audience was much bigger and equally as appreciative. Ian Lavender was even better, having by now thoroughly warmed to this little story. Afterwards conductor, narrator, management and others were all discussing future performances -- as they do! Some audience members came back to ask if there was a CD they could buy. Well, maybe one day. I certainly hope many more can hear John Pryce-Jones make the orchestra sound 'weary and bored' and 'inspired' when they have to, and hear Ian Lavender getting angry with woodwinds and brass that are unable to invent their own music. It was all an excellent team.

28 March 2001
Far better than saying 'the cheque is in the post' is its arrival this morning! An enjoyable and rewarding job done (I hope) well.