Graham Stansfield has had his share of ups and downs with music, but even in the grip of on-going chemotherapy treatment, it’s the one thing outside his family that keeps him going and as the composer sits in the upstairs lounge of his home overlooking the distant Purbeck hills, he’s glad to count his blessings.
‘This latest CD is the first time I’ve put anything out and not had a single regret about any of it,’ he says. ‘All through the early days of chemo, which were not pleasant, I was going into the studio for an hour a day to work on edits and hearing this group of brilliant young singers – well, I wouldn’t be here without it.’
Graham is talking about ‘A Choir For All Seasons’, the second CD album he has made with Wessex Consort, the 12-voice professional choir he formed to perform his compositions. Recorded at St Mary’s Church in Lytchett Matravers, its eighteen tracks are nothing if not diverse, ranging from a beautiful cathedral setting of Psalm 19, though portraits of the singers’ holidays in the sun of Spain, France and Italy, to ‘Gastronomic’, a fun piece that celebrates all things culinary to the rhythm of a club anthem. There is also a suite of songs in praise of Dorset: ‘This is the most beautiful place, how could you not be inspired by it?’ asks Graham.
Graham was born during World War 2 in Beaminster, where his mother, his grandmother and an uncle and aunt were all church organists at different churches: ‘There used to be terrific rivalries about organ playing and who had the best choir!’ Not long after the family moved to Weymouth, young Graham won a scholarship to Westminster Abbey Choir School and the musical die was cast.
‘I sang at the Coronation, which was obviously a terrific occasion, but to be honest there were big occasions nearly every week. I was immersed in excellence every single day and it’s where I learned that if music and its performance can move people then you are on to something – I even saw Sir Winston Churchill moved to tears by the music in one memorial service.’
Returning to Dorset to go to Hardye’s Grammar School in Dorchester, Graham and his brother lost their parents within a year of each other – ‘Mother had a stroke and didn’t speak for six months then died a year to the day after father passed away.’ Family friends from Broadwey Methodist Church who lived in Bincombe adopted the two boys in what Graham still recalls as the most Christian thing he has ever known.
‘We didn’t have much and they were emotionally difficult times, but we got by with music. I played organ in the chapels and the minister gave me a sort of parental career advice, telling me to go to teacher training college and then follow music later on, which is how I ended up studying for a degree at London University, where I had lessons from the composer, Herbert Howells. He told me that if I was to persist with a musical career I should always have three things on the go. If I did that, I’d never have to worry about paying bills because one would always be thriving, one would be ticking over and one would be floundering, but which one was successful would not always be the same. It has proven to be very sound advice.’
This approach got Graham through a spell as an international pop star under the stage name of Graham Field. Having been unceremoniously kicked out of his first group, Graham reacted quickly by forming Rare Bird, a progressive rock outfit with which he intended to put before the public everything he had learned in Westminster Abbey. It worked and their first single, ‘Sympathy’, was number one in France and Italy, sold three million copies around the world and was covered by at least 300 artists, making it a global publishing hit of 1971.
‘I knew how cathedral music could move people, so I set out to work it into rock music and this somehow caught the mood of the moment with groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes and King Crimson. I remember we played a festival in a valley at Sète near Marseilles and as I played the intro to ‘Sympathy’, the sun was setting and the crowd started to sing the words back at us. I stopped the band and we just listened with tears streaming – it was magical. Leonard Cohen followed us on stage that night riding a white horse, but even that couldn’t upstage us!
‘I had known I wanted to write music from the age of about six, when I heard “Hot Potato Mambo” by Edmundo Ros and his Orchestra. We were living at the Old Mill in Beaminster and I came racing out into the garden, thinking this was just the most amazing thing I’d ever heard.’
Bad business deals brought Rare Bird to an end and although Graham earned as much in royalties from the smaller sales of his next group, Fields, before long he was looking for a ‘proper’ job. He wrote theme songs for television shows including Agony, the 1979 sitcom starring Maureen Lipman, and wrote early music arrangements for a folk album by Bob Pegg.
‘I’ve only ever written two things almost instantly – one was “Sympathy”, walking back to a flat in Battersea after going out for pineapple fritters late at night; the other was the Agonytheme. I had a phone call from the producer who told me about the show and by the time I had put the phone down and got to the piano on the other side of the room, I had the song.’
After spells at South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell and as founder-director of Epsom Playhouse, Graham sought a return to Dorset and got a job programming music and literature at Poole Arts Centre, now Lighthouse, that lasted some 28 years until his retirement in 2010 and, crucially, gave his five children the childhood in Dorset he had enjoyed.
In recent years Graham has written music for string quartet, a chamber opera, The Treasure of the Knights Templar, an oratorio, Not Just For Sundays and the ballad opera, Paix a Peyresq, but is now largely concentrating on a wide range of choral music with Wessex Consort. ‘All the members were recommended to me by the very best of the British singers that I brought down to Lighthouse over the years.
‘They are an incredibly talented bunch, but to my astonishment I found that eight of the twelve had strong Dorset connections, so they have a real feel for the Dorset pieces. I’m not sure there’s a Dorset sound as such, but there’s certainly a warm passionate Dorset feel and I hope that comes across in my music.’
• ‘A Choir For All Seasons’ is available with Graham’s other music from www.aeternarecords.co.uk.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.