Graham Stansfield: From Coronation to Consort

Graham Stansfield and Andrew King

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.

Graham (front, third from right) with the Westminster Abbey Choir

‘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.

Rare Bird, that’s Graham on the left

‘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.

The Wessex Consort

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

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

Graham Stansfield, Q&A interview, Seeker News, 11 November 2011

After nearly 30 years of programming music and literature events at Lighthouse, Poole, Graham Stansfield is bowing out with a farewell show on November 30 featuring some of the artists he has worked with over the years.

And in keeping with a career in music in which he has never been afraid to try new things, the audience will be seated on the Concert Hall stage in the choir stalls with the artists facing them.

Among those lined up to pay tribute to Graham are wry poet Wendy Cope, early music tenor singer Andrew King and lutenist David Miller, virtuoso violinist Oliver Lewis, English soprano Sarah Leonard and pianists Stephen Gutman and David Owen Norris.

Highcliffe Junior Choir will be singing, as will the Southern Union Chorus. Jazz pianist Martin Litton will play Fats Waller and guitarist Martin Wheatley will pay homage to Duke Ellington. Other highlights include Gabriel Wolf reading Dylan Thomas, alto sax virtuoso Matt Wates, vibes master Jim Hart and Johnny Dankworth’s favourite bassist Malcolm Creese.

Born in Beaminster, Graham became a boy chorister in Westminster Abbey Choir and sang at the Queen’s Coronation in 1952. Later, after leaving Hardye’s School in Dorchester, he studied music at London University under the composer and organist Herbert Howells before forming the progressive rock group Rare Bird in 1969 and scoring a UK top 30 hit (and Dutch number two!) with the million-selling single Sympathy in 1970.

Seeker’s Nick Churchill caught up with the great music maker this week just as the concert was announced…

Graham, what are you going to do with all this spare time you’ve just made for yourself?

Compose music on a daily basis and persuade singers and musicians to perform what I write when I feel I’ve got it right. I’ll also enjoy living in the countryside and learn a bit more about everything in it week by week.

With the best part of 2,500 shows under your belt at Poole, is there anything you don’t know about programming, promoting, liaising with artists and agents, staging etc?

Yes, plenty, number one being how to attract large enough audiences to quality events in a recession without dropping artistic standards and playing to the gallery.

Can you pick five shows that stand out for all the right reasons…?

  1. The Armonico Consort’s superb recent performance of Monterverdi’s Vespers for the mind blowing brilliance of the composer’s imagination.
  2. The Composer’s Ensemble performance of Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time for its sheer vivid intensity.
  3. Wynton Marsalis making his whole band listen to one another so intently across the wide stage as they played without amplification in the Concert Hall… and this after playing most of the Haydn trumpet concerto for some advanced pupils backstage.
  4. Guitarists Robben Ford and Larry Carlton spending the whole evening trying to outdo each other’s solos across the Concert Hall stage… sheer creative joy.
  5. The poet Wendy Cope’s Afternoon Tea With… reading on a May bank holiday… sending the whole audience out smiling because it was just such good fun.

And what about the ones that stand out for all the wrong reasons…?

I don’t remember any events going wildly wrong, but once I allowed a contemporary music group to add a 10-minute piece to the agreed programme at the last minute because it was by a young composer who was going to be in the audience. Anyway, it made their “difficult” set just too long and the whole concert hall started to fidget and some even left for the bar. And I never did that again.

Another time, Evelyn Glennie asked me to turn the pages of her very complicated music from behind her music stand. So the music was upside down to me and during the performance I turned one page several bars too early in panic. That is true embarrassment!

I remember getting the giggles uncontrollably in the middle of a beautiful reading of Hardy’s poetry when the name of his second wife was revealed as almost the same as an adopted male relative of mine with the personality of Benny Hill. The mental vision of Hardy the poet marrying a Benny Hill lookalike in a frilly bonnet had me on the floor.

Your proudest achievement…?

Covering all the fine music that is by its nature outside the scope of the Lighthouse’s resident orchestra, the BSO – early music, chamber music, very contemporary music, vocal music of all types, jazz from its beginnings to today and the best of folk music. And, most importantly, letting the composers and the performers tell me what they would most like to see performed and finding ways to make this happen in a form the public would also find appealing.

It’s not the size of the names that we attracted that makes me most proud, even though for instance on the jazz side I’m still thrilled we managed to attract almost everyone who ever recorded or played with Miles Davis, but it’s the fact that usually the process became a love affair between the artists and Lighthouse that I am most proud of.

And the one that got away…?

Andre Previn. I once had to turn the pages for Previn when he was playing a piano quintet he hadn’t quite had enough time to practice. Terrifyingly intelligent, he was nevertheless a lovely man and we got on so well and I so wanted to get that relentless musical intelligence on to the stage at Lighthouse but I could never get a date that suited in his ridiculously overcrowded diary.

Some great artists have got together to mark your retirement, how does it feel to see such talent coming together?

Humbling. I am truly amazed that such busy people remember their events at Lighthouse with the same joy that I do, as compared with them I am “a bear of very little brain”.

It should make for a suitably eclectic evening?

Yes, there is something for everyone there and it’s always a joy to see brilliant artists really enjoying themselves.

You’ve booked everything from highbrow poetry and chamber music to rappers and punk rockers, is there any cultural activity you can’t find any merit in?

It isn’t the genre it’s the artist behind it. Some modern music for instance is hideous, some is awe-inspiring – it’s all down to the imagination and sensitivity of the individual creator. And of course some genres are much less consistent than others.

What I’ve always tried to do is throw the full weight of Lighthouse behind excellent music or great words that do not have the massive publicity that more popular and often less interesting forms benefit from. If there were a chain of 20 Lighthouses round the UK doing the same, as there ought to be, we would be a much richer country culturally.

The assumption is that Dorset is fairly conservative in cultural terms and yet your efforts at Poole would seem to suggest otherwise – is there an audience for everything here?

Artists that performed for me at Lighthouse were constantly appreciative of the very high quality of Dorset audiences. Remarks like: “What a lovely audience, they really listened” were something I came almost to expect as artists came backstage after a performance. So I consistently felt proud of Dorset audiences.

Are you still composing?

Every morning, Monday to Friday. I take it very seriously. You have to really. I’m just starting a sort of oratorio on the history of the village church inspired by Lytchett Matravers’ own church which is tucked away the other side of the hill, encouraging villagers to come back and use it by claiming it as their own.

I wonder to what extent Dorset informs your music?

A lot. The first work I’ve written since retiring is a Cycle of six songs for baritone clarinet and piano setting the memories of the men that used to work on the old Somerset and Dorset Railway.

You could have been a rock star – any regrets?

No. I had as much fun and excitement as I had any right to expect and the truth is however good you get the music and however great the fans are, the people you have to work with on the business side are not the nicest folk on earth and it leaves a bad taste.

What do you recall of singing at the Queen’s Coronation?

Three things especially. Firstly, our history master at the choir school said to us “Take in everything you see today, there may never be another Field of the Cloth of Gold celebration like this again.” And he was right. The Abbey and the people in it were just an unbelievable mass of colour which I shall never forget.

Secondly, I was 13 and my voice was at its most powerful. A few feet away from me was the leader of the combined symphony orchestras, Paul Beard. He made a big wraparound sound and so did I and we kept smiling at one another when we’d each got “a good juicy bit” to perform. It was a lovely spontaneous thing.

Thirdly, the service moved me because in it the Queen had to swear to devote herself firstly to service of her subjects and secondly to service to God. There was no talk of power over people at all, just duty and service, and I thought that was wonderful – and I still do. We choirboys felt we knew that the young woman making the promises was totally determined to keep them too. We saw her all the time at the Abbey in the years before the coronation and we all knew she was a good ’un.

Your broad church approach to the arts seems very much in keeping with what Poole Arts Centre was set up to do. I know you are unfailingly modest about your achievements but you have an impressive legacy in helping establish Poole as a regular venue for artistic excellence. How would you like to see that develop?

Well, the truth is that it’s all down to the quality of thinking behind the programming. There is no shortage of brilliant artists in every genre in this country and if a programmer gives the finest artists the opportunity to do their best work talk of fees becomes a secondary consideration – which although undeniably essential can in practice I’ve found always be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.

The process should be a love affair and in my experience almost always was and if the artist is really happy the audience sees the artist at his or her best, which is the greatest help in building future audiences. Lighthouse and the two or three other major arts centres in the UK have a total duty to step back from “monkey see monkey do” programming, which is the way of Council-run ‘fun palaces’ – although they have their place – and work with the finest artists to create outstandingly creative and exciting live performances.

Lighthouse was set up to be “a local arts centre with national significance” and that is quite a high calling which demands expert creative sympathetic programme creation by programmers who know their subject inside out.

How’s the boat?

Lovely, but too big for an old bugger whose kids now all live in London so sadly it has to go I’m afraid.

Thanks Graham.

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