David Lewiston Sharpe, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Music was in the family from the beginning. My Dad is a multi-instrumentalist – violin, saxophone, flute, clarinet, and a natural improviser, my Grandfather ran a dance band in the 1930s and my Great-Grandmother was a French-polisher for Berry pianos (but maybe that doesn’t count!). The music that very early on ‘hooked’ me were some LPs of Bach, Tchaikovsky and piano music by Dvořák, oddly enough – though when I was very young visual art was my main distraction, along with writing (poetry curiously), along with music. So things could have gone in a number of directions. I’ve been led to view all the things called ‘creative work’ or culture as really indistinguishable when viewed at the core, heart and soul. But music won out…

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I had a great first piano teacher, Adrian Shore, a friend of my Dad’s and a brilliant jazz pianist with a vast knowledge of harmony and an endlessly enquiring mind, right up to the last: he sadly passed away at the end of 2019 after a long battle with Parkinson’s. But he switched me on to Chopin, and cultivated my existing enthusiasm for Bach; it was pieces like Chopin’s Mazurka Op.17 no.4 in A minor, the ‘Revolutionary’ Study, the Scherzos, the sometimes controversial playing of Horowitz, or Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia. A later teacher, the composer Brian Chapple, was a big influence too: I started thinking about writing a Piano Concerto myself when I found out about his one written for Howard Shelley and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In fact Howard Shelley was later complimentary about my Concerto – which was a lovely turn of events – shortly before the Royal Philharmonic premiered mine in 2002. I was also encouraged to go for a Junior Exhibitioner scholarship to the Guildhall, by the Head of Music Services in our local borough, Robert Cracknell. I was a first study composer there, aged 16, which is maybe a less common thing. I had lessons with Gary Carpenter.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I think challenges and frustrations are constant companions. It’s a rare thing for one performance or commission (the latter being a cherished treat when they happen) to come along and lead to other work – there’s a sense of starting from scratch with each new work, in terms of how to get it to reach the ears of an audience. There are opportunities, but the route through to them is via choppy waters along busy shipping lanes, shall we say! People’s lives are busy, and even those working in music – important decision-makers, programming, planning, festival organisers and so on – can’t always make the time to listen, which is a key frustration. I’ve had long email conversations sometimes with ‘much ink spilled’ (in a virtual, digital sense) during which time music could have been listened to, and a decision made on whether to programme, based on what’s been heard rather than what’s been said. I’ve written over 100 works and received far fewer than half that number of actual performances, including rare second performances.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The pleasures of a commission outweigh the challenges in important ways, I think – and it’s not simply a matter of being paid for it! What I’ve found is that when a commission is a response to other music they’ve heard, one gets a sense of the kind of thing they have in mind – and so it makes the writing (or as a minimum, the planning and structuring of ideas and the ‘sense of the whole’) easier to conceive of. The flip side of that is reflected in the recent instance of being asked to write a chamber work following another that had gone down very well – which was great to know, and heart-warming – but it meant trying to think of new ideas that weren’t a revamp of what was done before, and, if new, not so much in a way that listeners wouldn’t recognise the musical message. I felt that when I was commissioned to write a new ‘Ave Maria’ setting a few years ago. The challenge is to ensure that one keeps in balance the instinctive sense as a composer of what you’re aiming to do, and to make conscious decisions on structure, style and line where that’s necessary – another commission, from the Chapel Royal, brought that to the fore, as there was a brief around the text (and a request for ‘counterpoint’ rather than chords!), which I had to keep in mind.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve worked with orchestras less, but when we were rehearsing my Piano Concerto with the RPO one really has a sense of limited rehearsal time. There are more pressures I suppose, the larger the gathering of musicians. But when the music is in the hands of experienced professionals it’s a very rewarding experience – particularly when a singer or instrumentalist comes up with various ideas about how to sing or play something. Often differently from what I may have thought, but when the music starts to have a life like that, as a performer makes it their own – this is refreshing. That certainly happened while working with Lucy Knight, Jeff Stewart and Nigel Foster when recording the album of my song cycle In The Tavern Of Sweet Songs.

Of which works are you most proud?

I think that one’s in the future – maybe I can let you know when I’ve written it! It may be tomorrow, or next year. Or I might never really know…

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I always start with a melodic idea. It’s really about ‘song and story’ and the two things are synonymous for me – music comes from singing, even when it’s for instruments it’s still trying to narrate something. I don’t use conventional functional harmony, no V-I progressions. It’s more modal, but rather chromatic and with certain turns of phrase that have perhaps become my ‘style’ though I’d be hard-pressed to identify them precisely.

How do you work?

I improvise at the piano firstly, but transfer quickly to working just on manuscript paper with a pencil. Rarely working directly on the computer to put ideas down, rather typing things out afterwards like a ‘longhand story-writer or novelist’. Orchestration is usually done sitting on the sofa directly onto manuscript – so ‘3 steps’, short-score, full score in pencil with corrections, typed up 3rd / 4th draft…

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I go through phases, really. At the moment I’m listening to Monteverdi quite a lot – immersing myself in his madrigals, and doing a bit of a comparison on versions of the 1610 Vespers. This is partly after I spent most of the Covid-19 lockdown distracting myself with the un-commissioned composition of a setting of my own – a 75-minute a cappella sequence of 12 Palms from the Book of Common Prayer, Vespers for a Covenant. In a way it was an act of prayer for the world, without wanting to be too grand about it.

Elgar is a composer I turn to again and again, there is a sympathetic soul there even under the bluster of all the ‘pomp and circumstance’. Take the violin concerto for instance…

Listening to piano music, still ‘my instrument’, I’ve been listening to Cecile Ousset’s recordings of Chopin in recent times. Her recordings of the Ballades and Scherzos are incisive and very moving. Angela Hewitt playing Bach is another draw for the soul; I went to see / hear her playing the Goldberg Variations a while ago which was very memorable, she also played some Liszt at the Wigmore which was great.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If someone says to me, ‘that moment in your piece where you did this, or included that – I thought that was moving, or meant “such-and-such” to me’ – that’s when I feel something I’ve done has been successful. The most one ought perhaps to hope for is to be a composer of ‘moments’ – I’m wary of general critiques, good or bad.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think it’s important always, always, always to keep in mind – and remember – those things that got you switched on to music in the first place. That ‘primordial’ joy (or maybe even the tears!) ought to be held on to. So much of the rest of getting things done in music can be distracting, even dissuasive – destructive too – and has to be ‘cut out’ in order to hold fast to what is true in music. That, and to listen and to play every day – all the time really!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Writing my third opera would be lovely!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness is a dangerous pursuit – and generally it’s a pursuit that makes people unhappy. Aspiring to be content is really the best approach to life, and let happiness inhabit those moments where it really happens, without trying to imagine that it ought to be one’s perennial frame of mind…

What do you enjoy doing most?

A 10-mile walk in the countryside with family or friends on a summer’s day, with a ploughman’s lunch and a pint of real ale at the end of it!

In the Tavern of Sweet Songs: 17 songs setting evocative Persian poetry by David Lewiston Sharpe is available now. With Lucy Knight, soprano, and Jeff Stewart, tenor, with Nigel Foster, piano. More information and sample tracks

David Lewiston Sharpe was ​born in Oxford, UK, in 1976 and was educated in London; he studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, King’s College London and the Royal Academy of Music. His output as a composer covers choral, orchestral, chamber, vocal and solo instrumental music. David’s music includes commissions for new choral music for HM Chapels Royal, St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Malta; new vocal music for the London Song Festival; concertos including the Piano Concerto premiered in 2002 by Andrew Zolinsky with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Nicholas Cleobury; song cycles; and much orchestral music.

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