John Sykes

a pupil's view (page 2)

But I suppose that the greatest richness of his musicianship came in the continuous outpouring of musical composition. Two areas in which he was prolific were both concerned with the stage. For nearly every school play between 1946 and his death, he composed incidental music, and he wrote four musical plays (words and music - he was both Gilbert and Sullivan) for the boys of Westwood, the junior house.There were many undoubted hits in both these areas. Probably the best of the four was 'Christopher Columbus' from 1953. It had tremendous popularity at the time, and one song in particular went through both junior and main schools like wildfire. Everybody was singing or humming 'The Land of Milk and Honey' - a song written for the young Martin Gilwhite, who played the role of a homesick sailor on the Santa Maria, looking forward to a landfall and a life of riches and luxury in the New World. Sometime after the performance of 'Christopher Columbus', Sykes was invited to write a poem for one of those occasional sixth-form literary magazines. It reveals a great deal about his view of art.

Lines on being invited to contribute to a Literary Symposium

"Take up your pen and write quickly,

Strew on us metaphors thickly,

We're off to press - and a poem from you

Will be just the job for the intellectual few -

The pseudo-intellectuals, the third programme wallahs,

The Eng. Lit. crowd, the sensitive fellows,

Who gather in the twilight and talk of immortality,

Dylan's reputation and Spender's personality."

So you command me. What am I to do?

Survey mankind from China to Peru

In couplets heroic or loose Alexandrines?

Dress up my images, like spivs, to the nines?

Give you a sonnet to somebody's eyebrows

Or describe in a triolet Everyman's sorrows?

For such I am impotent - would only bungle

My stuff and make your nerves jangle.

Technique is the thing. I haven't got it.

Art is long - and life is too short - drat it!

I wrote a song - Oh it was nothing -
Composed in ten minutes, perhaps - just a plaything -
You will remember "the land of milk and honey
Where the folks have lashings of easy money
Far away, Far away, far, far away:-"
And my little canticle sung by that ridiculous little boy.
But I think it said as much as anything I have ever wanted to say.
And that's the only kind of poetical moment
I can really establish. But no lament
Is necessary. Rather a Benedicite
That one achieves an occasional felicity
Of expression - makes a sound,
Unlike the baying of a jungle hound,
Both musical and apt. Just once - or twice.
For which the Gods be thanked - or Gilwhite's voice.

Most of the incidental music Sykes wrote for the school plays was scored for piano (played by himself), or piano duet, plus whatever instruments had adequate schoolboy performers at the time. Oh, and there was nearly always percussion. The style of piano writing reflected his prodigious playing technique, as is clear in the 'Paean' he wrote for Terence Rattigan's 'Adventure Story'.

Play producers could always rely on John Sykes to produce music in a style appropriate to the play. This was largely because he had a gift for pastiche - but not mere pastiche. When 'Berkeley Square' was performed in 1952, Sykes took the dual time-setting of the play (eighteenth century and present day) as his inspiration. The overture started by directly quoting Haydn's London Symphony (doubly appropriate - both time and place), then warped the music into a twentieth century idiom. Sykes later turned these four pieces of incidental music into a Symphony in D.

Amongst the pieces that Sykes wrote for the 1952 production of James Bridie's 'Jonah and the Whale' was an Assyrian Festive Dance for two pianos. Again he uses pastiche for effect - not just for its own sake. The dance is a polonaise in the best Chopin tradition. Chopin, an exile in Paris, used his native polonaise for its foreign and exotic effect: Sykes uses it for the same reason, to mirror the feelings of Jonah exiled in Nineveh. The piece is a brilliant tour de force of pianistic writing.

Sykes borrowed Holst's idea of a Planets suite, and wrote (again both words and music) The Planets for male voice choir, piano and percussion. Here are the words from 'Jupiter' -

There's Jupiter, he's ruddy and hearty.
There's Jupiter, the soul of the party.
He's all for feasting and laughing and jesting,
And dancing and singing and merry bells ringing.
He's careless and reckless and thriftless and feckless.
He revels all day and all night,
Till the dawn's in sight.
But gold is his rugged heart,
And I'll praise with my utmost art...
This Jupiter, most gallant of gods;
This Jupiter, most jolly of gods,
This giant-hearted rollicking Jupiter,
Who knows no care or fear.

It almost sounds - if you ignore the jesting, dancing and feckless -  like a self portrait!

P.J.C. July, 2000

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