Roger Marsh Composer

Bernard Rands

Bernard was the driving force behind the explosion of innovation at York in the early seventies.

Wilfrid Mellers created and steered the Music Department at the new university of York around 1966, staffing it entirely with composers. When I arrived in York to begin undergraduate studies in 1968 Wilfrid’s staff comprised Peter Aston, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Richard Orton and David Blake. As composers they were very different from one another – Aston leaning towards Howells and Britten and a clearly ‘English’ style; Sherlaw Johnson influenced, of course, by Messiaen, whose piano music he also played; Orton an experimentalist and pioneer of electronic music; Blake, a pupil of Hans Eisler, writing in a style more indebted to Schoenberg.  Between them they also covered European music history from medieval music (Johnson) right through to 20th century music and world music (Mellers). In addition Mellers was widely traveled and brought many well known figures to the university, and in 1970 he invited the 36 year old Bernard Rands to join the department on a short ‘Haywood Fellowship’.

Bernard had spent time in the USA as a Harkness Fellow at Princeton and Illinois. He had worked there with Cage, Erickson, Martirano and others. Before that he had studied with Dallapiccola and Berio in Italy. He also worked with Berio; his ‘Actions for six’ was toured along with Berio’s ‘Circles’, and Berio and Cathy Berberian had become his friends. Bruno Maderna, too, had an enormous influence on him, both as a composer and conductor.

Thus Bernard brought to York an awareness of the music of these seminal Italian composers whose work was barely known in the UK, and also a professional approach to the performance of new music which lifted its profile within the department almost overnight.  Before Rands’ arrival most student composers had to make do with a ‘Composers Club’ – a kind of Cambridge hangover where composers shared their work between them at closed events. I suppose it might have also been influenced by the Schoenberg ‘Society for Private Musical Performances’.  But within months of his arrival Bernard had set up the ‘New Music Ensemble’ (NME). To begin with Bernard conducted. In the first concert, as I recall, we performed Feldman ‘The Viola in my Life’ and Berio ‘O King’ along with some student pieces.  During the first season Bernard took the ensemble to Manchester University. NME was on the road!  The excitement of this development can not be overestimated.  Bernard then went further. In part because he was in demand as a composer and often away from York, he entrusted the direction of the ensemble to students.  Student conductors became the norm, and students took responsibility for programming.  It became a student run ensemble….and it remains so today, now with a minimum of six programmes a year.  The standard of performance has for fifty years been of the highest standard. The group has toured to Japan, performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and worked with many top rank composers. Importantly, the existence of the New Music Ensemble (later aNeMonE, and currently Chimera Ensemble) has helped to develop generations of student composers, many of whom have gone on to successful professional careers.  We all owe that to Bernard Rands above all.

Reunion in 2014 on the occasion of Bernard’s Prom Concert celebrating his 80th birthday. L to R standing: Graham Treacher, David Sawer, Susan Rands, Lesley Perrin, Roger Marsh, Bernard Rands, Jonty Harrison. Seated: Steve Stanton, Glyn Perrin.

Here is Bernard’s website.