With a body of work spanning over 40 years, Christopher Painter’s music is forged from his Welsh identity, his love of nature, landscape and strong influences from art and poetry.
Born in Port Talbot in 1962, he first began to compose at the age of fourteen following encouragement from his trumpet teacher, Walter White. He went on to study music at University College Cardiff where he was taught composition by Timothy Taylor and Richard Elfyn Jones, going on to be tutored by Alun Hoddinott. During this time, he says he was very fortunate to receive advice and encouragement from George Benjamin, Edward Gregson, John McCabe, Robert Saxton and Robert Simpson.
His relationship with Hoddinott developed from that of master and pupil to one of friend and colleague and whilst Painter has stated that Hoddinott was nurturing and never dictatorial, strong evidence of the older composer’s influence can be seen in many of Painter’s works.
One can see in Painter’s output a strong sense of tradition and he has said (in a pre-performance interview with the conductor Jac van Steen in 2009) that he feels a debt to those who have gone before and feels a responsibility to build and expand on this heritage. Indeed, he believes, like Per Norgaard, that music is a continuum and that composers merely extract their works from this. His sense of tradition is evidenced by his reluctance to eschew the traditional forms with his output including symphonies, string quartets and sonatas.
Painter’s works can, so far, be roughly divided into four groups – up to 1984; 1985 – 1988; 1989 – 1997; 1997 – 2014, each group signifying either a change of style or development of technique.
The works in the first group are very much student works but come from a time when the composer had a fluency and a desire to find his voice. Notable works from this period are the Septet (Op.4), which shows a degree of adventure, and the Symphony (Op.7) which is the first example of Painter tackling large-scale forms and is, by his own admission, heavily influenced by the first symphony of William Mathias. Many of these early works were composed for fellow students and performed at student concerts, an invaluable experience for a fledgling composer.
The second cluster of works stem from Painter’s time studying with Hoddinott and although his style and technique still evolving, there is evident a growing confidence and maturity. The first work of note from this period is the Cardiff Festival Overture (originally titled Gwyl Caerdydd), commissioned by the eponymous festival, which is a rumbustious Waltonesque concert opener. Other works that merit consideration are the 3rd String Quartet (again commissioned by the Cardiff Festival) and the Symphony No.2, a piece that shows the influence and guiding hand of Hoddinott.
It was during this period that Painter began to experiment with serialism and developed a system of row manipulation, somewhat akin to Hoddinott’s use of note matrices, where rows are joined and rotated, inverted and retrograded to form a number of cells which are then used horizontally within a loose tonal framework. He took this to its zenith in the composition of Tapestries for the North Wales International Music Festival where the rows and their resulting cells were worked out so that the last two notes of every cell would become the first two of the next thus creating a constant thread that runs throughout the work.
The third of the four periods started with an eight-year hiatus during which time the composer started many pieces but abandoned all of them. Painter has spoken openly about his long-running battle with depression and, he has said, that this was an especially difficult time where he saw no future in composition. He has written that this fallow period ended when he was invited to dinner with Alun & Rhiannon Hoddinott and was, unexpectedly, given a very stern pep talk and challenged to accept a commission from them for a Christmas carol. The composition of this carol, as yet unperformed, lifted the malaise and a number of works followed, including a commission for the Lower Machen Festival (Dans Les Bois) and the Sonata for Harp (Vyrnwy Sonata) which won him the Gregynog Composer’s Award of Wales.
The final period, so far, has been the most productive with a number of orchestral works, including two more symphonies, two substantial works for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, several chamber works and a return to the composer’s roots with works for brass band. These works show maturity and a composer at ease with his technique whilst still wishing to explore new avenues. Jac van Steen has said (in the interview previously quoted) that one of the things he loves about Painter’s music is that when commissioning a new work, one doesn’t know what the final work will be – the composer always surprises as each work is different, Painter refuses to be pigeon-holed.
During this time Painter has been Composer-in-Residence with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales (1999 and 2014); National Youth Brass Band of Wales (1999); Thuringen Philharmonie (2006) and the Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM (2010).
Many of Painter’s works are inspired by nature and the basic elements – he has a fascination with the sea and with forests – and the mythology associated with them. Likewise, Welsh literature and history, especially the Mabinogi, have a strong presence in his music and he has been heavily influenced by the poetry of the Welsh metaphysical poet, Vernon Watkins.
Painter has been the recipient of several awards, including a Life Membership of the Welsh Music Guild for his service to music in Wales, and has been twice awarded the Tlws Y Cerddor medal at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.
(“Composer Portrait 2015”)
Translated from the original German