Recently I have been listening to the music of Trevor Duncan: I have posted brief notes on two of his works – St Boniface Down and High Heels. These are two very different pieces- the first a kind of impressionistic tone poem and the second an epitome of the light music genre at its very best.
Yet, recently, I discovered that his very first published piece is available on CD – allowing the listener the opportunity to hear the genesis of a great composer.
After war service, Trevor Duncan returned to the BBC as a ‘sound and balance’ engineer with special responsibilities for ‘light’ music orchestras. In addition to an opportunity to experiment with microphone placings for best broadcasting effect, it allowed him to hear a wide variety of contemporary music. The composer and conductor Ray Martin (1918-1988) was impressed with Duncan’s early efforts at composing. In fact he conducted the first performance of Vision in Velvet - the first work to issue from Duncan’s pen.
I love this work. For a first essay it is really rather good. It is one of those pieces that make me think of a beautiful ‘date’ turning up for a dinner party arrayed in all her finery. Perhaps Audrey Hepburn would make the ideal accompaniment to this music! My mind's eye sees her sweeping into the lobby of the Ritz rather than some provincial hotel in deepest rural Herefordshire! Yet, I guess the listener can allow his or her imagination the luxury of recalling anyone and anywhere that fits the bill.
The piece is written in a largely Mantovani or Henry Mancini style – with gorgeous string sound. But the interesting bits are surely the counter themes and melodic decoration that is continually happening in the background. A harp adds to the largely ‘over the top’ romanticism of the piece. Of course, it could be argued that there is very much a ‘film music’ feel to this pieces. And my answer to that would be so what? Surely the imagery and emotion of this piece is based on the ability of the music to create an audio image of a physical reality. Curiously, the work was subsequently renamed Morning Star –a far less appropriate title as far as I can see.
The orchestral writing is actually the subject of a story. Apparently Trevor Duncan credited his mentor Ray Martin with due encouragement in the skills of orchestration. Duncan had ‘plucked up courage’ to show Martin the piano score for Vision in Velvet. It had a favourable reaction on the elder man. Duncan then asked if he would consider orchestrating it for a future broadcast with his orchestra. The story goes that Martin immediately said “No, you do it. It’s all there already in your piano part.” To Duncan’s credit he worked at the score and a few weeks later it was ready for performance.
Duncan was now an established composer and he was encouraged to approach Tom Elliot who was at that time the manager of Light Music Exploitation at Boosey and Hawkes. Both Vision in Velvet and High Heels were recorded in 1949/50 on a 12 inch 78 rpm disc in 1949 having been recorded at Abbey Road Studios by the New Concert Orchestra conducted by Jack Leon. I understand that this is the version that listeners can hear on the Guild Light Music CD.
Listen to Vision in Velvet on the Golden Age of Light Music: An Introduction on Guild Light Music GLCD 5101