Friday 30 November 2018

John Wilfred Heaton was born in 2 December 1918, one hundred years ago this coming Sunday. He is now acknowledged as one of the musical adventurers of the brass band world for the work he created from his teens through to his early 30s. For over half his life he composed very little but his legacy of some 75 compositions and arrangements is more substantial than was once thought. When I mentioned to him over the phone shortly before his death I was going to write his life story, he said “Do you really have to? Well, if you do please keep the life and the music separate”. Initially, I wasn’t convinced by that because I had established that the sources of his inspiration were in the main personal and often ‘of the moment’. However, my research has confirmed that by far the greater portion of his work was composed or at least sketched in a short burst of activity between 1946 and 1952, including the material of the masterworks that appeared many decades later - Contest Music, Partita and the two concertos. I therefore followed his advice.

With work on his final magnum opus, Variations, nearing completion after eight years of intermittent toil, Wilfred was in reflective mood when we spoke: “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to compose,” he confessed, adding, “I suppose the creative instinct never really leaves you”. There was a questioning tone in his voice. I had so many more questions to ask him, but that turned out to be our final conversation. 

I have spent many years now piecing together the life of this enigmatic artist.  Much of what I have discovered confirms the received view that he was essentially introspective and private whose occasional fiery outbursts matched the colour of his hair. What I have established about the reasons why he sought to supressed his creative instinct for so many years forms the primary thesis of the biography currently in progress. 

Wilfred’s story begins in Sheffield, where his signature pieces - Praise, Just as I am, the hymn tune setting Martyn and the original version of Toccata (O the blessed Lord) - were all composed in the late 1930s. Wilfred was an exceptionally gifted young man. Brought up in one of the poorest parts of the city, his musical talents were nurtured in the Sheffield Park Corps of The Salvation Army [SA].  His father John, a finisher of forks and spoons by trade, was the bandmaster. The Park Corps was small but enjoyed a strong musical tradition established by John Heaton’s father-in-law, Richard Rawlins. Wilfred and his sister Hilda inherited the Rawlins musical genes and shared a love of music and a deep interest in spiritual matters.  Wilfred was around nine or ten when he began to write music of his own. Towards the end of his schooldays, John Heaton sent a short choral song by his son to Colonel Hawkes, head of the SA’s International Music Editorial Department [IMED]. In May 1933, The Army’s Marching Song with text by his piano teacher May Bennett, a Salvationist from nearby Sheffield Citadel, appeared in The Musical Salvationist. At the age of 14 Wilfred had become a published composer.

 Although he passed the examinations necessary for him to follow his sister to secondary school, John Heaton had other plans for Wilfred, who left school at 14, as Hilda Heaton later explained: “There wasn’t a lot of money about. Wilfred was having money spent on his piano lessons with May Bennett and on harmony and counterpoint through correspondence with Bandmaster George Marshall. He was also going privately for cornet lessons with a local man, Mr. Grieve. My parents felt that I could have the advantage of going to the secondary school, where we had to pay for everything at that time, and Wilfred could have the advantage of the music”.

 John Heaton found an apprenticeship for him at a small brass instrument repair shop behind Sheffield Cathedral, Cocking and Pace. Looking back, it seems obvious that working as a repairer of brass band instruments was not the right occupation for him, but in arranging this apprenticeship, John Heaton was offering his son what he considered to be skilled and secure trade that would set him up for life. However, this was not the path Wilfred would have chosen for himself, although he was hardly in a position to rebel, although Hilda confirms that her brother “would really have liked his education to carry on, but that wasn't part of [our parent’s] outlook”. For a strict Salvationist like John Heaton, making and creating music was for the glory of God not a career choice.                                               

Wilfred continued his musical studies at home with a determination that amounted to a second, self-directed apprenticeship. By the time he was 16, he had become the Park Corps’ pianist, accompanying the congregational singing and improvising musical interludes when required. On Sunday evenings he would be at the keyboard for a ‘wind up’ of music and testimony. Among the Park Corps favourites were songs like There’s Victory for me, O the Blessed Lord, Praise O Praise Him, and The Golden Pen. While these simple tunes would receive the Heaton treatment on the piano, they also provided inspiration for some of his most inventive SA band pieces before and after WW2.

 As his 18th birthday approached, Wilfred was hard at work preparing for his LRAM performance examination. The news that he had passed arrived shortly after his birthday in December 1936 - the perfect present for this gifted student. His future was now the subject of much discussion in the Heaton household, whether to continue his apprenticeship with Cocking and Pace or take an alternative path towards a professional career in music. According to Hilda Heaton, the possibility of continuing his studies at music college in London was broached. This would have brought him into closer contact with the IMED, whose new Editor in Chief, Bramwell Coles, was taking a close interest in him, but Hilda recalled in 2001, “My father wouldn’t let him go anyway. If Wilfred had been a different kind of person, he might have insisted, and said, well I’m going whatever you say, but you didn’t do that in those days. I do remember that he was very disappointed that he didn’t get the opportunity to go”.                          

Sometime in 1937, Wilfred tried his hand at a march. His father hadn’t been impressed with an earlier attempt but taking his cue from the chorus Praise, O Praise Him, Wilfred wrote a light, bright march entitled Praise. In later years, he could never understand why such an ‘outdated piece’, as he called it, was still being played, although he was delighted it was so well loved. He also tried his hand at a major work - a substantial and typically unorthodox meditation based on the hymn tune Aberystwyth - he wrote a lively Waltoneque Scherzo for brass quartet, a Leidzenesque cornet solo based on the tune Annie Laurie and some beautifully crafted songs - choral and solo - all of which have now been performed and published, and recorded in The Heaton Collection [volumes 1-6] (SP&S418CD). 

In 1938, Wilfred received further encouragement from Bramwell Coles by way of an invitation to write a short piece for brass sextet which Coles hoped to take on a tour to North America. With the storm clouds of war gathering over Europe, the tour was postponed and did not take place until 1948. Nevertheless, Wilfred fulfilled the request and clearly put everything he knew into it. The title Music for Brass Sextet, belies the vitality and energy of the piece and the adventurous composing skills it reveals, particularly in his harmonic approach. Toccata ‘O the Blessed Lord’ as it became when revised for full band after WW2, reveals the 19-year old as a thoroughly contemporary ‘voice’, alive both to the current trends of neo-classical and big band styles. Bramwell Coles considered it too challenging. He was looking for something more straightforward with a clear soul-saving message. As a young Salvationist composer’s ‘response to just criticism’, his next offerings provided just what Coles was looking for - modest, functional, but well-constructed treatments of well-known sacred songs, the hymn-tune setting Martyn and more extended selection Passing By. These were his first published brass band pieces when they were released in 1946.

In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, the International Staff Band of the Salvation Army travelled to Sheffield to conduct a weekend ‘campaign’ at the Citadel corps. The Sunday evening meeting at the Park Corps finished early to enable those who wanted to go and hear the ISB’s ‘wind up’ performances. Wilfred, recently appointed Young Peoples Bandleader, arrived just as the band was playing the much-loved tune Just as I am by the American hymn writer William Bradbury (1818-1868). This occasion may have provided him with inspiration for his next work, a meditation on the poem of Charlotte Eliot (1781 - 1871) usually sung to Bradbury’s tune, Just as I am without one plea. However, there is also another account which Wilfred shared over the telephone to Kentucky with the SA band historian Dr. Ron Holz: “He was meeting a friend at a small corps in Sheffield [presumably the Park] and arrived to find himself walking in on a prayer meeting. The very small gathering was grouped around the mercy seat singing, most simply, Just as I am”.  Whatever the source the initial ‘inspiration’, Just as I am could be considered Wilfred’s most accomplished apprentice piece.

 All immediate thoughts of a future as a professional musician, a composer for The Salvation Army, or as an articled craftsman at Cocking and Pace were put on hold at 11.15am on 3 September 1939 with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s fateful broadcast declaring that “this country is at war with Germany”. Wilfred was reaching the end of his apprenticeship at Cocking and Pace. Through his own self-motivated second apprenticeship, he had sought to equip himself with the requisite skills for a life as a professional musical craftsman. Already a published composer for Salvation Army songsters, much was expected of him in the future. He had already crafted many of the pieces which have since become enduring favourites in the brass band literature. At Sheffield Park Corps his creative touch at the piano delighted and moved the small congregation in equal measure. Gaining an LRAM at 18 for his piano playing was a measure not only of his proficiency and musicality but also of his capacity for hard work. However, was all too aware that being an articled craftsman, without the opportunity of further study at music college, was going to be an impediment towards the realisation of his dream of being a composer first and foremost. He never was, but the music he left us reveals a master craftsman, ahead of his time perhaps, now fully appreciated throughout the brass band world.

Adapted from Wilfred Heaton: Variations on a Life, due to be published in Spring 2019.

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