Donald Thomson Interview

Scottish composer Donald Thomson: Edinburgh’s ebullient, energised enthusiast in conversation with Murray McLachlan.

Please forgive my over-alliterative heading for this piece on Donald, a wonderful individual who, though not strictly from Edinburgh (he actually lives in East Lothian!) most certainly exudes positive, ‘can do’ energy. Indeed, everything about Donald reflects on his sincerity and warmth. Here is a bubbling, vibrant, musician who may have only recently had compositions of his own published, but who has had a lifetime’s love of music from which to springboard creatively from.  Alongside his remarkably prolific productivity and compositional successes over the past decade, Donald has continued to work on all cylinders as a pianist, in music education, and also in publishing. His extraordinary multi-faceted energy and endeavours seem to make him three or four individuals in one!

Certainly, the three colourful, immediate, and arrestingly communicative anthologies of solo piano music that are currently available from EVC Music are more than fair reflections of Donald’s most persuasive personality. As a fellow Scot I was immediately attracted to ‘Celtic Piano Music’ the impressive compendium at the intermediate to advanced level which is in fact made up of several anthologies that initially appeared independently. As a whole this large collection of approachable pieces pays testament to a composer who projects and communicates an intense love not only of Celtic folk music but also of the Scottish landscape.

MM I began interviewing Donald by asking him what his first musical memories were: 

DT Music has always been a major part of my family life. Before she retired, my mother was a lifelong piano teacher, and there was always music in the house. As a small child, I used to sit beside (actually underneath!) the piano when she was playing and used to be fascinated by the sounds it made. I particularly enjoyed it when she played Grieg’s ‘March of the Dwarves’. 

MM Where did you grow up? 

DT‘Although I was born in Scotland, I grew up in Rutland, Hampshire and Cambridgeshire. 

MM Were your family supportive? 

DT My family were more than supportive. Music was actively encouraged. My brother and I were allowed to try out many instruments (he achieved grade 3 Euphonium and played the piano very capably by ear). I also learned the trumpet for a while and achieved grade 8 flute with distinction. The school I was at had a scheme whereby pupils were given a term of free violin lessons to assess whether they might like to continue. I was not allowed to continue after a term as I apparently had “little musical aptitude”! I should mention that at this point, I had already passed my grade 5 piano.

MM Who were the key people who helped you be the musician and composer you are today?

DT Apart from my parents, who were always so supportive of my musical education, I studied with several excellent piano teachers:

Diane Beeken in Winchester, under whom I achieved grade 8 with distinction at the age of 14/

Monica Hunter in Foxton, Cambridgeshire, introduced me to some of my favourite piano music, particularly Chopin. At her suggestion, I took fortnightly lessons with Guy Jonson (emeritus professor at the RAM) in London to prepare me for my entrance audition at the RSAMD in Glasgow, where I studied with another incredible teacher, Bernard King, for three years.

MM What were the important musical events in your early and later years? 

DT In my early years, my first public performances were accompanying hymns for a school assembly – utterly terrifying as I could only have been about nine years old at the time. I can vividly recall how violently my hands were shaking! I have always performed piano duets with my mother from a young age. The earliest performance I remember was Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba and Walton’s Façade at a church in Peterborough circa 1978. I still play piano duets with her to this day, 44 years later.

I took a job as a parish church organist, aged around 14 years old, which improved my sight-reading.

Another significant event was performing the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor aged 17, when I was at sixth-form college. I remember that they’d very helpfully cleaned the piano thoroughly in readiness for the concert and somebody had used furniture polish on the keys! Fortunately, I spotted this before the actual concert and was able to clean it off and reduce the skid risk.

A memorable performance I attended as a teenager was the cellist Paul Tortelier’s recital in Cambridge. I remember he played Fauré’s Elégie in memory of the victims of a recent earthquake in Mexico, and it moved me to tears. That experience has stayed with me since – some pieces of music are guaranteed to give me either goosebumps or a lump in my throat!

A memorable musical experience in recent years was singing Bass in the Verdi Requiem with the Edinburgh Bach Choir at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. This is another piece of music which triggers goosebumps.

Halloween Piano Tunes launch in London, November 2021

MM When you look back on your formative years, what were the key moments and events that really changed things for you? 

DT Certainly, my acceptance to study piano at RSAMD in Glasgow was important. Later, my appointment in 1993 as a proofreader with Kevin Mayhew was vital: All of my career in publishing stems from this point and as a result, I have become well-known in the music industry as an editor, engraver, and arranger.

Later still, my return to Scotland in 2007 and the discovery of the music of my homeland was unquestionably decisive for my music. And more recently still, my introduction to Elena Cobb has been a major force in my development as a composer-her support and encouragement have been so important.  

MM Tell us how composition fits in with the rest of your life and career- firstly in your earliest years and then through your childhood, student years and up to the present. 

DT I came to composition quite recently as it was not a subject I studied at college. The first two piano pieces, Heriot Water and Innerleithen Air were written because I couldn’t find suitable organ music for a family wedding in 2011. So, I sat down and wrote my own. These pieces were reworked a few years later and expanded into the Borders Suite with the addition of three more pieces as a Christmas present for my mother. Self-published with a cover designed by my wife, who is a talented amateur artist. I have composed music regularly since then – including choral music for the two choirs I work with and some cello pieces for performance by myself and a cellist friend. So, I tend to compose seriously when I have a commission, but I do have a folder of musical ideas I add to whenever a tune comes into my head. 

MM Has traditional folk music inspired you?

Absolutely. I discovered the Gaelic song through the music of Julie Fowlis and instantly fell in love with it. The harmonies and melodies of this kind of music infuse my own compositions. I have been studying the language for nearly three years, and one of my dreams is to compose some Gaelic songs of my own. I also hugely admire the fiddle playing of both Duncan Chisholm and Chris Stout and the virtuoso harp playing of Catriona MacKay – she is incredible!

DT Which Scottish composers of past and present do you admire?

The first name that springs to mind is my good friend Brian Davidson. I met him a couple of years ago when he spotted a copy of A Borders Suite at the City of Edinburgh Music School, where he teaches, and we got in touch. We often spend an enjoyable afternoon playing our latest compositions to each other on his wonderful Yamaha grand piano (which he even lets me use to make videos of my performances). He wrote beautifully lyrically and was a good friend of the composer Ronald Stevenson, who also lived in West Linton. I have engraved five collections of Brian’s piano music, including a superbly inventive tribute to film composers entitled Cinema Suite. 

Quite a few young Scottish composers are producing some really interesting music at the moment, such as Aileen Sweeney – her music also crosses the folk / classical boundary since she is a skilled accordion player with the band Eriska. 

And, of course, Sir James MacMillan – I asked him at a book signing for his advice on developing my piano music into longer pieces. He replied, ‘listen to Beethoven’s symphonies.

MM Is writing educational music different from composing without pedagogical intentions? Is it constraining, and if so, how?

DT You do have to be aware of the capabilities of younger players when composing educational music. I often write music which I can easily play myself, then have to go back over it and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes from the perspective of a pupil. I wouldn’t say it is constraining but producing a particular musical effect without making it too technically difficult sometimes presents a challenge.

MM When did you first meet Elena Cobb and start writing for EVC music? 

DT I met Elena Cobb in 2015 through our mutual friend Heather Hammond. I’ve known Heather since the early 2000s, editing numerous books of hers for Kevin Mayhew publishers. When I told her I’d written a set of piano pieces, she suggested I send them to Elena, and she instantly fell in love with them and offered to publish them. 

 

MM Could you tell us briefly about the motivation, inspiration, and musical intentions of each of your published collections for EVC music? 

DT Celtic Piano Music comprises four previously published suites, each written about a particular aspect of Scotland. So, we originally had A Borders Suite, depicting places in the Scottish Borders; A Hebrides Suite, depicting the Western Isles; Scottish Waters, portraying lochs and rivers; Myths and Legends, whose subject matter is the rich and varied folklore of Scotland. These were all written as repertoire pieces to be enjoyed and performed on various occasions. I have even played some of them at weddings and funerals to give the choir a break when I accompany choral concerts. My mother often plays them at her church.

Halloween Piano Tunes are educational pieces composed in 2021. I like to refer to them as ‘cheeky wee tunes’. Elena asked me sometime in August if I had any Halloween pieces lying around, to which I replied, “No, but I can write you somehow. Many would you like?” There followed three weeks of intense composition, and they wouldn’t stop coming once I started! I’ve used this book with several of my piano pupils, who absolutely love them. Spooky, atmospheric, and great fun.

Winter Piano Music came from a commission by Jill Morton, an extremely talented concert pianist and teacher from Cambridgeshire, who contacted me with an idea for a musical Christmas advent calendar. She planned to ask five composers to write five new pieces each, and she would perform one new piece daily on YouTube during Advent. I jumped at the chance, and this book is the result. There were no restrictions on the level of difficulty, and her brief was for two original pieces – which became Sleigh Ride and Starlight & Snowflakes – plus three arrangements of existing melodies – I chose Silent Night, We Three Kings, and God rest ye merry, gentlemen. I used this opportunity to explore my compositional style further, now taking a step out of my Celtic comfort zone. The pieces reflect a new development in my musical language with Romantic and Impressionist influences.

MM Please tell us about any imminent plans and projects. What are you currently composing?

DT I will present my Winter Piano Music and Halloween PianoTunes at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh before Christmas and I am composing new pieces – an early-grade book of Celtic music. The plan is to release it in time for the Robert Burns’ birthday in January 2023.

MM What projects, dreams, and plans would you dearly love to explore and work at in the future?

DT I have always wanted to explore orchestral composition and larger-scale choral works. I would love to compose more piano music at an advanced level with a view to one day releasing a recording. 

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