A noteworthy antipodean

January 20, 1995

Janet Ritterman recalls her influential music teacher, Alexander Burnard.

He was tall, walked with a youthful spring in his step, and always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye. By the time I became one of his students he must have been about 60, and had taught at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music for at least 25 years. His name was Alexander Burnard; at the conservatorium he was professor of harmony and composition. Although I gained a great deal from my contact with other musicians on the staff, the two years I spent in his class contributed as much to my development and the musical values I hold as any individual lessons, or any studies before or since.

Three years' study of harmony and counterpoint was compulsory. The teaching was in small seminar groups, taken by several different tutors; as a student, you could choose whose class you wanted to attend. As I entered the second year, I can remember wondering whether to sign up for one of his classes. The student grapevine was divided on Burnard as a teacher. He was held in affection by some because of his sense of humour and his mild eccentricities of manner; others, however, cautioned that he "was hard to understand", "left you to work things out yourself'' and "was particularly fond of female students''.

His studio was hidden away at the top of a flight of narrow stairs. Once inside the door, however, the room was full of light and offered an eyrie-like view of the rooftop and turrets of the conservatorium -- a characterful building which began life in the early 19th century as stables for nearby Government House, and whose convict architect had let imagination roam unconstrained, adopting for its exterior an idiosyncratic mixture of Scottish baronial and Gothic folly.

The room was spartan -- sparsely furnished, with a brown linoleum-covered floor. There was doubtless a blackboard and chalk, but my memories of Alex Burnard are always of him at the piano, with a small group of students ranged closely round him in a semicircle. Everything was illustrated at the keyboard, often spontaneously, in response to student comment.

The piano was a simple upright that looked and sounded as though it had grown old with him. Its keys rattled percussively, but I have the feeling that he would have obstinately resisted any bureaucratic attempts to correct this apparent fault. He referred to the effect as "vibrato'', and it gave him evident satisfaction to exploit it to enhance the intensity of a particularly expressive chord or phrase.

Burnard was the first person I met who had published a book. In his case, this was a harmony textbook, dedicated to "the student and the potential composer''. In one he saw the other. His book was like no other harmony textbook I had encountered: where others reduced the subject to rule and formula, his book dealt with the materials of music itself. At a time when harmony textbooks generally contained musical examples devised for teaching purposes, Burnard's book made the connection with real music, drawing examples from works that he knew and loved.

The examples in his book represented only a small sample of the music he shared with his students. In class, the examples were more eclectic. He loved to present them in context, and to encourage us to identify with whatever it was that made them musically significant. But these presentations were often tantalising.

Burnard was a rich and complex character -- well read, with wide-ranging interests and the mind of a cryptic crossword compiler. Examples were often hedged around with a thicket of allusions, literary as well as musical, historical and contemporary. It was a challenge to follow the verbal and musical twists and turns -- a challenge that most of us generally failed to meet. For us as students, his knowledge of repertoire seemed prodigious: the examples came from opera, orchestral works, chamber music, folksongs and popular music as frequently as from standard keyboard repertoire. But more importantly, his enthusiasm was infectious: it was not unusual for several of us to be found in the library after the session searching through scores to try to locate exactly what it was that we had heard. In our studies with Alex Burnard, we learnt; we learnt how to learn; we learnt something of what it could be to teach.

Musically he was a man of his time. While his admiration for the music of Bach was unbounded, much of the music of the Viennese Classical school held for him relatively little appeal. But he responded with zest to the developmental process and chromatic harmonies of late 19th-century music, so his examples often drew on the new music of his youth and of composers with whom he had associated. British folksongs were a particular passion. He harmonised many of them at the piano, sucking noisily on his pipe, especially at moments of high tension.

With the music of composers such as Grieg, Franck, Wagner, Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, he was in his element. It was to Grainger that his textbook was dedicated. There must have been much that he could have told us of his student years that would have captured our imaginations. But personal anecdotes rarely featured: he was essentially a private man. Even if this had not been so, it would probably have seemed to him something of an irrelevance -- for him the significance lay in the music itself.

Burnard's teaching approach was the complete antithesis of didacticism: he taught through aphorism and allusion. Each student's work was normally played in the class. His standards were high, so tough judgements were never shirked. The potentially disabling effect of public criticism was, however, usually minimised by a lightness of touch: critical comments were normally couched in catchphrase or acronym. For generations of Alex Burnard's students, BLNT ("Better luck next time"), BLTN ("Better late than never"), "thick ankles'' (tenor and bass parts overpowering the upper voices), were just some from the extensive catalogue of evocative phrases (always in pencil, not in red pen) likely to be inscribed on their work. These phrases, repeated from group to group in the student cafeteria, were a source of endless amusement. Through repetition, they found their mark: for those who internalised the critical values that lay behind them, humour served to make all the more durable the standards they encapsulated.

He himself was an active composer, though of his own work we knew remarkably little. In my last term in his class, he produced a suite for piano on which he had been working, each movement of which had been dedicated to a present or a former student. I can remember my surprise and delight on discovering a fugue, full of fun, which bore my name. I wish I still had it now: there are so many works by other composers which I first discovered because of Alexander Burnard. I would be glad if I could remember him through some music of his own.

Janet Ritterman is director of the Royal College of Music.

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