Carl, 80, stays composed after a month of celebrating

By Doreen Wachmann

COMPOSER Carl Davis is still recovering from a month of celebratory concerts following his 80th birthday at the end of October.

But, the sprightly octogenarian is not taking things easy and is raring to go.

"I keep going," he told me. "I have lots to do. As a composer, as any artist, you don't stop. To this day I'm still working. I've just written a score for a wonderful new film, called Ethel and Ernest."

The animated film will be broadcast by the BBC around Christmas.

Carl worked on Ethel and Ernest with none other than former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, who wrote the songs for the film.

Many years ago they worked together on the live album Liverpool Oratorio.

Carl is also eagerly anticipating his next venture, the premiere of his latest ballet, Alice in Wonderland, in The Hague over the coming festive season.

He told me: "It's a very spectacular ballet, like an Alice pantomime, a big community effort with lots of local children performing. That's fun. I love working on the Continent. It's always a treat."

Carl is also really looking forward to the first performance of his Kindertransport composition, Last Train to Tomorrow, in a synagogue in Maidenhead in May.

Carl, who was born into the tight-knit Jewish community of Brooklyn, claims his Jewish identity has been a major inspiration for his music career.

Being raised in the same house as his maternal grandfather, a chazan in Kaunas, Lithuania, must have also helped his musical ability.

He recalled: "I grew up in New York, which had the largest Jewish population anywhere in the world. Although we were not practising Jews, we were always conscious of Jewish culture.

"My mother went to a Jewish high school and spoke and wrote fluent Yiddish. It took a long time for me to realise what it was like being Jewish outside of the very protective world of that community."

Although Carl was only nine when news of the Holocaust reached America at the end of the Second World War, the knowledge had a profound effect on him for the rest of his life.

"It made a very deep impression on me as a child," he said. "Even to today I still have escape nightmares.

"I am very haunted by what my life would have been if I had not been born in safety in America, if my grandparents had not emigrated and I had grown up in Russia or Poland.

"It still lives with me and inspires a lot of the work I do. It is very central to my composing career."

He reckons he was born a composer, explaining: "The desire to compose is something you are born with.

"All work in the arts, painting or writing comes from inside. It can't be rationalised. Fortunately I was born with this craving and compulsion to compose."

Carl learned music from an early age. He said he struck gold with his third college, Bard College, in upstate New York.

The composer in residence was Paul Nordoff, who went on to develop the Nordoff-Robbins therapy for autistic children in the UK.

After college, Carl entered the New York theatre scene, writing a revue and working for the New York City Opera as an accompanist, coach and assistant conductor, which was "a tremendous experience".

But he then decided that he didn't want to live in America any more. He said: "I wanted to live and work in Europe. I felt that I didn't fit into the American scene.

"My longing and feeling for the classics was not going to work there. I really wanted to immerse myself in European culture.

"In the autumn of 1959, when I was 23, I packed my bags, bought a one-way ticket and went to somewhere very unexpected, Copenhagen. I thought that would be a congenial place. Mostly everybody spoke English.

"It was not as daunting as Paris, Rome, Berlin or Vienna, which are all places I have been to and worked in since."

After nine months in Copenhagen, Carl moved to London and has lived there ever since although he recently moved to Windsor to be nearer his daughter and grandchildren.

Carl is married to British actress Jean Boht, perhaps most famous for her role as Nellie Boswell in hit BBC sitcom Bread.

Carl and Jean have been married for more than 35 years - and his parents were initially not happy when their son married non-Jewish Jean.

Back in 1960, he said he needed the stimulus of England.

He said: "London then provided that. But I now work all over the UK and Europe."

On arriving in London, Carl devoted himself to composition and forged himself a career in TV, radio and stage, working for all the major companies.

Then, in 1980, "something really momentous happened. I discovered the world of silent film," he revealed.

Carl reckons he founded a new genre of composition, that of writing scores for silent films.

He said: "If I were asked what was the one thing I did which really made a mark, I would say it was creating this new profession.

"There are now people who devote themselves exclusively to conducting and composing silent films. There is an enormous interest in silent film with orchestra. I like to feel that I led to this revival."

It all began when Carl was asked to write the score for the 1927 silent film, Napoleon, which was performed again at the Royal Festival Hall last month as part of Carl's birthday celebrations.

The film has just been released on DVD.

The 1980 performance of Napoleon led to a whole series of restored silent film scores, largely initiated by Channel 4 chief executive Jeremy Isaacs, with whom Carl had worked on The World at War TV series.

Carl recalled: "When Jeremy saw Napoleon live, he was just forming Channel 4. He said he would make a series of silent film restorations with new scores by Carl Davis.

"We did that in 1980. Since then I have written more than 60 scores. Many people have picked this up."

Out of the Brooklyn ghetto, Carl had not planned on being involved in the Jewish community.

But he said: "When you work in music, almost immediately you meet many Jewish people, particularly those who came over in the 1930s."

His friends included several who had arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport, including singer Ilse Wolf; Czech film director Karel Reisz, for whose film The French Lieutenant's Woman, Carl had written the score; architect Edward Mendelsohn; Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines of Preston; and Sir Erich Reich of the Association of Jewish Refugees.

When Carl was asked by the Manchester Hallé Orchestra in 2012 to write a piece on the Kindertransport for their children's choir, he had already heard many stories from his friends.

He told me: "I thought this would be a very good, dramatic story to tell. It was great for children to do.

"It involved them in an adventure and it also taught them a great deal about history and about living through historical moments."

Last Train to Tomorrow tells the story of the Kindertransport through a series of songs in which the children on the train remember their previous lives in Berlin, Prague or Vienna, recall Kristallnacht and describe their train journey.

Carl said: "Each song moves the story on. The piece can either be sung straight as a concert or can be dramatised.

"I worked through my various escape phobias writing it."

After the performance in Manchester, while signing books and CDs, he was delighted by how many Jewish people told him their escape stories.

He then took the work to Prague where a professional children's company sang the piece in Czech.

The Czech children also recorded the work in English, which Carl maintained replicated the original journey in which the children had foreign accents.

The next performance of Last Train to Tomorrow was organised in conjunction with the AJR, with participation from children from London's Akiva School, at The Roundhouse.

Carl was so excited by working with the Jewish community that he said, "Let's use The Last Train to Tomorrow to do in any school, synagogue or for any anniversary".

His last performance of the song cycle was recently at Chichester Cathedral.

Carl said: "Fifty children, dressed like refugees, were walking with suitcases down the aisle of Chichester Cathedral. It was an incredibly moving experience."

Just after he moved to Windsor, Carl came across a review of one of the books of Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead Synagogue.

He contacted him and learned that the synagogue had helped look after Kindertransport organiser Sir Nicholas Winton in the last days of his life. And now the song cycle is to be performed in the synagogue in May.

Carl's birthday celebrations began with BBC Philharmonic Orchestra recordings of Sounds of Cinema for Radio 3 and Friday Night is Music Night for Radio 2.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra recorded a Classic FM Birthday Concert, hosted by Aled Jones.

Besides the Napoleon performance at the Royal Festival Hall, Faber has published Carl's biography Carl Davis: Maestro to mark his birthday.

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph