Closer to Vaughan Williams than Phil Spector


This year's BBC Proms season includes 'Nick Drake - An Orchestral Celebration' with Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. That is Nick in the photo above; on the night in 1974 he died at the tragically young age of 26 a disc of the Brandenburg Concertos was on the record player in his room, and Black Eyed Dog, one of the last tracks he recorded before he died, has striking similarities to the Preludio of Bach's Lute Suite in E Major. But there is also an important and little-known contemporary connection between Nick Drake and the world of classical music.

While at Cambridge University Nick met and worked with fellow student Robert Kirby. When Nick recorded his first album Five Leaves Left he chose Robert Kirby to arrange and conduct the backing for the majority of the tracks using strings, brass and woodwind. It is widely acknowledged that these arrangements were a major contribution to the success of the album and also to Nick's next LP Bryter Later

Robert Kirby was a choral exhibitioner at Caius College, a scholarship which happened in part due to the influence of his music teacher Christopher Bishop at Bishop's Stortford College. Christopher Bishop had studied at Caius, and Robert Kirby was one of the last students he taught before he became an illustrious producer at EMI with production credits including Sir Adrian Boult, André Previn, David Munrow, Sir David Willcocks and Riccardo Muti. It has been said of Robert Kirby's arrangements that the sound was English and melancholic, closer to Vaughan Williams than Phil Spector. It is surely not a coincidence that Christopher Bishop went on to record the definitive cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies with Sir Adrian Boult and other works including the unjustly overlooked opera A Pilgrims Progress.

Although celebrated for his work with Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, Elton John, Ralph McTell and others, Robert Kirby's academic career did not end well. When he submitted his first course composition it was returned by his supervisor at Caius with a line struck through it and 'Corn Flakes commercial' written underneath; he went on to fail his Part One exams which finished his time at Cambridge. Christopher Bishop explains that "I was told that he was throwing jazzy chords into the harmony parts he was writing as part of his academic work, and his supervisor got upset".

Sadly both Nick Drake and Robert Kirby are no longer with us. But one link to those halcyon days of the late 1960s remains. When I told the 92 year old Christopher Bishop that his contribution to the posthumous success of Nick Drake has been recognised in Richard Morton Jack's recently published exemplary and definitive biography of Nick Drake he requested a copy from his son as a Christmas present. And when I emailed Christopher today to highlight the forthcoming BBC Prom I learnt that he had just received copies of Nick's first albums as a present on his birthday.

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