In Conversation with Peter Klatzow: Come and Study with me in Paris

Peter Klatzow PhotoMarie Vassiliou, my soprano counterpart of the Melicus Duo, and I were invited by Florian Uhlig, the Artistic Director of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, to perform a song recital in February at this year’s festival.  The composer-in-residence for this year’s festival was the eminent South African composer Peter Klatzow. When we were discussing programming to fit in with the Shakespearian theme of the festival, Florian suggested some songs by Peter. I have grown up knowing the name Klatzow, but have never performed any of his work and therefore this was the perfect opportunity to discover through his music who and what Peter Klatzow is. What a revelation! Both Marie and I fell in love with the soundscape of Klatzow’s writing and include his work into our programmes wherever possible. On Saturday 11 July we will include one of his Sonnets in our programme in Somerset.  In August I will perform more Klatzow. I am joined by  fellow South African expat Caryn Cohen on 14 August to perform the world premiere of Peter’s Paganini Variations for Violin and Piano. Ten days later cellist Corinne Morris and I will perform the world premiere of Canto & Capriccio that Klatzow composed specially for us.

Following our meeting in Johannesburg in February and our ensuing correspondence regarding poetry, composition, music and inspirations, Peter was so kind to agree to an email interview, answering some questions:

Nico de Villiers: When and how did your composing career start?

Peter Klatzow: Probably as soon as I learnt to draw notes. I remember aged 5 sitting in a class and drawing a page of treble clefs. I thought “I can do more than this”. Very soon I passed the Grade 1 theory test with 100 %. That hit the local press!

So I started to make up tunes.  I have some which I composed at about 11. They are quite nice. A bit like the Clementi Sonatinas I was learning at the time.

NdV: You studied with Nadia Boulanger. How did this come about and what is your most vivid memory of her instruction? What would you say was the greatest impression or influence that she he left upon you as composer?

PK: Nadia Boulanger came to the Royal College of Music late in 1964 to give masterclasses. She also conducted some of the shorter, late works of Stravinsky. Her classes were held downstairs in the College. Various pianists, flautists, singers performed, and all were given advice by the great lady. I attended all the classes, but didn’t perform. Our first encounter was not propitious. I had put my feet up on the chair in front of me. Mademoiselle suddenly noticed this, and gave me a withering glare. The feet dropped to the floor.

Of Ravel’s orchestration, and an early-morning meeting Gwynneth Pryor was playing Pour le Piano by Debussy. This particularly interested me, as it was a work I was studying at the time. At a particular point in the Sarabande Mlle referred to Ravel’s orchestration of this movement, and asked if Gwynneth knew it. She didn’t. She then turned to the class. “Who knows this orchestration?” I had been studying it in the Westminster library and answered that I did.

“Do you remember how Ravel orchestrated this bar?”

“Yes” and I described it.

She gave me a long look. “See me afterwards”

She asked me “What are you doing in this class? You attend regularly but you don’t perform.”

I replied “I am a composer, Mademoiselle.”

“Good”, she said crisply, “meet me here tomorrow at 7 a.m.”

And so I did. I played through my setting of ‘Vroegherfs’ [Early Autumn] for baritone and string quartet, and she made some comments “Be sparing with the high notes, you use too many high notes. Come and study with me in Paris.”

When I finally did, she still put me through the paces of ear tests, I had to write a fugue, etc. Only once all that was achieved did she ask again to look at my compositions.

We met on a one to one basis, usually towards  the end of the week. Her method of teaching was to scrutinise every note and ask me questions. She never made suggestions, only questions. I found it to be a very effective method of teaching.  Afterwards she wrote me a letter which opened many doors in my life.

NdV: How would you describe your compositional language?

PK: Extended tonality. Tonality is the basis of all my music since 1980, as is regular pulse. I make movements out of it, but always back.

NdV: What is your process of composition?  

PK: To listen to what is in my head and put it down. I always begin with a decision about all the major aspects (length, instrumentation, intended audience) and then lastly proceed to the notes.

NdV: Has composing for voice always played some or other role in your career or is song a genre that you intermittently use?

PK: It’s always been there, but from time to time instrumental and orchestral composition dominate. Choral composition has played a large part.

I began my composing career with songs, and will probably end with them. Especially happy when I find good singers.

NdV: How do you choose texts for your songs?  What, for you, makes a good text?

PK: Simple: If I hear music for the text immediately, I know that it will be a good song. 

NdV: Do you have certain voice types you prefer over others?

PK: Middle voices, mezzos and baritones.

NdV: What would you say are compositional challenges particular to writing for voice?

PK: To create a good vocal melodic line, to respect the rhythmic aspect of the words. I often notate the rhythm, and then the notes.

NdV: At the recent Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in February 2015 you introduced your Sonnets prior to our performance. In your introduction you mentioned the challenges that the sonnet structure poses for a musical setting. Would you tell me more about this?

PK: Sonnets are very long lines, and sometimes very uneven rhythmic meters. You need to find a musical equivalent for that – not always easy, and probably difficult for the singer too.

NdV: It is often said that songs show the most personal side of a composer. Would you agree?

PK: Yes, but I would also add piano music (for me).

I am delighted to have been introduced to the music of one of South Africa’s most respected composers, honoured to be a dedicatee of one of his works and inspired by his creativity.  On 21 July the University of Cape Town will stage a special concert performing various Klatzow composition to celebrate his 70th birthday.


  1. Patrick Burke

    I enjoyed this resume very much as Peter and I are friends from way back. He recently wrote a song based on a poem of mine,” In the field of a tree of Down”

    I ever it gets to be performed or recorded I would be delighted to receive a copy.

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