The Snowman – story of a classic
20 December, 2019 — By Michael White
If there’s one composer who is always pleased when Christmas comes around it’s Howard Blake: the man who wrote the music for The Snowman (TV cartoon, stage-show, soundtrack to your every shopping-mall experience throughout December, it exists in countless forms) and who just sits back at this time of year watching the royalties roll in from every corner of the globe.
Among the many is Cadogan Hall where it plays this on Saturday (December 21) in two special performances with live orchestra. And it’s also playing more or less every night until January 5 at the Peacock Theatre, Holborn, should you crave repeat performances.
The reason why it’s so successful is because it’s actually a charming piece. And Walking in the Air – well, it’s a classic of its kind. But then, Blake is a classical composer with a catalogue of choral music, piano pieces and the odd concerto to his name.
The only problem is that Snowman tends to crowd everything else out – to the extent that Blake calls it “a pain … not least when people ask, as they do: Have you written anything else?” But frankly there are worse pains to be endured; and if you catch him on a good day, you get a different response. What makes The Snowman so lucrative are the licensing deals through which its music sells everything from Irish postal services to South Korean ice cream. But Blake once told me that he regularly turns down applications to use Walking in the Air for porn films, condom ads and such like, “because when you create something you love you have to protect it from the worst excesses. And I do actually love it.”
Apart from anything else, he says, “it’s a wonderful story that celebrates the things that make life worth living: love, trust, friendship – old-fashioned things that people think nothing of these days, in this God-awful world. Except at Christmas. Which is why Christmas is special.”
The one small irony is that, as originally conceived, Walking in the Air had nothing to do with Christmas: Blake came up with the tune on a summer’s day, walking along a Cornish beach.
“I couldn’t think what to do with it, so I just let it lie for a while. Then I put it in a Happy Prince film that I’d been asked to score, only to find that the commission had been stolen by another composer called Ron Goodwin. So the tune went back in the drawer.” It was 10 years later that another company asked him to look over some music they had commissioned for a film of The Snowman but didn’t like.
“And who had written this music? Ron Goodwin. So of course I said I could do better, and this time I took his commission. It was justice. And somehow I knew it was what the tune in the drawer was destined for.”
That was 1982. And nearly four decades on, Snowman is still flying, deathless and ubiquitous. It plays Cadogan Hall, Sloane Terrace, SW1, 1.30pm and 4.30pm, Saturday 21st (cadoganhall.com/whats-on). And at the Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, WC2, at Dec 20-Jan 6, performances at 11am, 2.30 and 7pm on selected days (www.sadlerswells.com)