How an improvisation has circled the globe virtually, and become an orchestral composition.
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It all started with four notes, F, A, D and B. Now Paul Harvey’s poignant improvisation has been recorded by the BBC Philharmonic orchestra and was premiered on Radio 4’s 9am programme, Broadcasting House, on Sunday 25 October.
Paul, who is 80 and lives with dementia, composed ‘Four Notes’ spontaneously, a talent that he used to employ to engage students when he taught music at a school in East Sussex in the 70s and 80s. His son Nick, who had suggested the diversion when visiting on a ‘bad day’ for his dad’s dementia, recorded the moment. The video of the two-minute masterpiece went viral on social media.
Connecting to reality
“Improvising seems to free Dad from the constraints of having to remember,” says Nick, who is also a musician and composes for television.
“If I sense him drifting away or becoming distant, I will ask him to play or improvise and generally that connects him again not just with me but with the world. I’ll also play music that resonates with him, such as a Stephen Sondheim recording. The therapeutic power of music – it’s the one tools guaranteed to bring him back to reality 99% of the time.”
Dad’s ability to improvise and compose beautiful melodies on the fly has always amazed me.
Tonight, I gave him four random notes as a starting point.
Although his dementia is getting worse, moments like this bring him back to me. pic.twitter.com/dBInVCTmfF
— Nick Harvey (@mrnickharvey) September 17, 2020
In his early career Paul was a classical pianist whose playing was broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service; he is also the composer of Rhumba Toccata, a popular Grade 5 piano exam piece. Alongside his teaching, Paul was Musical Director of many shows, including the first amateur production of Sweeney Todd (by Sondheim) at the Ashcroft theatre in Croydon.
Now he is performing again as part of the full orchestral version of Four Notes. The magnum opus recording has been released as a single, available via all major streaming channels. The single is currently being played on our radio station m4d Radio each day at 9am, 2pm and 5pm.
Paddy O’Connell, presenter of Broadcasting House, was instrumental in linking the Harveys to the Philharmonic, and its director Simon Webb was ‘delighted’ to take up the baton, coordinating the orchestra’s involvement.
Proceeds of the single are to be divided equally between Music for Dementia and Alzheimer’s Society. Grace Meadows, our Programme Director, said: “We are so honoured to be a part of this exceptional endeavour and delighted that Paul and Nick have chosen us in this way.
“It is extraordinary how Paul’s prodigious talent is still so evident. This is a remarkable example of the power of music for people living with dementia and why we believe music should be part of dementia care.
“We are so pleased that Nick’s filming of Paul has led to this performance and single. We hope people far and wide will be as enthusiastic about downloading it as they have been about hearing and sharing the original video.
“The music for dementia campaign is backed by The Utley Foundation who will administer any monies generated and given to us through the sales of the Four Notes single.”
Simon Webb, BBC Philharmonic, said: “Paul Harvey has demonstrated how powerful music is for people living with dementia. At the BBC Philharmonic we are just delighted to be able to play our part in amplifying that message and reaching out to audiences with Paul’s inspiring and moving music.
“This is public service broadcasting at its best, and exactly why the BBC has orchestras, telling powerful stories through music, connecting to listeners and giving people a voice to inspire and move us all.”