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Sep15TueGeneral John Larsson (Rtd) reflects on a song-writing partnership that rocked the Army world. September 15, 2015 by Major Nigel Bovey
In 1967, two young Salvation Army officers were on the verge of a breakthrough. The Salvation Army had always been known for its music-making. Indeed, its founder, William Booth, was often quoted as asking: Why should the devil have all the best music? During the era of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph, The Who's rock opera Tommy and the hippy-centric Hair, John Gowans and John Larsson wrote and produced a Salvation Army musical. They went on to write a further nine. Later, as successive Generals, they led and shaped the global movement.
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General Larsson, when did you first meet John Gowans, the man with whom you would go on to write 10 musicals?
The first time I really got to know John Gowans was in 1967. We were both working in West London, England. I was at Hillingdon and he was in Kingston upon Thames. The Salvation Army had designated 1968 as International Youth Year, during which the Army all around the world would celebrate and focus on its work among young people.
John and I were in a planning meeting for the celebrations in the United Kingdom when the national youth secretary, Denis Hunter, pointed to us and told us to get together and write a musical. He wanted a musical that groups of young Salvationists could present throughout Britain—and that might be taken up internationally.
Had you done anything like that before?
Every year, The Salvation Army holds a commissioning ceremony for its graduating officers. Part of the celebration included a pageant and for some years I had been writing the music for those events. So, over the years I had been developing my skills in composing for the stage.
Did you ever have formal training, either as a pianist or as a composer?
As a pianist, yes. When I was a child, I travelled the world with my parents, who were Salvation Army officers. I had piano teachers in Denmark and then in Chile.
In Argentina, I was introduced to a concert pianist who became my teacher for three years. He corrected my technique. He told me that I was just tinkling the keys and that I should play with my whole body. After relearning how to play the C scale, my playing took off.
I was introduced to a concert pianist who became my teacher
Apart from that, I am essentially self-taught. I have studied books on harmony and composition. I have spent many hours listening to music and reading musical scores. In that way, I have learned the art of creating new music and scoring it so that it can be read and performed by others, but I have no music degree.
Your 10 musicals comprise some 200 songs, as well as incidental music. The shows have been performed around the world. Some of them—particularly Spirit!—have been performed by other churches. Twenty-nine of those songs have been published for congregational use. Your songs Hundreds and Thousands and Have You Ever Stopped? have been widely used in school assemblies. All this with no formal qualification. How do you explain it?
It is definitely a gift. But a gift has to be developed, even if only by private study. Some of the world's greatest composers had a similar experience, I'm glad to say. They didn't have the opportunity for formal training, either. It is said that a composer can have one of three special gifts: rhythm, harmony or melody. And that the rarest gift is melody. I can only ascribe it to the good Lord, but I think God has given me the gift of melody and I've always been amazed at that.
To what extent has the travelling of your childhood—you were born in Sweden, you lived in South America—influenced your musical style and content?
It most definitely has. Sweden has a heritage of folk music. Much of it is wistful and sad, but it is always melodic. I was surprised to discover that in South America the native music has exactly the same minor key chords and the same structure and beauty of melody that is found in Swedish music.
Do you have a composer hero?
Yes, Richard Rodgers. He worked with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein to produce some of the most famous musicals of all time, including South Pacific, Carousel and The Sound of Music. I am just awed by the way his melodies soar and fall and by the way he so perfectly harmonizes them. I have studied his scores and have often wondered how he does it. But he does—in more than 900 songs.
God has given me the gift of melody and I've always been amazed at that
How do you go about writing a new tune? Do you hear it in your head first and keep singing it to yourself in order to retain it? Do you wake up in the middle of the night with a tune you must commit to paper? Do you play around with chord progressions and hope something will come out of that?
All of those things—but it is hard to say precisely. There are only 12 notes in the scale, so there's a limited palette to work with. And you would think that nothing new could be created from them. But it somehow happens. All I can say is that when melody is a gift, you don't really know how they come.
For me, the creative process is usually kick-started by having lyrics in front of me. Their scansion, rhythm and mood suggest which shades from the musical palette I should use.
Have you ever composed music not connected with lyric?
Apart from tinkering around on the piano for hours on end when I was younger, no. My formal compositions have been song tunes—music with a function.
How did you and John Gowans work as a song-writing team? Did you thrash things out in the same room?
No, often we weren't even in the same country. John usually wrote the words first and then sent them to me. His words were the inspiration. As soon as I saw his words and recognized their rhythm, melodies would begin to form in my mind and I'd write a tune.
When I first started working with John, I'd write a tune, then, the next day, tell myself that I can do better and would write another melody to the same words, and then yet another melody. Then I'd try to produce a golden tune that had the best bits of all my previous attempts. But I found that I couldn't. I realized that I could use only one of those melodies. Getting rid of the ones that weren't suitable was like killing off children. Eventually, I told myself no, I'll never do that again. After that, whatever came first tended to be the one.
You make that sound very easy. Was it?
Not always. Sometimes, I struggled to find just the right journey for the tune.
Wordsmiths seem to be able to go on forever, while song composers seem to have a more limited creative period. Would you agree?
The fear of all composers is that the creative juices will stop. I stopped writing music 20 years ago. I would be afraid of going back. I would fear that my music would be out of harmony, out of sync with today's musical thinking—that it would sound dated. It was a purposed, creative decision to retire from music-writing. That part of my life is a closed chapter. My creative energies are now in the writing of books.
When you were first tasked with writing a musical, did you imagine where it would take you?
No. In fact, a couple of months after we'd been told to go away and write, John and I came to the conclusion that we couldn't do it, especially as, in addition to his everyday responsibilities, John was undertaking theological studies. We'd also not been able to come up with a theme and, of course, a musical is more than a collection of isolated songs, it tells a story.
Musicals are a powerful way to tell the Christian story
So we went back to the planning committee and told them that we must admit defeat and let someone else have a go. We meant it. But to his everlasting credit, youth secretary Denis Hunter refused to consider that possibility. He told us he was convinced we had it in us to write a musical. Would we now go back and try again?
Well, we did, and eventually we came up with the musical Take-Over Bid. How differently things could have turned out! All these years later, it is gratifying to know that many people have come to know Jesus through our musicals and that the songs are still touching lives.
You are a writer. Did you ever collaborate on the song lyrics?
No. John and I would discuss the themes and plot development, but I was never gifted with lyrics. Sometimes we created songs from simply a phrase. When writing Take-Over Bid, we were talking about the need for a song that showed how God works through people. The phrase “someone cares” came up. From those three syllables, I wrote the tune there and then and left John to fill in the rest of the words.
Do you have a favourite Gowans-Larsson song?
It's hard to choose, but because of its impact and also because it's my most musically developed, one favourite song is Love Cannot Fail from Spirit!
Why did you sink your creative energies into musical theatre?
Because the mix of music and drama is such a powerful way of presenting the gospel. Also because musicals, then, as now, attract an audience.
With the present popularity of musicals in the West End, would you like to see today's Salvationist writers using this medium as a way of portraying the gospel?
Yes. Musicals are a powerful way to tell the Christian story.
You describe your composing as a “closed chapter.” When did your book-writing begin?
It started when I was a young officer. I was teaching Christian doctrine at The Salvation Army's officer training college. Basing it on the book French Without Tears, I decided to do a series of articles under the title Doctrine Without Tears, where I looked at each of the doctrines in turn and included anecdotes from history to try to make what can be a dry subject interesting. In 1974, the articles were published as my first book.
Your subsequent titles have covered Christian themes, a life of Jesus, an autobiography and aspects of Salvation Army ministry and history. Your latest book is Those Incredible Booths. Why do you write?
Although I have a musical gift, I have always wanted to write and consider writing as the stronger of the two. My mother, Flora, was a writer so I may have inherited something from her. Now I am in retirement, it is important to have projects—and my line is writing. One of the joys of retirement is that I have the time to write that I didn't have when I was General.
Reprinted from The War Cry, London, England.