IAIN HAMILTON (1922-2000) by Paul Conway
The death of Iain Hamilton last year deprived the contemporary British music
scene of a distinguished composer whose style ranged widely from light music
to avant-garde, but whose scrupulous attention to detail, fine ear for colour
and keen understanding of musical structure informed all his works. His output
encompasses most genres from operas and symphonies to chamber and solo works.
Iain Ellis Hamilton was born in Glasgow on June 6th, 1922. Seven
years later, his family moved to London and he was educated at Mill Hill
School. Having become an apprentice engineer, he remained in that profession
for seven years until he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music
in 1947 and decided to devote himself to a life of composition. His years
as an engineer left their mark on his compositions, however: such multi-sectional
pieces as the Sinfonia for Two Orchestras (1958), the First Cello Sonata
(1958), the Third String Quartet (1984) and The Transit of Jupiter (1995)
are the result of a mind with a strong sense of design and structure.
At the Royal Academy, Iain Hamilton studied composition under William Alwyn
and the piano under Harold Craxton, graduating in 1951 and wining the Dove
Prize, the Academy's highest honour. He also studied at London University,
gaining a BMus in 1950.
Amongst his first compositions to be heard were the First String Quartet
(which won the Clements Memorial Prize in 1950) and the Nocturnes for clarinet
and piano awarded the Edwin Evans Prize in 1951. His early works concentrate
on the orchestra and convey a bracing virtuosity by means of an intensely
chromatic but essentially tonal harmony. In this period fall the Variations
for string orchestra of 1948 which has a late-Romantic style, the First (1949)
and Second (1951) Symphonies and the Clarinet Concerto, which won the prestigious
Royal Philharmonic Society Prize in 1951. With these works, the composer's
technical skill is contained by the use of traditional forms but there is
a powerful rhythmic drive reminiscent of Stravinsky and Bartók.
The Variations for strings is the composer's opus one. It has all the exuberance
of youth yet is in no way immature. The theme itself is an original one and
the variations which follow exhibit a wide range of character from Waltonesque
joie de vivre to Mahlerian intensity and Puckish humour. There is
a partly fugal Finale. It avoids empty rhetoric and, whilst not as ambitious
or technically demanding as Britten's 'Frank Bridge Variations', for example,
it demonstrates the young Iain Hamilton's early mastery of the string orchestra.
An intense expressiveness remained a characteristic of his orchestral string
The First Symphony was first performed by Trevor Harvey and the BBC Scottish
Symphony Orchestra in December 1952. Like the following three examples in
the genre it is essentially a tonal work, though adventurous in its use of
harmony and orchestral colour. It shares with the Variations for Strings
a vitality and energy which is coupled in the first movement by a Walton-like
jazziness. The slow movement has a hushed, otherworldly quality which is
recalled in his last symphony of 1981. Rubbra-like alternating chords and
a Baxian section for harp and cor anglais suggest Ian Hamilton was at least
aware of his fellow British symphonists. The third movement is part Finale,
part scherzo and has a mercurial wit, skittish at times, perhaps reflecting
the Symphony's subtitle: 'Cyrano de Bergarac'. It was played by Colin Davis
in Switzerland in 1953 but the work has since been neglected, at least in
comparison with the Second Symphony: it does not deserve this fate and a
modern recording could win it new friends.
The Second Symphony was honoured with an award by the Koussevitzky foundation
in 1951 and first performed two years later at Cheltenham Festival by the
Hallé orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. It has received numerous
performances since then and has become one of Iain Hamilton's most popular
orchestral works. It was last broadcast on Radio 3 in 1996 in a performance
by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Jerzy Maksymiuk. It is not hard
to see why the symphony has received so much attention: its powerful scoring
and architectural ingenuity make a strong impression. The Lento
introduction to the first movement is so extended that it almost becomes
a separate movement in itself and its use in varied form in the main
Allegro section and its return at the conclusion of the movement only
serves to confirm its importance. The following Presto starts off
as a conventional quicksilver scherzo but the contrasting Trio passage is
marked 'alla marcia fantastica' and has a Berlioz-like hallucinatory quality.
An Andante passage for lyrical woodwind lines over pulsating string
chords breaks up the conventional ABA scheme of the scherzo and provides
a central point of calm before the tempestuous conclusion. The Adagio
third movement is distinguished by a beautiful, broad theme spanning large
intervals in the manner of late Mahler. Its central climax is unerringly
placed before the hushed ending. The relaxed con moto Finale unleashes
rushing string semiquavers in its athletic first subject. They gather momentum
throughout the movement and eventually initiate the bravura coda. Despite
the wayward harmonies en route, the closing bars of the work are in a decisive
E major. Deservedly popular though the Second Symphony is, it is hard to
understand why the other three symphonies of Iain Hamilton have not enjoyed
similar acclaim and exposure: they are in many ways less intellectually rigorous
and more emotionally frank.
The First Violin Concerto (1952) has an Expressionist glow and its wide-arching
melodies recalling Alban Berg. Cast in three movements, with a lyrical Adagio
bordered by two Allegros, it was written in memory of the composer's father
who died the previous year. The material in all three movements undergoes
perpetual variation and growth. The Expressionism of the Violin Concerto
no 1 is also apparent in Iain Hamilton's Viola Sonata, also written in 1952.
The Symphonic Variations for orchestra of 1953 is a three-movement symphony
comprised of twelve variations. It was premièred at the Cheltenham
Festival in 1956 by Sir John Barbirolli.
From 1951 to 1961, Iain Hamilton contributed much to the musical life of
London as a composer and teacher, lecturing at Morley College (1952-1958)
and at London University. He was chairman of the Composer's Guild of Great
Britain in 1958 chairman and secretary of the Institute of Contemporary Arts
from 1958 to 1960 as well as a member of the BBC's Music Advisory Panel.
From 1955 serialism begins to play a part in Hamilton's compositions, beginning
with the Serenata for clarinet and piano and the Three Piano Pieces which
were written for an album of piano music by various composers intended for
the moderately accomplished pianist. The pieces constitute a serenade or
divertimento and are marked Allegro, Lento and Vivo.
His cantata 'The Bermudas', a partly serial work, was commissioned by the
BBC and performed during its 1957-1958 Festival Hall series. This was followed
by a series of lighter orchestral works including a concerto for jazz trumpet
(1957), a light overture '1912' (based on music hall songs and dedicated
to the memory of the Victorian comedian Dan Leno) and the Scottish Dances.
The Scottish Dances were commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival and
received their first performance on St Andrew's Day 1956. Based on well-known
tunes to which Robert Burns set some of his poetry, the first dance is entitled
'Caller Herring'. Its main theme is a brisk Allegro molto in 5/8 time
but the contrasting central section is in 15/8 and contains swooning semitonal
clashes on the violins. This is followed by 'Duncan Grey', an Andante
comodo which has the added instruction 'slow bounce', an indication of
its jazzy, smoky atmosphere. The third dance employs two tunes: 'Whistle
and I'll come tae ye' and 'My love she's but a lassie yet'. The orchestral
colour is especially vibrant in this dance, which dashes through a variety
of keys and includes snare drum and bas drum rolls and trumpet flutter tonguing.
This is followed by 'The Lea Rig' (or The Grass Ridge), an evocatively scored
movement for strings and horn solo only. The set finishes with 'Gin I were
where Gaddie rins' (Would I were where the River Gaddie runs). The jazziness
of the second dance returns with the marking 'Bright swing tempo' and there
is more than a touch of Malcolm Arnold in the subsequent passage for impudent
piccolo pitted against burbling bassoon. The Dances are dedicated to the
composer's mother and five aunts. It was recently recorded in a spirited
and affectionate performance for ASV by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under John
Wilson (CD WHL 2123).
After this, the composer began a period in which his music was serial and
atonal which lasted from 1958 to 1966. This period showed the influence of
much study of the music of Anton Webern. The first important work to emerge
from this stage in his career was the Sinfonia for Two Orchestras which was
first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1959 in celebration of the Burns
bicentenary. Despite the composer's warnings that the work was more an expression
of the composer's admiration of Burns' achievements than a piece directly
inspired by the poems themselves, its tough, acerbic nature shocked the audience,
who were probably expecting something less uncompromising along the lines
of the Scottish Dances. The President of the Burns Federation was equally
uncompromising in his response, describing it as "rotten and ghastly". Alexander
Gibson, who had premiered the Sinfonia, clearly believed in it and performed
it again in the Scottish National Orchestra's 1959-60 season and later recorded
it for EMI on a long-deleted LP (ALP 2279).
Other works of this period include the First Piano Concerto (1960), 'Threnos'
for organ and the First Cello Sonata of 1958 which was written for cellist
Joan Dickson and commissioned by the University Court of the University of
Glasgow. The Sonata was premiered by Joan Dickson accompanied by Iain Hamilton
at the piano. It contains certain echoes of the contemporaneous Sinfonia
for Two Orchestras: both works are made up of many short sections played
continuously. The Cello Sonata has seven sections, of which the first, third
and seventh are cadenzas and the other movements have an improvisatory quality.
The first and last cadenzas are for both instruments, whilst the second is
for solo cello and the third for piano alone. All sections are bound together
by the use of common intervals, rather than shared material.
In 1961 Iain Hamilton moved to America to teach at Duke University, North
Carolina where we was made Professor of Music for the year of 1966 to 1967.
He settled in New York City, taught as resident composer of Tanglewood in
1962 and was visiting composer at the University of Albania. His wide knowledge
of the Arts in the 19th and 20th Centuries made him
popular as a lecturer on radio and television and he held the Cramb lectureship
at Glasgow University in 1971, sharing the Duke University post with his
Glasgow University commitments. In 1974 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal
Academy and the Composers' Guild gave him the Ralph Vaughan Williams Award
as Composer of the Year.
A new exotic flavour permeated his music after 1966, perhaps the result of
several trips to the West Indies in the mid-1960s. This first manifests itself
in the String Quartet no 2 of 1965 and the Dialogues for soprano and ensemble,
settings of Chateaubriand (1965). His first Proms commission, 'Cantos' for
orchestra, came in 1965. A more dramatic style developed throughout the 1960s
led to two operas written in the late 1960s to his own libretti (the dramatic
narrative 'Agamemnon' and 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun', based on Peter Shaffer's
play and premiered at the London Colliseum in 1977). These works sewed the
seeds of the gradual abandonment of serialism as a governing principle in
The following period saw a series of pieces heavily influenced by their literary
inspirations. 'Voyage' for horn and orchestra (which utilises microtones
and aleatoricism) quotes lines from Baudelaire and Rimbaud in its score.
It is dedicated "to Mahler and those who died young". Both 'Circus', for
two trumpets and orchestra and 'Commedia' are associated with 'The Divine
Comedy' and 'Alastor' uses a title from Shelley. These works also employ
quotations from 19th Century music.
'Circus' is a virtuoso concerto for two trumpets and orchestra. It was premiered
in January 1970 by soloists Philip Jones and Elgar Howarth with the BBC Symphony
Orchestra under Sir John Pritchard. In two sections, the first is the more
substantial of the two with two cadenzas and much virtuosic writing for the
soloists presaging the brilliance of the trumpet parts in the Maxwell Davies
Symphonies. The short second section contains quotes from Liszt, Mahler,
Paganini and Berlioz, though these are subtly subsumed into the glittering
textures of a highly original and powerful twenty-minute work. 'Commedia'
(1973), a commission from the London Philharmonic for the orchestra's
40th anniversary, was premiered by the LPO under Bernard Haitink.
The two-act opera 'The Catiline Conspiracy', based on the Ben Jones tragedy,
which was premiered by Scottish Opera in 1974 and the Te Deum both show a
re-embracing of tonality further explored in his opera 'Anna Karenina' (1978).
This opera, Iain Hamilton's first tonal work since the early 1950s, was produced
in London in 1981.
His intensely dramatic scena, 'Cleopatra' (1977) was sung by Lois McDonall
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton at the 1978 Proms and
marked a further exploration of more conventional tonality. Exotically scored
with sensuous writing for the soloist, this work, with text by the composer,
is reminiscent of Strauss' s operas Elektra and Salomé in its
late-Romantic opulence. The soaring, Expressionistic 'stream of consciousness'
solo part also suggests links with another archetypal Expressionist work,
Schoenberg's 'Pierrot Lunaire' but 'Cleopatra' sounds less harmonically radical.
The piece is divided into a series of arias and orchestral interludes, all
In the late 1970s, Iain Hamilton received commissions for two orchestral
works which he decided should both be symphonies. The Third Symphony was
completed in New York in late 1980 and continues the composer's more diatonic
style, being written in the key of G with both structure and material based
on tonal relationships. The Symphony is scored for just double woodwind,
2 horns and strings, creating an intimacy complemented by its predominantly
lyrical nature. There are four movements, an Allegretto which establishes
a Nordic sound to the woodwind writing frequently reminiscent of Sibelius,
a scurrying Scherzo in C with a central Trio in the form of an ironically
nostalgic waltz. The Andante third movement is marked 'tenderly and
sadly' and is characterised an intensity in the string writing recognisable
from his opus one and the First Symphony. The Andante's main theme
sounds like a Victorian ballad distorted by time and painful memory. The
Finale is very fast and ends with powerful tutti chords like those
at the conclusion of the first movement.
The Fourth Symphony (1981) was commissioned by the Scottish National Orchestra
and Sir Alexander Gibson who gave the first performance of the work in 1983.
It was started whilst the composer was still living in New York and finished
after he had returned to reside permanently in London in 1981. The Symphony
no 4 is one of his most personal works and he uses his most accessible tonal
idiom to express himself. It is dedicated to the memory of a close personal
friend, to whom the 'Requiem' of 1979 is also dedicated and there are quotations
from the Requiem in the Symphony. The first movement is subdued and grieving,
lacking the dynamism of Iain Hamilton's other orchestral works but making
up for this by its emotional honesty. Here, for once, the composer's considerable
structural and rhythmic achievements are subsumed beneath the melodic element
of the work, communicating a raw sense of loss. The second movement is a
Mahlerian threnody characterised by weaving strings and harp over timpani
taps. The gently rocking accompanying figure takes over at the climax, but
the work gradually subsides back to the opening material. The following Scherzo
is melancholic, more a Valse Triste than a musical joke. A lonely
solo trumpet adds to the feeling of inconsolable desolation. The Finale binds
many disparate elements together. It begins with a funeral march with tolling
timpani and muted brass which is then parodied by the following
Allegro passage with the same material played at a faster speed. This
is much more a 'scherzo' than the previous movement, albeit a malicious and
bitter one. This leads to an Adagio section which relates to the 'Lux
Aeteram' from the Requiem and material from the earlier movements of the
symphony returns but refracted and disturbed through grief. A very moving
work, this is all half-lights (in contradistinction to the usual brilliance
of Iain Hamilton's scoring) and it makes an appropriately valedictory last
symphony, though the quality of all four of Iain Hamilton's examples in the
genre makes one wish he had contributed more.
A series of major operas occupied much of the last twenty five years of his
life: 'Tamburlaine' (1976), a lyric drama, was commissioned and premiered
by the BBC, 'Anna Karenina' of 1978 was commissioned by the English National
Opera and received its first American performance in Los Angeles. 'Raleigh's
Dream' (1983) was commissioned by the North Carolina British-American Festival
at Duke University and 'Lancelot' was commissioned and premiered by the Arundel
Festival in 1985. He wrote a one act opera 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' in 1990
and 'London's Fair' in 1992.
Late a cappella works include the Requiem of 1979 and Mass in A (1980)
and prepared the way for a string of choral works, including the St Mark
Passion (1982), commissioned by the London Chorale and 'The Bright Heavens
Sounding' (1985), a setting of a text by Spenser.
The Octet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and
double bass (1983) was commissioned by the Paragon Ensemble. Cast in three
movements, it shares with the examples by Franz Schubert and Egon Wellesz
a good-humoured nature. The first movement treats each player as a soloist,
whilst the central slow movement weaves an intricate harmonic tapestry of
sound over which different solo instruments float their melodic lines. The
Finale restores the bluff banter of the opening movement with its garrulous
florid woodwind arabesques.
The Third String Quartet, written in 1984, was commissioned and premièred
by the Delmé Quartet. Its three movements are divided up into several
sections of varying tempi. This patchwork effect is a familiar device of
the composer who frequently thinks in terms of a sequence of varied passages
within his large- scale structures. The quartet is a fine example of Iain
Hamilton's achievements in the field of chamber music: lyrically intense
but emotionally tough, there is little of the "heart on sleeve" openness
of the Fourth Symphony to be found in this cleverly constructed and cogently
The Second Piano Concerto (1987) is a tough, Bartókian work, emphasising
the percussive nature of the solo instrument rather than its lyrical side.
The first and third movements are both virtuosic examples of motoric rhythmically
driven constructions in which the soloist is rarely silent. The central slow
movement provides welcome relief: mist-wreathed trance-like opening and closing
passages frame a spectral scherzando central section led by the piano. The
overall tone of the work, however, is one of dynamic power, underlined by
its bravura ending.
In 1995 his dramatic orchestral work 'The Transit of Jupiter' was given its
first performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins
at their 60th birthday celebrations in 1995. This brilliant and
vibrantly scored piece begins with an initial explosive signal and then consists
of a succession of massive chords which form the basis of the rest of the
sixteen-minute work, creating a satisfying passacaglia feel to the piece.
The one-movement work is divided into eighteen sections, each combining with
one another and self-generating organically. There is a satisfying inevitability
about the composition's progression born of a mind which thrives on structural
balance and craftsmanship. 'The Transit of Jupiter' was designed to show
off the skill and accuracy of the BBC Scottish Orchestra and, though not
based on astronomy or astrology, creates a vivid impression of both the
massiveness and the enigmatic quality of Jupiter, the biggest planet, in
motion as it hurtles through space.
Among his very last compositions are 'Bulgaria Invocation', an evocation
for orchestra and five pieces for clarinet and piano entitled 'The Wild Garden'.
In 2000 he wrote another orchestral work: 'London' for piano and orchestra.
Iain Hamilton died in London on July 28th 2000.
Despite the bewilderingly wide range of styles Iain Hamilton employed in
his many compositions, his works are all bound by a sensitive ear for timbre
and texture. His orchestral pieces are particularly colourful and full of
interesting effects without resorting to gimmickry or empty virtuosity. All
his compositions, no matter in what idiom he chose to express them, share
a strong sense of the dramatic from the chamber pieces to the large stage
He was also a most erudite writer on musical matters and contributed articles
to 'Tempo', amongst other journals, and a chapter in Howard Hartog's Penguin
classic 'European Music in the 20th Century'.
I hope some of his compositions will now receive further performances in
the form of a major retrospective so that the full extent of his achievement
may be easier to quantify. His current under-representation on disc and in
concert programmes is a glaring example of unwarranted neglect of an important
figure in British music.
© Paul Conway 2001
Se also IAIN
(1922-2000) Dr David C F Wright