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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

Bernard Barrell 1919-2005

Born on 15 August 1919 in Sudbury, Suffolk, Bernard Barrell lived, apart from his years of war service, almost entirely in the county of his birth. When he was four years old his family moved to Ipswich, his home for the next seventy years. On leaving school he was employed as a clerk at Churchmans, the cigarette manufacturers, but music was his real interest, and it was during this time he began to compose. His own list of works contains four pieces from the immediate pre-war years: "Hommage à Ravel" Suite for Small Orchestra, Op.1 and "Diversion on an original theme for Strings", Op.2 date from 1938. The "Soliloquy" for ’cello (or violin/viola/clarinet) and piano, Op.3 and the "Sarabande for Small Orchestra", Op.4 date from the following year. The "Sarabande" in the composer’s own arrangement for piano (Op.4A) was his first published composition (by Fraser Enock). The alternative scorings of Op.3 were typical of his intention to provide music for wide use and remained a feature of his compositions.

His war service was spent entirely in Gibraltar and while still in the army he married Joyce Geddy, also a composer. Once demobilised, he studied externally for and obtained his FTCL and L MusTCL qualifications. In addition to private teaching he took up music teaching posts in two Ipswich schools: Sidegate Lane Primary and Westbourne Boys' Secondary. He also continued to compose, slowly at first - only three compositions date from the late 1940s, but these were his first exploration into song and choral writing. In addition to day-time teaching, Bernard gave evening courses once a week at Hollesley Bay borstal, an institution primarily providing agricultural training for young offenders. He was also a lecturer for the W.E.A. (Workers' Education Association).

As a composer he continued to work quite slowly. The 1950s saw the completion of a further twelve compositions that included a Fugue for Strings, Op.11 (for Dr. Martin Shaw’s 79th birthday) and the "East Anglian Holiday Overture", Op.14. The 1960s, however, proved more fruitful with the completion of Op.20 to Op.59. A number of these works reflected his work in education, and in addition to pieces including recorders there is a handful that make use of the diatonic harmonica (though with alternative instrumentation also provided). Works for small orchestra suitable for young players and indeed for older keen amateur musicians occur throughout his compositions, but their purpose was not primarily didactic, but simply for players to enjoy. His Symphonic Movement "From the Waveney Valley", Op.129 was commissioned by and composed for the Pulham Village Orchestra in 1993. The orchestra’s conductor, Margery Baker, wrote for their newsletter, "His writing was always tailored to the groups for which he wrote, sufficiently challenging; highlighting real talent while ensuring nothing was impossible." In addition to providing such music, Bernard was also supportive in other ways and was President of the Wymondham Youth Orchestra. He also served as the East Anglian representative for the Composers’ Guild.

Compositions in the 1970s and 1980s were plentiful and covered from Op.60 (Missa Brevis No.3) to Op.121 (a setting of Longfellow’s Carol, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day", for unison voices and piano/organ). Sacred choral music featured throughout his compositions and in addition to three Missa Brevis settings there are two further mass settings (Op.52 and Op.74), and a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, Op.106 for SATB and organ (for Jeremy Cullam and the Aldeburgh Church Choir). Many of the numerous anthems, psalm settings, chants and hymn tunes, were composed for particular choirs or occasions.

A composer’s note for 1985 in his list of works recorded that owing to Joyce Barrell’s illness he only undertook copying and revisions ("re-texting" of Masses Op.35 and Op.74) and below the entry for Op.121 (Longfellow’s Carol) he noted "Joyce Barrell died 6th December 1989." This quite naturally affected Bernard and only two short compositions were completed in 1990. A further composer’s note for the year referred to the addition of two further movements to his Op.64 pieces for trumpet and piano and mentioned "copying of J.B.’s final work ‘Nightmare’ for Soprano voice, clarinet and piano performed by ‘Tapestry’ in June 1990 at Woodbridge and B.M.I.C." Through the Pulham Village Orchestra Bernard and Joyce had renewed contact with an old friend and leader of the second violins, Margaret Miller. In addition to being a violinist Margaret was an organist and in 1991 Bernard composed three Hymn-tune Voluntaries, Op.127 for her, based on the three hymn-tunes of his Op.78. In 1993 Bernard and Margaret were married and moved to Ditchingham and from there to Southwold.

Though fewer works were completed in the 1990s these included a second string quartet (Op.132) cast in a single movement and, perhaps Bernard’s most unusually scored piece, "An Aberdeen Suite" for carillon Op.131, composed for Ronald Leith and the St Nicholas Carillon, Aberdeen. His last work, "Sarabande & Fughetta" for Piano Op.137 was composed for the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death in 2000.

Finally, Bernard and Margaret moved to Bungay, but unfortunately Bernard was only able to enjoy a short time in their new home, as his failing health eventually required round the clock care, and he moved into a care home that was fortunately close by.

The East Anglian landscape is often represented in his music and reflected in some of the titles: "East Anglian Holiday Overture", Overture "Suffolk Celebration" and "A Norfolk Sketchbook" and "A Suffolk Notebook" each containing seven piano pieces. "Dunwich" Op.92 sets a poem by Victor Allen for choir and orchestra. Bernard was without doubt a miniaturist and few of his works are longer than ten minutes in duration. However, there are a number of more substantial pieces, among which are the Quintet for Brass Op.109, String Quartet No.1, Op.42 and the Symphony for Strings Op.62. This last mentioned, though there is no hint in the title, is especially evocative of the East Anglian landscape. Although played in one continuous movement, it is in three linked sections, quick-slow-quick. In his own programme note Bernard wrote "…much of the work reflects the atmosphere of the lonely, mysterious marshes, wide open skies, wind-swept heathlands, sea mists, and the sense of space and light of the East Anglian coast." It is perhaps his finest work, and in a letter to the present writer sent in March 2003 Bernard wrote of the Symphony, "…it is where my heart is."

Another passion was railways, especially the long since closed lines of East Anglia and their steam locomotives. Not only did he write an article on the Southwold Railway, but also celebrated its centenary in 1979 with his "Southwold Railway Centenary Pieces" Op.88 for piano. This was an enthusiasm that remained with him to the end of his life and a number of steam locomotive photographs were among those that surrounded him in his room in the care home in Bungay.

Shortly before Christmas 2004 Bernard suffered a severe stroke from which he was not to recover: he died on Sunday 2nd January 2005.

It was only during the last twelve years of his life that I became acquainted with Bernard. He wrote to me soon after I became editor of The Recorder Magazine in 1993, a typically enthusiastic and encouraging letter. We continued to exchange correspondence up until the time he moved into the care home, and managed to remain in touch after that. He was a man of tremendous conviviality, a great conversationalist with a generosity of spirit, especially towards his fellow composers and musicians. His nature was too retiring for him to have been a performer himself, but he was a great supporter and encourager of those who were - a gentleman in the very truest sense of the word. He will be greatly missed by all who came into contact with him and his music. Sincerest sympathies are extended to Margaret.

Andrew Mayes

list of works

For a complete list of Bernard Barrell’s works please contact Andrew Mayes,

52, Woking Road, Cheadle Hulme, Cheadle, Cheshire, SK8 6NU.

Telephone: 0161 485 6477 E-mail: andrew.mayes@tesco.net

 



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