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A Cause for Celebration

‘If I wanted to show the intelligent foreigner something worth doing which could only possibly come out of England I think I would show him some of the work of Milford’ – thus Ralph Vaughan Williams, in a letter to Sir Adrian Boult. The centenary of Robin Milford’s birth falls early next year, on 22 January 2003 – a cause, one would imagine, for widespread celebration: nothing like a centenary to stimulate the concerts, broadcasts, publications and recordings. But without a dramatic increase in awareness over the next few months, my guess is that the event will be marked by a resounding silence. The fiftieth anniversary of Milford’s death – by suicide – went past on 29 December 1999 without even disturbing the snow that has settled over his memory.

Milford had an unhappy life: money worries and career difficulties compounded low self-esteem, bringing recurrent depression and a number of suicide attempts, one of them directly triggered by the death of his only child, Barnaby, aged five. His final – successful – attempt at suicide, on 29 December 1959, was provoked, at least in part, by a letter from OUP demanding that he remove the works they had remaindered from their catalogue. Milford, in failing health despite his relative youth, could see a future neither for himself nor for his music. In the short term, he might have been right. British music was about to enter the ice age of the Glock era, which tested stronger constitutions than his. But those days are past, and musical taste these days is catholic to the point of generosity.

In spite of the difficulties he encountered, Milford never stopped composing until right at the end of his life. As a result, there is an extraordinary amount of immediately appealing music, beautifully crafted – and often written for musician friends and therefore scored for practicable forces. And his style is entirely his own: although it lies on a continuum between the work of his close friend Gerald Finzi and that of Vaughan Williams, Milford’s voice is unique: lyrical, gentle, unemphatic – quietly individual. His music rarely grapples with the deeper issues of life – though since most of his few large-scale works have not been performed, at all or for decades, there may yet be some surprises in store.

His sheer productivity means that there is a huge range of choice for musicians looking to include Milford in their programmes – and there may just be time to plan to mark the centenary before next season’s brochures go to press. His most ambitious work, the ‘dramatic oratorio’ A Prophet in the Land, was first – and last – heard at Gloucester Cathedral as part of the 1931 Three Choirs Festival, and it would be too much to expect it to re-appear in next summer’s Proms season. But most of the rest of his output lies within the range of more modest forces. There’s a generous number of works for string or chamber orchestra, including Fishing by Moonlight, a short by gorgeous piece for piano and strings that gave its name to a Hyperion LP in the early 1980s; and The Darkling Thrush, for violin and small orchestra, could yet achieve genuine popularity, if anyone picked it up – it offers the Lark re-ascending. There are copious songs; music for piano and two pianos; choral pieces; chamber works for various combinations.

The BMIC holds a number of Milford scores, which can be examined online. Many more are held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the Milford papers were deposited. There are gems here, waiting to be uncovered. He had a hard run at life but, with luck and a little advocacy, things might begin to go right for him in his second century.

Martin Anderson

First published in the BMIC newsletter - Counterpoint. With acknowledgements to the BMIC

A biography by Peter Hunter

    Robin Milford was born in Oxford on 22nd January, 1903, to cultured parents, Humphrey and Martha Milford (Humphrey Milford was later knighted for his work with the Oxford University Press from 1900 to 1945, and founded the Music Department of the OUP in 1923).  Having attended preparatory school at West Downs (near Winchester) and Rugby, Milford (a nervous and insecure young man) gained a place at the Royal College of Music in 1921 to study with R. O. Morris, Henry Ley, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

Milford’s output suggests three distinct periods of style and influence (the 1920s; the 1930s; and the 1940s and 1950s).  The 1920s can be viewed in terms of ‘youthful expectation and apprenticeship’ with the works of this period clearly demonstrating a keen sense of creativity, imagination and craftsmanship (employing a cross-style influenced by the Parry/Stanford school and English folk-song).  The first of Milford’s compositions date from the early years of this decade when, through the encouragement of Vaughan Williams, Milford directed two family concerts of his works (the second of which included the children’s opera The Shoemaker, pre-1924) .  It was at these that Milford met Kirstie Newsom (governess to the grand-daughters of Sir John Stainer).  Kirstie was an able viola player and singer with a fine voice and, along with Gerald Finzi, became an important musical mentor.  Marriage in 1927 gave the composer much needed emotional stability. 

The Shoemaker shows the composer’s already developed ability and interest in writing serious works for children (involving distinctive recitative, aria, carols, two- part choruses with antiphonal answering, and dances), thus anticipating some of the ideas of Benjamin Britten (the earlier Three Sea Pictures and A Fairy Revel for piano, both dating from 1924, were also written for children).  A profound lover of English literature (particularly poetry), Milford composed his first well-known songs for solo voice and piano during the 1920s.  These songs (including The Moor, pre-1924, The Fiddler of Dooney, pre-1925, On His Mistress, 1925 and Old Age, pre-1928,) show the composer struggling to find his own style, with these works showing a mixture of influences, including Parry, Stanford and Bach[1]Suite in D minor for oboe and strings (pre-1924) ingeniously combines the influence of this English folk-song with a format, itself, influenced by the Baroque composers.  My Lady’s Pleasure for piano (pre-1925), on the other hand, consists of three movements totally based upon features derived from English folk-song (repeating melodic and rhythmic motifs, repeating melodic phrases, and strong modal implications).   

One of the final works of the 1920s (The Darkling Thrush, 1929) heralds the beginning of Milford’s second compositional period.  Here, the composer demonstrates the profound influence of Vaughan Williams and English folk-song.  Based on Hardy’s poem of the same name, this work reflects A Lark Ascending not only through its use of solo violin and orchestra but also through its melodic contours and modal harmony.

The 1930s can be viewed in terms of ‘happy maturity’ and repesent Milford’s second period of composition.  A happy marriage to Kirstie, the birth of his son (Barnaby), successes in composition and publication, recognition amongst professional musicians, and a close professional and family friendship with Finzi, all allowed Milford to develop, both musically and personally.  Musical development is keenly seen in Milford’s compositions of the 1930s in terms of melody, harmony and textures.

The fine solo songs of the second period, such as the settings of Bridges, 1933, (‘So sweet love seemed’, ‘Elegy’ and ‘Love on my heart’) and Hardy, 1938, (‘To Sincerity’, ‘The Colour’, ‘If it’s ever spring again’ and ‘Tolerance’) show the total ease with which Milford composed in a style profoundly influenced by English folk-song alongside his own developing personal language (involving gentle dissonance and chromatic harmonic ‘side-steps’ within a mainly tonal and modal canvas).  Interestingly, the song ‘Daybreak’, 1930, derives from another influence, the ayre, through its melodic constructions, lute-like accomaniment and delicate melisma.  The oratorio, A Prophet in the Land  (first performed at the 1931 Three Choirs Festival), demonstrates the composer comfortably juxtaposing the influences of English folk-song, his contrapuntal training with Morris at the RCM, prominent Baroque features (as in Milford’s first publically performed works, Concerto for Strings Violin and Viols, 1925, and Double Fugue for Orcheastra, 1926 – both performed as part of the Patron’s Fund Concerts at the RCM) and the ‘classical’ style of Parry, Stanford and Elgar. 

The second period also shows Milford’s developing maturity through his writing for larger genres and more varied forms, including orchestral works (such as the First Symphony, 1933, Concerto Grosso, 1936, and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in G Minor, 1937), a more profound oratorio entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1931 (again, influenced by Vaughan Williams), chamber music (e.g. Phantasy Quartet, 1933 for clarinet and string quartet), cantatas for ladies’ voices and strings (e.g. Easter Morning 1, 1933), a cantata for mixed voices with orchestra (The Passing Year,[2] 1935) and a Christmas CantataMidwinter, pre-1931, for baritone and soprano soli and full orchestra, including harp and organ.  Milford continued to write interesting and challenging works for children during this second period (e.g. the canata Rain, Wind and Sunshine, pre-1930, for treble voices, flute, strings and piano).

One of the final works of the second period to be influenced completely by English folk-song is Idyll, 1941.  Written for violin and piano, this work employs wonderful undulating melodic contours, a strong sense of modality, and developed dialogue (including canon) between violin and piano.

By 1939, Milford had commenced a transition into a third, and final, period of composition.  This period can be considered in terms of 'darkness descending'.  War was declared, and Milford (instantly and quite inappropriately for his temperament) volunteered for the army, had a complete breakdown after a short spell in the army, subsequently suffered mercilessly at the hands of war officials before his release from duty, escaped from Guernsey with Kistie and Barnaby before the Nazi invasion, experienced the tragedy of Barnaby’s death in a road accident during 1941, supported Kirstie in a breakdown after Barnaby’s death, and spent the remainder of his life coping with his insecurities and developing depression (both in and out of hospital and with electric shock treatment.)

The third period of composition is one of greater musical experimentation with the composer openly admiting that it was time for him to approach a more challenging style.  Examples include the song ‘I will not let thee go’, 1939, the song cycles In Tenebris, 1940-44, and Swan Songs, 1948-51, choral works (including This Year, Next Year, 1943-46, and Days and Moments, 1951, both for soprano solo, ladies’ chorus and piano, and Mass for Five Voices, 1945-47), Threne for cello and piano, 1946-47), and orchestral works such as Elegiac Meditation, 1946-47, for solo viola and string orchestra and Fishing By Moonlight, 1952, for piano and string orchestra.  Throughout these works, Milford employs more angular melody and dense textures, fragmentary melodic construction, greater chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, dissonance, prominent falling contours, rejection of tonal unity and lack of tonal centres in works of more than one movement.  Milford, however, never abandoned the influence of folk-song, often juxtaposing these two styles of writing within the larger works just mentioned.

Following the deaths of his two great friends, Finzi in 1956 and Vaughan Williams in 1958, and the deletion of many work from the catalogues of his publishers, Milford gave up on life and died on the 29th December, 1959

© COPYRIGHT 2011 Peter Hunter

[1]               Discussed in ‘Robin Milford (A composer illuminated by his songs), Animus Music Publications, 2009

[2]                 a developed form of Rain, Wind  and Sunshine, 1930, for treble voices



(a) List of Works - compiled by Martin Anderson from the book by Ian Copley,
(b) Catalogue of Published Works by Robin Milford - Compiled by Peter Hunter

Works for orchestra
Double Fugue, Op. 10 (1926)
Sir Walter’s Overture, Op. 27 (pre 1933)
First Symphony, Op. 34 (1933) – scoring: 2(1).2.2.2 / / timps, BD / strings
Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 47 (1937) – scoring (1 ad lib) / / timps / strings
Overture for a Celebration, Op. 103a (c. 1954)
Shakespeare Studies: Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 108 (1956) – scoring 2 (1).2.2.2 / / timps, SD, tri., cymb. / harp / strings
Works for small orchestra

The Darkling Thrush, Op. 17, for violin and small orchestra (pre 1930)
Mr. Ben Jonson’s Pleasure and Mr. John Peel passes by, op. 19e, for flute, strings and piano
Concerto grosso, Op. 46, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, two horns and strings (1936)
Concertino, Op. 20, for harpsichord and strings (rev. 1953)
Three Christmas Pieces, Op. 19, for flute, oboe, horn, organ and strings (1930)
Suite for oboe and strings (1924)
Pastoral Fantasy, Op. 23, for small orchestra with violin solo (1930)
Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 26, for piano and strings
Ariel, Op. 54, prelude for small orchestra
Funeral Music to the memory of an old pupil, Op. 68, for strings, organ and timpani (1944)
Arrangement for flute and strings of slow movement of Flute Sonata in C, Op. 69 (1944)
Dances from the ballet The Snow Queen, Op. 78, for small orchestra (1946, orch. 1949–50)
Badminton Pavan, Op. 88, for small orchestra (1947–48)
Festival Suite, Op. 97, for strings (1950)
A Three Piece Suite, Op. 104a, for piano and strings (1956)
Concertino in E, Op. 106, for piano and strings (1955) – wasn’t this the work on Peacock Pie?
Shakespeare Studies, Op. 108, for strings with oboe (1956)
Rhapsody, Op. 133, for strings with solo violin (1936, rev. 1959)
Works for orchestra and chorus

A Prophet in the Land, oratorio, Op. 21, STB soloists, chorus and orchestra (1931)
The Pilgrim’s Progress, Op. 29 for TrTB soli, chorus and orch (1932)
Four Heavenly Songs, Op. 30, for tenor, chorus and orch (1932)
Drake’s Chair, Op. 39, for baritone, chorus and orch (1936)
Triptych, Op. 52, for two narrators, orchestra and small choir (1939–49)
Chamber music

Miniature String Quartet in A, Op. 5
Phantasy Quintet, Op. 33, for clarinet and strings
Miniature String Quartet in G, Op. 35
Four Pieces, Op. 42, for viola and piano
Idyll: Under the Greenwood Tree, Op. 57, for violin and piano
Sonata in C, Op. 69a, for flute and piano
The Jackdaw of Rheims, Op. 72, ballet for two violins, piano duet and percussion
Fantasia in B minor, Op. 74, for string quartet
Sonata in D, Op. 77, for violin and piano
Suite of Dances from the Snow Queen Ballet, Op. 78, for flute, recorder, two violins, viola, piano and percussion
Threne, Op. 81, for cello and piano
Trio in F major, Op. 87, for Clarinet, cello and piano
Lyrical Movement, Op. 89, for clarinet and piano
Prelude, Op. 92, for violin, cello and piano
Trio in E minor, Op. 93, for two violins and piano
Suite in D, Op. 95, for quartet of bamboo pipes
A Simple Suite, Op. 95a, for string quartet
Suite, Op. 104, for flute and piano
A Three Piece Suite, Op. 104a, for piano quintet (consists of three movement from the preceding work)
Sonatina in F, Op. 107, for treble recorder (or flute) and piano
Three Airs, Op. 109, for treble recorder (or flute) and piano
Christmas Pastoral, Op. 111, for treble recorder and piano
Piano music

Three Sea Pieces, Op. 1
A Fairy Revel in a Forest, Op. 2 (suite)
My Lady’s Pleasure, Op. 9 (suite)
Sir Nicholas’ Caper, Op. 16a
Various Pieces for Piano, Op. 22 (seven items)
Jennfier’s Jingle, Op. 25a
Prelude, Air and Finale, Op. 41 (‘on a well-known mordent’)
Waltz, Op. 57b
Diversions, Op. 49
Littlejoy, Op. 53b (suite)
A Tune for Maundy Thursday, Op. 58a
The Yellow Leaves, op. 80a
Winter Sketches, Op. 90
Minuet in B flat, op. 111b
Piano duet (*) / Two Pianos (**)

*Overture, Op. 8a (from Suite in D minor for oboe and strings)
*Three Christmas Pieces, Op. 19
*Two Easy Duets, Op. 19d
* and ** Lullaby, Op. 56
* The Jackdaw of Rheims, Op. 72, ballet for two violins, piano duet and percussion
** Sarabande and Fugato, Op. 91
** Fishing by Moonlight, Op. 96
** Overture for a Celebration, op. 103a

Two Sea Preludes, Op. 7
Two Chorale Preludes, Op. 14
Three Christmas Pieces, Op. 19a
Mr Ben Jonson’s Pleasure, Op. 19f
Adagio, Op. 35a
Two Short Pieces, Op. 43
Three Pastorals, Op. 58
Easter Meditations Nos. 1–6, Opp. 64, 65, 71 and 82
A Christmas Tune, Op. 75
Adagietto, Op. 78a
Richmond: A Tune for Organ, Op. 79
Prelude in the Manner of a Passacaglia, Op. 79a
Two Harvest Meditations, Op. 85
Seven Seasonable Sketches, Op. 110
Prelude on ‘O Filii et Filiae’, Op. 114
Choral Preludes, Op. 114a
Chorale Prelude on Rockingham, Op. 115
Catalogue of Published Works by Robin Milford

Compiled by Peter Hunter

P = Published (name of current publisher) U = Unpublished (place of availablity) O = Out of Print (name of original publisher and place of availability) L = Lost. Bod = Bodleian, MM = Marion Milford, PH = Peter Hunter, WCL = Westminster Central Library), RUL = Reading University Library, * = published in A Book of Songs (Thames)

Solo Songs:
Three Songs of the Moors (1924)
(i) The Gipsy Girl P (Banks)
(ii) The Moor O (OUP, PH))
(iii) Meg Merrilies P (Banks)

The Fiddler of Dooney (1925) P (Banks)

On His Mistress (1925) O (OUP, PH)

Four Miniature Songs (1927) O (OUP, Bod)
(i) The Brown Bowl
(ii) A Child's Grace
(iii) One Man Shall Mow My Meadow
(iv) Cock Robin's Courting

Old Age (1928) O (OUP, PH)

Daybreak* (1930) P (Thames)

Four songs with Piano Accompaniment (1933)
(i) So Sweet Love Seemed* P (Thames)
(ii) Elegy O (Novello, PH)
(iii) Laus Deo P (Banks)
(iv) Love On My Heart* P (Thames)

Cradle Song* (1935) P (Thames)

Four Seasonable Songs (1936)
(i) Spring. Reeds of Innocence L
(ii) Summer. Pleasure It Is P (Thames)
(iii) Autumn. Late Leaves P (Thames)
(iv) Winter. This Endris Night* P (Thames)

Four Hardy Songs (1938)
(i) To Sincerity O (OUP, PH)
(ii) The Colour* P (Thames)
(iii) If It's Ever Spring Again* P (Thames)
(iv) Tolerance* P (Thames)

The Pink Frock* (1938) P (Thames)

I Will Not Let Thee Go (1939) O (OUP, PH,

Unpublished Songs
In Tenebris (1940) U (PH)
(i) In Tenebris
(ii) Why Art Thou Silent?
(iii) Wessex Heights

Swan Songs (1948-51) U (PH)
(i) Song of St. Mary the Virgin
(ii) The Song of Simeon
(iii) Idleness
(iv) Christmas Day
(v) In Cornwall
(vi) Expectans Expectavi
(vii) The Holy Table
(viii) The Glance
(ix) Sleep

Choral Works:
A Prophet in the Land (Oratorio) O (WCL, PH)
Psalm 23 (from A Prophet in the Land - SSA) P (Banks)
Pilgrim's Progress - Oratorio O (WCL?, PH)
Four Heavenly Songs P (Cathedral
Mass for Five Voices (SSATB) P (Cathedral)
Rain, Wind and Sunshine (Upper Voices)-Separate copies P (Banks)
Rain, Wind and Sunshine (Upper Voices)-Original edition O (OUP, PH)
The Passing Year (Rain, Wind and Sunshine - 4 Voices) P (Chiltern
Songs of Escape P (Cathedral)
Lord Let Me Know My End (Tenor solo+SATB, from Songs
Of Escape) P (Cathedral)
Lord Let Me Know My End (SATB, from Songs
Of Escape) P (Banks)
Hear My Prayer (Solo bass, SATBdiv) P (Cathedral)
God Be In My Head (SATB) P (Cathedral)
God Be In My Head (SATB) P (Banks)
Litany To The Holy Spirit (SATB) P (Lengnick)
This Year - Next Year (Upper Voices) O (OUP, PH)
The Shoemaker (A Children's Christmas Opera) - Original O (OUP, PH)
The Shoemaker - Separate songs P (Banks)
Easter Morning from No 1 of Two Short Cantatas
(Women's Voices) P (OUP)
Songs for Unbroken Voices P (Banks)
Up To Those Bright and Gladsome Hills (TTBB) P (Banks)
Te Deum Laudamus (Unis with Opt Descant) P (Banks)
Two Songs (TBarT) P (Banks)
Rutterkin (TTBB) P (Banks)
Rutterkin (TBarB) P (Banks)
Parson Hogg (TbarB) P (Banks)
By The Waters Of Babylon (Tenor and Bass, Organ) P (Banks)
A Benedicite (TTBB) P (Banks)
Two Anthems (TTBB) P (Banks)
Psalm 121 (4 solo voices, SATB) P (Lengnick)
Personent Hodie (2pt) P (Banks)
The Lord's Prayer (2pt) P (Banks)
It Was A lover And His Lass (SATB) P (Banks)
Laus Deo (Unison) - original for solo voice and piano P (Banks)
In Youth Is Pleasure (Unis) P (Banks)
Hymn To God The Father (Solo treble, SATB) P (Banks)
Hear Me O God (2pt) P (Banks)
The Gipsy Girl (Unison) P (Banks)
The Fiddler of Dooney (Unison)- original for solo voice/piano P (OUP)
The Fiddler of Dooney (Unison)- original for solo voice/piano P (Banks)
Seven Descant Carols P (Banks)
Days and Moments (Solo voices, alto choir, strings:Hire only P (Peters)
The Daffodils (2pt) P (Banks)
Fifteen Christmas Carols For Unbroken Voices P (Banks)
Carol (SATB) P (Banks)
Birds That Sing On Autumn Eves (SATB) P (Banks)
A Benedicite (SATB arrangement of the above) P (Banks)
Ballett (SATB) P (Banks)
April 1885 (SATB) P (Banks)

Piano Works:
Selection Vol 1 P (Forsyth)
Selection Vol 2 (PF/PF- 4 hands) P (Forsyth)
Two Easy Duets O? (OUP, PH)
Three Sea Pieces O? (Forsyth, PH)
A Fairy Revel in a Forest O? (Forsyth, PH)
Winter Sketches O? (OUP, PH)
Incidental Music to 'Peter, the Pied
Piper' O? (OUP, PH)

Organ Works:
Prelude in the Manner of a Passacaglia O (Hinrichsen,
Seven Seasonable Sketches O (Novello, PH)
Chorale Prelude on 'Rockingham' O (OUP, MM)
Chorale Prelude on 'Hanover' O (OUP, MM)
Come, All You Worthy Gentlemen P (Novello)
In Dulci Jubilo P (Novello)
Three Christmas Pieces P (Cathedral
Three Pastorals O (OUP, PH)
Two Short Pieces O (OUP, PH)
Seven Simple Pieces O (OUP, PH)
Prelude on St Columba O (OUP, PH)

Suite for Oboe and Strings O (OUP, PH)
Miniature String Quartet (or Miniature
Concerto for String Orchestra) O (OUP, PH)
Elegy for String Orchestra O (OUP,
RUL-Hire only)
Elegiac Meditation for viola and orchestra O (OUP,
RUL-Hire only)
Fishing By Moonlight for
Piano/harpsichord and orchestra O (Hinrichsen,
RUL-Hire only)
Sir Walter's Overture O (OUP, RUL) Idyll - Under the Greenwood Tree
(Violin and orchestra) O (OUP, Bod)
The Darkling Thrush (Violin and Orchestra) O (OUP, Bod)

Solo Instrument and Piano:
Idyll - Under the Greenwood Tree
for violin O (OUP, PH/MM)
The Darkling Thrush for violin O (OUP, PH)
Threne for cello O (OUP, PH)
Sonata for flute P (Thames)
Sonata for clarinet P (Thames)
Sonatina in F P (OUP)
Christmas Pastoral (Recorder and piano) P (OUP)
Three Airs (Recorder/Flute and piano) P (OUP)


This list excludes vocal works


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