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Denis ApIvor

Denis ApIvor was the perpetual outsider in British musical life, a composer who ploughed a lonely but determined furrow in the teeth of sixty years of near-complete indifference from the Establishment. The neglect was partly of his own making: in the mid-1950s, disgusted by the cavalier dismissal by Sadler’s Wells of what may be his masterpiece, the opera Yerma, he turned his back on ‘all musical, social and political contacts’ for some three decades and concentrated on composition, without making the slightest effort to bring his works to the attention of performers.

Yet the few musicians who are familiar with his music regard it – as they did the composer – with a respect that borders on reverence. ApIvor himself realised that, despite a catalogue of over 100 works, a full assessment of his worth lies some distance in the future. Four of his five symphonies, for example, and three of his four operas have yet to be performed. There’s not a note of his music currently available on CD, although most of his works – some 80 songs, works for piano, guitar (he wrote the first British guitar concerto, in 1954, premiered by Julian Bream) and various chamber combinations – don’t demand large forces.

Though Irish-born, ApIvor, as the name suggests, came from solidly Welsh stock. His clergyman father, Elwy ApIvor, had a parish in the centre of Ireland; Denis was born during the April Revolution and returned with his family to his ancestral Wales during the Civil War in 1921.

His interest in music was evident from an early age, and so in 1925 his grandmother arranged for Denis, then nine and already a chorister in the local church, to sit the scholarship which allowed him to join the choir of Christ Church, Oxford. The new surroundings provided an immediate stimulus: Denis was composing by the time he was 10. Before he transferred (after a tuberculosis scare) to the choir of Hereford Cathedral, where his father was now a chaplain, he sang at the christening of the son of Noel Ponsonby, the Master of Choristers at Christ Church; the infant, Robert, grew to become the Controller, Music at the BBC (and thus planner of the Proms), doubtless unaware that he had a long-standing debt to repay – the last Proms performance of an ApIvor work was of his Piano Concerto in 1958.

At Hereford ApIvor’s musical education continued: he taught himself the clarinet and learned piano and organ – and kept composing, mainly songs. But his parents wouldn’t consider a career in music, and so in 1934 he reluctantly took up a medical course at University College, London.

In London he made contact with a circle of musicians with whom he was probably the last living link, an irreverent band of boozy Bohemian intellectuals which had initially formed around the composer Peter Warlock, who committed suicide in 1930: Constant Lambert, Bernard van Dieren, Cecil Gray, Alan Rawsthorne. ApIvor hoped to have lessons from Herbert Howells but put his foot in it by revealing an enthusiasm for the music of Howells’ bête noire, van Dieren, then ‘dying by the day’ from kidney disease.

The composer who did agree to teach me at this time, at Gray’s request, was Patrick Hadley …. Paddy Hadley, later Professor at Cambridge, was no stranger to the bottle, and … was happy to teach, provided there was a bottle of sherry between the piano pedals. Later the task devolved upon Alan Rawsthorne ….

ApIvor’s circle of friends also included two notable poets, Dylan Thomas and Roy Campbell:

The best cartoonist in the world would be strained by the sight of a short, fat Thomas and huge, bush-hatted Roy, making a noisy entrance to the pub and ripe for trouble, when on what used to be termed a "bender". Hugo Manning once maintained that he and Roy became stuck belly to belly on his narrow staircase in Hampstead.

During his studies with Rawsthorne ApIvor composed The Hollow Men for baritone, chorus and orchestra, to words by Eliot, much admired when it was finally premiered in 1950 under Lambert’s baton (also its last performance to date). But the outbreak of the Second World War forced him to concentrate on his medical work, as he wrote in a third-person autobiographical note:

the end of 1939 saw the composer already installed in London hospitals as a war doctor, a year or so later involved in casualty treatment in Hitler’s "blitzkrieg" on London.

War service took him also to hospitals in India; he returned when hostilities ended. His urge for composition was undimmed, though, and he began an opera buffa, She Stoops to Conquer, to his own Goldsmith-based libretto (1942–47); it remains unperformed. Before that, in 1940, he had set about an orchestration of Busoni’s monumental Fantasia contrappuntistica, performed to general acclaim 12 years later.

ApIvor’s friendship with Constant Lambert led to his sole run of public successes. Shortly before his drink-driven death in 1951, Lambert recommended ApIvor to the choreographer Andrée Howard, resulting in commissions for five ballets, among them A Goodman of Paris, A Mirror for Witches (based on the Salem Witch-hunt that would soon stir Arthur Miller) and, the most successful of all, the Lorca-inspired Blood Wedding, which took the stage in countries from Turkey to Chile.

ApIvor felt an especial sympathy with Lorca (he eventually translated his complete poetry, over a thousand pages), and the impact of Blood Wedding brought a further commission for the opera Yerma. ApIvor moved to Trinidad, where he had taken a part-time medical post (he was now qualified as an anaesthetist) to carry him through the composition of Yerma; he completed the orchestration back in Britain, in a cottage near Sudbury.

He never understood why – despite the international success of Blood Wedding and the support of some major musicians, among them Sir Arthur Bliss – the Sadler’s Wells board then turned their teeth against Yerma; he suspected a resentment of the left-wing librettist, Montagu Slater. Profoundly disillusioned, he began his self-imposed exile from the musical world. (He was, though, deeply moved when, ‘miraculously’, the BBC brought Yerma into the studios and broadcast it in 1961, conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens.)

Under the influence of Warlock and van Dieren, of whose works he generously prepared a number of performing editions, ApIvor’s earliest style had been a kind of chromatically inflected diatonicism; he admitted that Stravinsky, too, had had a bearing on his ballets. In the late 1950s his music began to move towards serialism, reinforced from 1960 by an acquaintance with recordings of Webern – though his vocal music always remained lyrical. Even when serialism became the dominant dogma of the day, it aided ApIvor not a whit: William Glock at the BBC turned down his major work of the 1960s, the Dylan Thomas cantata Altarwise by Owl-Light (1961).

From the late 1980s, though, and independently of similar stylistic shifts by other recalcitrant modernists such as the Estonian Arvo Pärt and Pole Henryk Górecki, ApIvor began composing small works with a deliberate intention to restrict the material to a few tones in each piece, and avoiding harmonic complexity or aggressive modulation, to concentrate on a continuous melodic approach, and significant and clear emotional content.

The ‘continuous melodic approach’ he described produced music that was directly expressive – for the Canadian composer-pianist Gordon Rumson, his Eliot setting Eyes that Last I Saw in Tears (1994) is ‘one of the most beautiful songs ever composed’; Rumson compares its ‘tragic undercurrent expressed without exaggeration’ to the lament in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

After a short period in Wales, ApIvor and his third wife, the choreographer Rima Austin, settled at Telscome, on the English Channel, in 1990. When blindness made letter-writing impossible, ApIvor communicated by cassette, incidentally preserving a trove of reminiscences that await their transcriber-editor. Young performers would come and consult him about his music. A study of his music has been completed, and a biography is underway. Recordings are being discussed, and the Kingfisher Quartet premiered the Second and Third String Quartets in Brighton at the end of April. He may have taken some consolation in the evidence that the tide at last was turning.

Martin Anderson

Denis ApIvor, composer and doctor; born Collinstown, West Meath, Ireland, 14 April 1916; m. (1) 1942 Grace O’Brien (died 1945), (2) 1947 Irene Russell (marriage dissolved 1954), (3) 1962 Rima Austin (died 1997), 1 s., 1 d., (4) 2002 Sue … ; died Robertsbridge, East Sussex, 27 May 2004.

A shorter version of this article was first published in The Independent on 3 June 2004

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