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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Obituary for DENIS APIVOR

born April 14 1916; died May 27 2004.

 

Denis ApIvor, who has died aged 88, was the last remaining member of the small circle of British modernist composers that emerged in London during the mid-1930s, which also included Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens. Of Welsh-English parentage, ApIvor began his musical studies from an early age, learning piano, organ and clarinet and singing in the choirs of Christ Church Oxford and Hereford Cathedral. He arrived in London in 1934 to train in medicine at his parents’ instigation, eventually specializing as an anaesthetist. Musical exploration persisted alongside these studies in a manner akin to the defiance of Berlioz. He took sporadic lessons in composition from Patrick Hadley and Alan Rawsthorne, the only tuition he was ever to receive in this respect, and, by 1939 had produced a substantial body of songs in the Warlock-Van Dieren tradition. The war temporarily disrupted further development with ApIvor spending much of his time in London hospitals and the Royal Army Medical Corps. The post-war period brought new and daring experiments however, as ApIvor dabbled for the first time with Schoenbergian serialism, learned second-hand from Edward Clark.

ApIvor’s public career reached its peak during the mid-fifties: he came to prominence in 1950 with a work composed over ten years previously – a highly original setting of T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men (1939) - which was broadcast by the BBC under the baton of his friend Constant Lambert. He then proceeded to make his reputation as a composer for the stage, receiving several commissions from the Royal Ballet, of which the most successful were his adaptations of Esther Forbes’ A Mirror for Witches (1952) with Andrée Howard, and Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1953) with Alfred Rodrigues. He was commissioned by Sadlers Wells to write his highly expressionistic opera Yerma in 1954, partly composed in Trinidad while working as a consultant anaesthetist, and eventually broadcast by the BBC in 1960.

The discovery of Webernian serialism through the Robert Craft recordings brought a dramatic change of style in 1960, which persisted well into the 1970s. During this period he profited from the Glock ethos at the BBC, receiving a number of regular commissions and broadcasts of his orchestral and chamber music, including the televised ballet, Corporal Jan (1968). During the early 1980s ApIvor underwent a crisis centred around his disillusionment with "ways of composing" and of "music about music"’, finding an eventual resolution in 1989 following his exposure to John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe. With renewed energy he entered a final much simplified ‘diatonic’ period which occupied him until his sight began to fail in the late 1990s.

As a medical man by profession, for much of his career ApIvor retained a distance from the music establishment that ultimately protected the integrity of his work. Stylistic decisions were, in his words, ‘struggles of conscience’, pursued in accordance with his creative needs, rather than in any attempt to court favour with the critics. As a result his music was often regarded with confusion or indifference by his peers. Significantly, much of his musical development was stimulated by extra-musical ideas, frequently derived from his close study of the other arts. His settings of challenging British poets, including T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, for example, gave rise to some of his most original music. His passion for the dramas of Lorca dominated his thinking as a theatrical composer during the 1950s. His interest in the paintings and drawings of Paul Klee provided the inspiration a number of his most fascinating abstract compositions of the 1960s.

Taken as a whole, the scope of ApIvor’s total output is substantial, with over one hundred opus numbers, spanning a period of over sixty years of British musical life. The breadth of the material is equally impressive with contributions of substance to all the main musical genres – opera, ballet, symphony, concerto, chamber music, classical guitar and song. His music has attracted a multitude of accomplished artists over the years, including Constant Lambert, Julian Bream, Eiluned Davies and Rafael Wallfisch. At the time of his death ApIvor was witnessing the beginnings of a revival of interest in his music, with major research at the University of Leeds and an increasing frequency of public performance of his works.

Mark Marrington

see also obituary by Martin Anderson

Dennis ApIvor website



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