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John Buller

John Buller, composer, born London, 7 February 1927; married (1955) Shirley Claridge, 3 sons, 1 daughter; died Sherbourne, 12 September 2004.

Photo Credit Clive Barda

John Buller was a late starter as a composer – he came to prominence only in the 1970s, when he was approaching 50 – but the power and originality of his voice made sure that the musical world sat up and took notice. His music was unashamedly intellectual, both in construction and in the texts he chose to set, but its powerful dramatic charge communicated directly to his audiences and earned deep respect from longer-established colleagues.

Although Buller was a chorister at St Matthews, Great Peter Street, Westminster, and was writing music in his teens, his musical ambitions were heavily discouraged by his parents and pressure brought to bear that he should join the family firm of surveyors. In 1946, when he was 19 and serving in the Royal Navy, he had a work accepted for performance by the BBC but, with the death of his mother from cancer, he did not feel that he could turn against his grieving father and opt out. And so he dutifully qualified instead as an architectural surveyor, eventually becoming a partner in the firm and resigning only in 1974.

All the while he had been composing on the side – bits of music he said sounded too much like Vaughan Williams. In June 1955 his father’s death, also from cancer, brought a liberation from the bonds of filial piety: before the year was out he was a married man and a student at Morley College, taking harmony and counterpoint with Antony Milner and orchestration with Iain Hamilton. A B. Mus. at the University of London followed in 1959–64. But there was no sudden rush of music: Buller was always a slow and methodical worker.

An important stage in his development came in 1965, when he attended the Wardour Castle summer school, run in a Wiltshire girls’ school by its music-teacher, the composer Harrison Birtwistle, aided by his fellow-modernists Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies Buller had a piece performed there, took a lesson with ‘Max’ and founded a friendship with Birtwistle which lasted for the rest of his life.

He was already respected enough in new-music circles to join the MacNaghten Concerts Committee in 1965, serving as its chairman from 1971 to 1976. The composer Anthony Payne, who got to know Buller during this period, was struck by the courage of Buller’s change of career:

I’ve often held him up to young composers and students of the more materialistic cast. Here was a man who – in middle years, and with a wife and four children to support – was earning well but threw it all overboard and took an alarming cut in income in order to be a composer. Staggering, really, perhaps even a little bit foolhardy – and an indication of what a supportive wife and family he had.

It was also during the McNaghten days, in 1970, that Buller wrote his first score to attract serious attention: The Cave, an eight-minute piece for flute, clarinet, trombone, cello and tape (his taste for unusual sonorities was already apparent) which The Nash Ensemble premiered on the South Bank in 1972. Another milestone came in 1974 with the performance of the 22-minute Le Terrazze (for a 15-strong ensemble of woodwinds, brass, strings and tape) in a BBC Invitation Concert. Then Buller was named composer-in-residence at Edinburgh University for the academic year 1975–76 and his life as a professional creative artist had at last taken off. It was not to be an easy one.

James Joyce was an early influence, beginning in 1971 with Two Night Pieces from Finnegans Wake for soprano, flute, clarinet and piano; a year later he produced Finnegan’s Floras for 14 voices, percussion and piano. Buller’s most ambitious Joyce piece came in 1976 with The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies, for soprano, baritone, chorus and ensemble, a full 70 minutes in length. Staged at The Round House by the BBC, it earned him the admiration of the new-music community but a wider audience still eluded him.

That came in 1977 with the 37-minute Proença, for contralto, mezzo soprano and orchestra, a Proms commission for that year’s Jubilee season; it was conducted by Mark Elder – the only conductor consistently to support Buller with performances. I was a Prommer in the audience that evening; I may not have understood everything that was going on – the music is too complex for instant comprehension – but I can still recall its sheer physical thrill.

Proença sets mediaeval Provençal texts – an arcane choice, it might first appear, but Buller chose them for the immediacy of the emotions they convey: eroticism and brutality, the brutality of the Albigensian ethnic cleansing of the early 13th century. He explained that "song is, in a way, what this piece is ‘about’ – verbal, instrumental and vocal; the joy it can represent; and the violence it can meet". And his music met its composer’s brief, combining lyricism with a savage energy, kaleidoscopic colour with long-term structural coherence. In her article on Buller in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Susan Bradshaw explained how it was done: Proença is

centred on a slowly evolving melody that is shaped and propelled by means of its own reflections; … its reflected melodic layers give Proença a three-dimensional harmonic background that can readily absorb Buller's unbarred rhythmic patterns.

Official recognition came with an Arts Council bursary in 1978; another residency as composer was spent at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1985–86. Meantime, the next popular success came in 1981, with another Proms commission, The Theatre of Memory, again conducted by Mark Elder. Taking its inspiration from a mnemonic structure designed by the 16th-century Giuliu Camillo (reported in Frances Yates’ book The Art of Memory) which was to influence the design of Shakespeare’s Globe, Buller’s score divides the orchestra into seven wedges, each with a concertante soloist at its tip, and finds musical parallels for the conventions of Greek tragedy to animate the structure.

Buller’s next major composition was an even tougher nut, requiring six years of concentrated effort: an opera setting Euripides’ The Bacchae – Buller preferred Bakxai, which suggests the original Greek – premiered at the English National Opera in 1992, again with Elder on the podium. Though the production didn’t show the music to best effect, Guy Rickards, writing in Tempo, didn’t mince his words:

I believe John Buller’s Bakxai (The Bacchae) to be the finest British opera since Britten’s Curlew River. … Buller has made Bakxai intelligible to a modern audience, intensely dramatic and utterly compelling.

Anthony Payne was likewise "tremendously impressed", finding that Buller had

had done something quite special: he hadn’t in any way soft-pedalled – he had written a modernist opera, in John’s style – and yet he had somehow managed to make it appear as if there were tunes being sung, as if the chorus was singing melodic, almost catchy, material which nevertheless was modernistically done.

Buller’s modest output and methodical approach to composition kept his income low, necessitating numerous moves to premises the family could still afford: from Leatherhead to Suffolk, even to France, before eventually returning to rented accommodation in Dorset, where Birtwistle was a near-neighbour. Buller’s wife, the painter Shirley Claridge, not only stood by him during each uprooting and economic retrenchment; she also acted as his copyist, producing immaculately neat scores.

Proença and The Theatre of Memory were released by Unicorn-Kanchana in the mid-1980s and had long disappeared from the catalogues when they were reissued by NMC last year, provoking a fresh round of excited reviews – the critic Andres Clements described Proença as ‘by any standards one of the great achievements of recent British music’.

Sadly, the theatre of Buller’s own memory was by then in its final act. Signs of Alzheimer’s had revealed themselves in a degree of absent-mindedness perhaps as early as seven years ago, on his return from France, and with time the illness began to interfere with his ability to concentrate – an enormous frustration to this most rigorous of intellects, and an especial tragedy for a composer who had so much time to make up. His last major work, the 12-minute, orchestral Illusions, was written for the Cheltenham Festival in 1997.

Buller’s craggy face looks out from the front of that NMC CD, his imperious stare lightened by a quizzical twinkle, the whole topped with a swirl of white hair. Anthony Payne remembered the personality behind the severe image:

The first impression you got was that here was an inherently decent man. He was very warm and friendly, modest, very cultured, very well read, and a thinker – a mature human being and a rather splendid person.

Martin Anderson

A slightly shorter version of this obituary was published in The Independent on 24 November 2004

John BULLER (b.1927) Proença (1977)a - The Theatre of Memory (1981) - Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano)a; Timothy Walker (electric guitar)a; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Mark Elder - Recorded: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, November 1979 (Proença) and January 1985 (The Theatre of Memory) NMC ANCORA D 081 [70:58] [HC]

Two major works by a distinguished composer who still has not been given his due … well served by exceptional performances. … see Full Review

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