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TREVOR HOLD: Obituary

By Lewis Foreman

The composer Trevor Hold, whose unexpected death from cancer on 28 January has been a great shock to a wide circle of musical friends was in every way the countryman, a sensibility articulated through music and poetry for over forty years. ‘I suppose I compose because I have to’ he once said to me, ‘it’s a part of my everyday living, like breathing, eating sleeping. I feel I get out of my system fears and other emotions by the act of creation. I look on every single work I have written with tremendous affection – they are my children.’

Born at Northampton on 21 September 1939, he was the son of a Northampton electric company meter reader, otherwise a saxophone and clarinet player whose aspiration on leaving army music to become a cinema musician was thwarted by the talkies. An attack of polio at the age of seven which paralysed Trevor Hold’s upper left arm resulted in piano lessons as – successful – therapy. In time he became a sympathetic accompanist, notably in his own songs. When his uncle’s Christmas present one year was Donald Brook’s book Composers’ Gallery the realisation dawned that composing was an achievable calling, and he started writing piano pieces, producing a Music Box suite when only 10 and winning a local talent competition in Northampton. Losing interest in music in his early teens, his enthusiasm was rekindled when he discovered jazz, and later he experienced a moment of revelation during a musical appreciation lesson at Northampton Grammar School (1950-57) when the teacher played Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, which Hold remembered ‘absolutely knocked me for six’.

He won a scholarship to Nottingham University in 1957, ostensibly to read English, but changed to music after a year, and left with first class honours. He went straight on to an MA and was Head of Music at Market Harborough Grammar School for a year before becoming assistant lecturer in music at Aberystwyth (1963-5). He soon moved on to a lectureship in music at Liverpool University (1965-70), where his latest music was played. This included the haunting orchestral song cycle The Unreturning Spring, setting the airman poet James Farrar, which had been published by the University of Wales Press in 1965. Listening to a tape of Leslie Head’s performance in 1975 my enthusiasm for it has been strongly renewed, but feeling perhaps its woodwind obligatos and bird-call interludes were too Brittenesque, Hold was later ambivalent about it. He argued that his first truly personal music was the cycle For John Clare for tenor and 11 instruments (1964) – he remarked to me ‘that’s music that sounds like me’. At this time he seemed to be well launched as a composer, winning the Clements Prize for his String Quartet and the Royal Amateur Orchestral Society Prize for his overture My Uncle Silas.

Hold identified closely with the county of his youth. ‘I was born at Northampton, the town where the poet John Clare spent the last 23 years of his life’ he said. ‘Clare was my local poet, writing about a landscape I knew, in a dialect I myself used. When he walked down hollow and up hill to the village of Kingsthorpe, he took the same road that I took every day to and from primary school. The asylum where he lived was next door to the grammar school that I attended.’ I remember being with Trevor by the woods which would have gone if one of the Third London Airport options had been chosen in 1973; ‘they’d better not’ he said ‘I did my courting in those woods’.

Returning to these roots, with his wife, Sue, and daughters Sally and Becky, the family were established at Wadenhoe, where they lived for more than 30 years, until his death. During this time there followed nearly twenty years as Lecturer (later Senior Lecturer) and Staff Tutor in Music in the Department of Adult Education at the University of Leicester. Here he became ubiquitious in East Midlands’ music, composing for local schools and choirs, conducting, accompanying and running adult education classes that had a wide following. Like Britten, one of Hold’s beliefs was that the composer should be writing for the community in which he lives, and he enjoyed many local commissions. ‘I write choral music because that is what is commissioned’ he commented. ‘When I got into adult education in 1970, I wanted to bridge this terrible gap between modern music and the local audience.’ One of his students at that time was a teenage David Owen Norris, later the celebrated pianist, who remembers him as always helpful and encouraging. A highpoint of this time for Norris was a series of lectures when Hold invited a wide conspectus of composer to talk about their own music.

Through Jill White, the sympathetic BBC Radio 3 Music Producer at Birmingham during the later 1970s and 1980s, Hold enjoyed a succession of BBC performances of his latest works, notably his song cycles, given with leading artists more or less as they appeared. Thus we heard Gathered from the Field (1977); The Image Stays (1979); Wind Quintet (1982); River Songs (1982); Glasgerion (1987); Song at Night (1988); The John Clare Song Book (1988). In 1988 John Ogdon broadcast the piano suite Kemps Nine Daie’s Wonder. This was published in a handsome edition by Basil Ramsay and one remembers with affection Trevor’s conspiratorial smile and twinkling eyes as he waited for one to notice the instruction ‘in stilo "L & McC"’.

The crown of this activity was the eloquent Symphony which Odaline de la Martinez conducted with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on 8 April 1988. The Symphony was a mountain that Trevor spent a long time considering, and he told me that having seen what others had written in the 1960s and 70s, in the end he felt that he was able to do it. In the traditional four movements, for it he quarried his song cycle The Image Stays where he found certain ideas were crying out to be expanded instrumentally. For the affecting ‘Elegy’ he turned to his setting of William Cowper’s elegy ‘On the Loss of the Royal George’. The conductor Odaline de la Martinez highlighted ‘a wonderful scherzo – full of life this continual sense of rhythmic pulse which is changing all the time’.

There were other orchestral works including the Keele Overture commissioned for the 21st anniversary of Keele University in 1971 and, more recently, the Piano Concerto introduced by Peter Jacobs.

It was inevitable that he would move towards opera as the song cycles became more dramatic, like little monologues. ‘I can see actual characters’ he said, adding ‘rather than a singer in a monkey suit’ Most of his operas were practically conceived for known performers, including The Falcon for church performance, the Christmas opera The Two Nativities after a Wakefield Mystery play and Through the Secret Gate for Northampton High School for Girls. Later came the children’s opera Ask No Questions, and his full length opera The Second Death, concerning time and the break in time, with alternating scenes set in the twentieth century and the civil war. Here his lifelong obsession with character and with communication found a persuasive synthesis. Trevor documented the making of this opera in his 1989 PhD thesis at Leicester University, The Second Death: the making of an opera.

Facing a less sympathetic educational and academic climate he took early retirement in 1989 and became a freelance, being able to concentrate on all his special interests. Hold wrote poetry as well as music and his poems appeared for over forty years in poetry journals and East Midlands newspapers and journals. Gathered in four collections, Time and the Bell (1971), Caught in Amber (1981), Mermaids and Nightingales (1991) and Chasing the Moon (2001) he found a quite personal low key colloquial voice and in his inimitable unhistrionic way, celebrated places, people and history, notably the local poet John Clare and his wife the subject of many love poems. ‘More Larkin and Edward Thomas’ Trevor would say. Trevor declared he aimed to draw his two talents together, and addressed himself consciously to rethink what writing poetry is about, trying to get the two balanced. His song cycle The Image Stays, written to his own words during the summer of 1974, deals with various aspects of love, some directly some more obliquely, rounded by ‘His Portrait’ and ‘Her Portrait’. ‘Solo vocal music is my natural metier’ he concluded, confessing in a programme note ‘I am a hopelessly compulsive songwriter – perhaps I should say ‘song cycle-writer’, for I have written very few separate solo songs . . . to me, the song cycle is as important a medium as the instrumental sonata’.

Hold’s piano music, notably championed by the pianist Peter Jacobs encompassed four sonatas on which he was engaged in the last two years of his life, revising his first sonata written in 1959, and producing third and fourth sonatas. With his last letter to me, dated 28 November 2003, he sent the printed score of his Third Sonata, the music framed by quotations from T S Eliot, asking what I thought. It was remarkable for its concision and eloquent voice, in fact an epitome of Trevor.

I once asked him if he dreamed about music, and he admitted he did, remembering how on two occasions he ‘woke up dreaming a song which I then committed to paper’. During one of these he dreamed he was setting the opening line of Cowper’s poem ‘The Loss of the Royal George’, which he not only set but then used it as the basis of the slow movement of his symphony.

Trevor’s academic articles were as meticulously researched and presented as all his work, and some 25 years ago I invited him to write a slim volume on Roger Quilter for Triad Press. The late John Bishop of Thames Publishing shared Trevor’s enthusiasm for English song and published not only some of Trevor’s music, but his editions of English song and a new edition of that Quilter book. Admiring Trevor’s authority, Bishop asked him for a study of English song for Thames Publishing, but was a little taken aback at the size of the manuscript Trevor produced – a study of twenty English songs composers. Unfortunately Bishop died, and the book was published by The Boydell Press, whose superb edition formed a memorial to Bishop and, regretfully, now all too soon to Hold himself (Parry to Finzi, 2002).

Why so enjoyable a composer has tended to have a regional rather than a national reputation we can put down to Trevor himself – he told me he ‘found it very difficult to push his career as a composer’, finding the business side ‘very distasteful’. Yet many believed in him, and all who knew him loved the man and his vision. His poem ‘A Closing Prayer’ ends with his perfect epitaph:

Let the cage open

And the song-bird fly back to its maker.

He is survived by his wife Sue and his daughters Sally and Becky, to whom we send our very real sympathy.

LEWIS FOREMAN

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Trevor Hold - Catalogue of Works

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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