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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

     

Michael John Hurd
1928 – 2006

 

Michael Hurd was born on December 19th, 1928, in Park Road, Gloucester, the son of a cabinet-maker and upholsterer.  The family moved first to Reservoir Rd., and then settled in Southfield Rd, which was very convenient for Michael’s education at the Crypt School.  Here he became one of the leaders in the school’s cultural life, taking part in drama and writing music for a scaled-down version of ‘Hamlet’.  He also composed various songs, including a daringly chromatic setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ (Cymbeline) There were also settings of what he had been reading at the time, including poems by Shelley and Thomas Lovell Beddoes. 
 
To put this music down on paper required a knowledge of notation, and for this Michael was largely self-taught.  He never had any piano lessons either, and learnt to play by experience –  this meant that his piano technique was always adequate rather than startling, but by the time he left school he could cope with early Beethoven Sonatas.  This is typical of how Michael seemed to have an instinctive grasp of anything to do with music, drawing down knowledge and skill almost from thin air.
 
This burgeoning musical productivity required advice, and for this Michael turned to Alexander Brent-Smith, a well-known local composer and lecturer.  Brent-Smith had once taught at Lancing College, where amongst his pupils was Peter Pears.  His ‘Elegy’ (in memory of Elgar) was one of the pieces whose performance was planned for the 1939 Three Choirs Festival at Hereford, which had to be aborted owing to the outbreak of war. (Another piece to suffer similarly was Finzi’s ‘Dies Natalis’).  Brent-Smith was sufficiently impressed with Michael’s work to encourage him to make music his career, and he was able to persuade the authorities at Oxford to allow him to change schools from English to Music.
 
Military service with the Intelligence Corps followed, and a posting to Vienna enabled Michael to indulge a fast-growing passion for Opera.  At this stage, he was passionately devoted to Puccini, but he brought back from Vienna a vocal score of Korngold’s ‘Die Tote Stadt’ – hardly known in England at that time – as well as familiarity with the operas of Richard Strauss and Mozart, stalwarts of the Vienna repertoire.  This was the beginning of a lifelong enthusiasm for the music of Korngold, which it was the more easy for him to indulge as Korngold’s music became better known and eventually achieved almost iconic status.
 
Another musical influence from around this time was the eccentric composer Rutland Boughton, famous for the opera ‘The Immortal Hour’, which had notched up nearly 400 performances in the early 1920’s.  Boughton’s star had faded now, and he had bought a smallholding  near Newent in West Gloucestershire.  Michael approached him for advice, and this led to a friendship which was only terminated by Boughton’s death in 1960, and to Michael’s writing the first biography of Boughton, much of which was written while Boughton was still alive.  Michael was devoted to the music of Boughton, though not so blinkered that he could not see its shortcomings.  He sought every opportunity of encouraging the performance of Boughton’s music, from a performance of the cantata ‘Bethlehem’ at Aylesbury (Boughton’s birthplace) in 1957;  to a presentation of the opera ‘The Lily Maid’ at Chichester in 1985.   In more recent years he had a hand in arranging revivals of some of the music by the BBC and by Hyperion records.  His lifelong advocacy of this neglected music has led to much reappraisal, so that Boughton is probably held in higher regard now than for several decades.
 
Then came Pembroke College, Oxford, where he read Music under Bernard Rose and Thomas Armstrong, the University’s leading music tutors of the day. He was President of the University Music Society.  Later, he had private lessons with Lennox Berkeley. 
 
Michael also received advice and encouragement from Arthur Benjamin, then a Professor at the RCM, and a friendship with Hans Werner Henze might have been stimulating on both sides, only Henze became increasingly politicised, reflecting this is his music.  With this sort of thing Michael was very much out of tune, and the friendship came to nothing.  This is not to say that Michael did not have his Causes, and amongst the fringe movements which he supported was CND – he went on some of the earliest Aldermaston marches.  And when writing his Concerto da Camera in 1979, he used a motto theme of three notes (CBE) at the beginning of each movement (in different combinations) which, when written in German, spells out the initials of another fringe movement which he avidly supported.  For Michael was a gentle, liberal-minded sort of person who  would readily go along with such movements though he was basically apolitical.
 
After taking his degree, Michael taught at the Royal Marines School of Music at Deal from 1953 – l959, as Professor of Theory, living in a lovely apartment right on the sea front.  But the death of his parents gave him more independence, and responding to a suggestion from an Oxford friend, the writer David Hughes, and his wife, the actress Mai Zetterling, Michael moved to live near them in Hampshire and became a free-lance musician and author.
 
Michael’s compositions are many and varied, but perhaps the best-known to the general public are the seven  ‘jazz-cantatas’ which he wrote from 1966 – 1982.   Schools have always been eager to perform these, which make an instant appeal even to non-musical pupils with their witty lyrics and catchy tunes.  ‘Jonah-Man Jazz’ (1966) and ‘Hip-hip Horatio’ (1974) are two of the most popular, and the very titles betray the skittish irreverence with which he approached his subjects.  Other titles include ‘Swingin’ Samson’ (1973) and ‘Rooster Rag’ (1975).  He always said that he took particular care that the piano part should not be too difficult, since it was probably going to be played by a primary school teacher without any claims to virtuosity.  No special demands are made of the singers either, since they would most likely be untrained pupils only capable of singing in unison.  This attention to the ability of the performers has ensured these unpretentious cantatas a sure place in school music-making, and it is typical of Michael’s care to make all his music performable.
 
His more serious compositions are chiefly vocal.  Local performances include the ‘Missa Brevis’ given at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1968, the opera ‘The Widow of Ephesus’ (with libretto by David Hughes’) at the Stroud Festival in 1971, and ‘Shore Leave’ at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1998.  His most ambitious work is probably ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’, a Choral Symphony with words by John Clare, which was commissioned by the Southampton Choral Society in 1975.  Many other groups commissioned works from Michael, of which mention might be made of ‘Canticles of the Virgin Mary’ (Farnham Festival, 1965), ‘Charms and Ceremonies’ (Downs School, Malvern, 1969), ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (Canterbury Singers, 1974) and ‘This Day to Man’ (Chichester Singers, l979).  More recently, his operas ‘The Aspern Papers’ (based on Henry James) and ‘The Night of the Wedding’ have been performed as part of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival in Melbourne, Australia, in 1995 and 1998 respectively.  This was a Festival which Michael himself had had a part in setting up in 1990, together with an Australian friend, the composer Michael Easton, who died tragically young in 2004.
 
Though Michael only wrote a few orchestral pieces, all have now been recorded. ‘Overture to an Unwritten Comedy’ dates from 1970 (revised 1979);  ‘Dance Diversions’ was commissioned by the Havant Symphony Orchestra in 1972;  ‘Sinfonia Concertante’ was first performed by the Kathleen Merritt String Orchestra in 1973, and ‘Concerto da Camera’ was written for the oboist Geoffrey Bridge and the Havant Chamber Orchestra in 1979.  This last piece is especially attractive, and has been given several performances locally in recent years by Robin Hales and Diana Nuttall, in a version for oboe and piano.  Listening to these pieces, one is constantly struck by their readily approachable style – their gentle half-colours are quite devoid of bombast or rhetoric and this makes them unmistakeably English.  It is a characteristic of all Michael’s music that it is always beautifully crafted yet easy to listen to.  Not for him the over-intellectual abstruseness of so much 20th century music – he is writing to give pleasure to his performers and delight to his listeners.  He always expressed a fondness for the music of Poulenc, a composer who wrote with the same ends in mind.
 
He never expressed much liking for the music of other French composers, however, apart from Berlioz, and was particularly critical of Ravel (‘He can’t climax’ – a strange remark when you think of ‘La Valse’!).  The shimmering vagueness of Debussy or the tenderly civilised restraint of Fauré had little appeal.  Nor was he very enthusiastic about Russian music, with the exception of Rachmaninov, whose superbly well-written pianism he admired greatly.  It was English music that chiefly attracted him, together with a little German and Italian Opera.
 
Michael also wrote music for many plays - e.g. a dramatic version of Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie’ (1963) and William Saroyan’s ‘Playthings’ produced by Mai Zetterling in 1980,.  There is some film music, too, for Mai Zetterling’s ‘Flickorna’ (1968) and ‘Scrubbers’ (1982).  He has written music for son et lumière productions, as well as for the ‘fringe’ performances of Shakespeare at recent Gloucester Three Choirs Festivals.
 
But besides all this, Michael was a prolific author, writing short biographies of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, and longer definitive biographies of Rutland Boughton (‘Immortal Hour’, 1962, revised 1993 as  ‘Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals’) and Ivor Gurney (‘The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney’, 1978).  He  wrote ‘An Outline History of European Music’ for Novello’s in 1968, edited the revised Oxford Junior Companion to Music in 1979, and has contributed articles to many music reference books, including Grove’s Dictionary and the Athlone History of Music in Britain.  As a thank you offering to his publishers, he wrote a history of the publishing house of Novello’s in 1981.
 
It is as an authority on English music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Michael’s musical scholarship stands out.  Read the sleeve notes of a CD of lesser-known music of this period, and they will probably have been written by Michael.  Listen to a radio talk on the same subject, and he will have had something to say about it.  His house near Petersfield contained a massive collection of scores of such music, much of it unknown or forgotten, but he could always find something interesting in it, and was expert at communicating his enthusiasm to all his friends.
 
He worked hard for music in Hampshire, conducting annual performances of amateur opera in works by Gilbert & Sullivan, other early 20th century lighter composers, and even American musicals;  and he was also closely connected with the programmes and administration of the Farnham Festival.  He gave music lectures all over the country, and work for the British Council took him further afield, to such ex-colonial territories as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Hong Kong, India and Malaysia.  To direct performances of his music, he visited Sweden, Holland, and the USA.
 
Michael was a friend who was always fun to be with, providing stimulating and witty conversation together with a slightly irreverent and totally unstuffy manner.  I knew him since schooldays, for more than 60 years, and amongst many memories I recall an occasion when he seemed to be distracted and inattentive during an English lesson.  ‘Are you listening?’ demanded the teacher.  Then came the ultimate put-down answer – ‘Oh Sir, I was just composing my new love-duet’.  Alas, there will be no more love-duets, or jazz-cantatas or biographies or lectures.  Michael Hurd died from cancer in Portsmouth Hospital on August 8th.
 
 
Geoffrey Peck
(Crypt School, Gloucester, and St. John’s College, Oxford )
 
 
PUBLICATIONS by Michael Hurd

Short Biographies (chiefly intended for schools)
Elgar  (Faber & Faber, 1969)
Vaughan-Williams  (Faber & Faber, 1970)
Mendelssohn  (Faber & Faber, 1971)
Benjamin Britten  (Novello ‘Short Biographies’, 1966)
Michael Tippett  (Novello ‘Short Biographies’, 1978)
 
Young Persons’ Guides
Young Persons’ Guide to Concerts  (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962)
Young Persons’ Guide to English Music  (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965)
Young Persons’ Guide to Opera  (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966)
Young Readers’ Guide to Music (Soldiers’ songs & marches)  (OUP, 1966)
 
Biographies
‘Immortal Hour’ – a biography of Rutland Boughton  (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962)
‘The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney’  (OUP 1978)
‘Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals’ (a revision and expansion of 10)  (OUP 1993)
 
Other books
The Composer (OUP, 1968)
An Outline of European Music  (Novello, 1968, revised 1988)
The Oxford Junior Companion to Music  (Editor)  (OUP, 1979)
The Orchestra  (Phaidon, 1981)
Vincent Novello – and Company  (Granada Publishing, 1981)
Letters of Gerald Finzi and Howard Ferguson  (co-editor)  (The Boydell Press, 2001)

 



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