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The Life and Works of Geoffrey Winters.


In his recently published memoirs Geoffrey Winters recalls that a few years after his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in the 1940s he met Sir Arthur Bliss at a Composers’ Guild luncheon. He says of this meeting,

‘I mentioned that he had been instrumental in my becoming a composer. He replied, Did I want to thank him, or sue him! ‘ (1)

To the young aspiring composer, Bliss’s levity might have been distinctly off-putting. In retrospect, perhaps it also serves to remind one of the exigencies of the compositional process and the subsequent difficulties contemporary composers may often experience in getting their works repeatedly performed and widely recognised.

The celebration of Geoffrey Winters’ birthday in October 2008 was a timely reminder of the need for a reappraisal of his compositional output. Such a landmark event provides an ideal opportunity to reflect and offer an overview of a lifetime’s work which has been both prolific and profound. The development of Winters’ work over the last six decades has undoubtedly established him as a composer of considerable significance. Yet, his name and reputation may be more familiar to music educationalists and teachers, rather than to the concert-going public.2

It cannot have escaped those who attended the world premiere of Winters’ Variations for Two Pianos Op. 19, performed by Claire and Antoinette Cann in the West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on 2 October 2008, that here is music that is challenging, finely crafted and immensely rewarding. With such an enthusiastic and rapturous reception the composer received on this occasion, one feels that here is music that should - and does - have an enduring appeal. The fact that the work was composed nearly fifty years ago does however raise questions as to why Winters’ work in general has not received more exposure and prominence. Perhaps his propensity for too readily assigning his music to the drawer when a performer or publisher had rejected it, showed a lack of confidence in his own work. This also showed in his reluctance to use the phone. He used to refer to his wife, until she died three years ago, as his ‘telephone secretary’. He is a little better now.

Winters’ main body of work encompasses instrumental, chamber music, vocal and choral music through to large-scale orchestral works such as his Violin Concerto Op. 51 and Symphonies Opp. 23 and 55. From the gravitas of the opening movement of the Concerto to the witty humour of the second movement of the Second Symphony, the listener is treated to a range of music of breath-taking contrast, ingenuity and expressivity. Smaller-scale works such as the viola sonatas, works for recorders or solo instrumental pieces, such as Domenico’s Music Box for Harpsichord Op. 64, are no less impressive and make an important contribution to the 20th century repertoire for these instruments. One must also pay tribute to the extensive range of works composed and published especially for children such as The Year Op. 26 or Thames Journey Op. 31, both written for junior voices and ensemble. Originating from the late 1960s, these and other works for children were very successful indeed.


Early Years

Winters was born in Chingford on 17 October 1928 and was the youngest of three boys. His father was a monumental sculptor and this undoubtedly has influenced Winters’ life-long interest and proficiency in calligraphy. Apart from his being briefly apprenticed to his father at the age of 17 to gain a skill in letter cutting and stone sculpture, he was brought up to revere Eric Gill, Epstein, Morris and the calligrapher, Edward Johnson. Indeed this influence is manifest when examining any of Winters’ manuscripts, revealing a precision, attention to detail and aesthetic awareness that is quite unique. Although his mother was, by all accounts, a very capable pianist and would sing ballads and music hall songs, Winters’ early musical education at school was variable. Piano lessons commenced at the age of nine, but progress was interrupted because of the wartime evacuation. However, he did take an active interest in composition. His first piece, which he still has in his possession, was a funeral march, ‘...much inspired by my first piano book of Mrs Curwen’s. What a strange thing to have in a book for beginners?'(3)

In 1939 Winters passed his scholarship for Chingford County High School, but on 3 September was evacuated to a billet near Rochford. Over the next three years he moved to no less than six billets countrywide and recounts that it was initially one of ‘.... the unhappier periods in my life.’(3a) In 1940 he eventually ended up in the Forest of Dean and attended the Parish Hall near Coleford for his school lessons. The French teacher, Miss Boagey, made a lasting impression on him. It was here that he heard her practising the Grieg Sonata in E minor, Op. 7. As he says,‘I fell in love with the piece, which had a lasting influence on me.’(4)

It was in his final billet that Winters found happiness and contentment. Referring to his hosts as Uncle Les and Auntie May he recalls, ‘Auntie May had been a piano teacher, but when she married, Uncle Les (very autocratically),had forbidden her to teach, or it seemed, to have anything to do with music. This was the start of my career in music, for although she didn’t practice, she had many standard classics. I was not very advanced from my pre-war lessons, but I battled away with such works as The Pathetic Sonata of Beethoven.....’(5)

Returning to Chingford in the summer of 1942, Winters resumed his piano studies and excelled at theory. Taking his school certificate in nine subjects he gained Matriculation exemption. With ensuing A level studies Winters became passionate about architecture. His musical tastes and experiences broadened to Bliss, John Ireland, Vaughan Williams as well as Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

Student Days and National Service.

Towards the end of the war, whilst attending a Wigmore Hall concert, Winters introduced himself to John Ireland. Ireland agreed to give Winters several tutorials as part of his preparation for the Royal Academy of Music in 1945. Ireland also wrote a letter to the Academy suggesting that Winters should be taught by Alan Bush, a former pupil of his.

Also at this time, a chance meeting with the Academy professor Frederic Jackson resulted in Winters giving up sixth form and having piano tuition from Frederica Hartnoll for the summer term. Winters acknowledges that in these three or four months he improved his piano playing more than at any other time in his life.

A successful audition at the Academy resulted in Winters initially being tutored by Felix Swinstead for piano and Priaulx Rainier for composition. At this particular time both Frederic Jackson and Alan Bush were in the forces. The adventurous attitude of Rainier broadened Winters’ musical horizons in a variety of ways and he recalls being encouraged to attend a Bartók quartet series at the Wigmore Hall. This experience resulted in Bartók remaining a seminal influence on his style, particularly in later years.

In his first spell at the Academy he also read Hindemith’s ‘The Craft of Composition‘ and this was a formative influence on his early compositional development. Winters very much felt at this time that such an approach might be a solution to him being a tonal composer, whilst allowing him to explore and expand his chordal and harmonic repertoire.

Perhaps the central influence on Winters was the systematic teaching of Alan Bush. Winters acknowledges that this had a considerable effect on his craft and technique. Bush encouraged close study of Bach Chorales and was insistent that his students handled contrapuntal elements capably.

Emphasis on compositional structure was central to Bush’s teaching, as was the expounding of the thematic system. He was particularly keen on the derivation and development of a work’s material from the opening thematic motif; something which preoccupies Winters in a number of his works and most notably in his Second Symphony.

Whilst at the Academy, Winters met Christine Ive and their friendship blossomed into a proposal of marriage shortly after Easter 1947. It was at this stage that Winters composed 24 Preludes for Piano, dedicated to his future wife and a setting of The Ancient Mariner for narrator, chorus and small orchestra. That Summer, Christine successfully took the LRAM in performance and Winters the intermediate B.Mus. Call up into the army resulted in their marriage taking place during a spell of compassionate leave. After National Service, now with a young family, Winters resumed studies at the Academy in 1949. At this juncture Winters started to give his works opus numbers: A Wind Quartet, Op. 1 played at the Academy, the Yorkshire Suite, Op. 2, all but in name a symphony and the Toccata, Op. 3 for piano. These early works reveal Winters’ fluent and self-assured compositional technique in three very different mediums.

With the Wind Quartet there is adventurous melodic and harmonic invention containing many of Winters’ hallmarks: a rising minor 3rd motif permeating much of the development of material in the second movement, extensive textural contrasts with bold unison writing and contrapuntal interplay between the parts and extensive use of rhythmic devices such as syncopation.

 The three movement Yorkshire Suite is a substantial work with a distinctly programmatic theme. Winters’ close affinity with the Yorkshire Ridings gave him the inspiration for the piece.  Broadcast and recorded by the BBC Northern Orchestra under George Hurst, the first movement, East Riding is an evocative and atmospheric piece, in part reminding one of the more pastoral influences of Vaughan Williams and early Tippett. With the incorporation of the chimes of Beverley Minster, it clearly demonstrates Winters’ adept and confident handling of orchestral forces. Imaginative instrumentation is explored to great effect throughout the whole work. Textural and structural elements are skilfully handled, whilst the virtuosic and vibrant orchestral passage work of the final movement merits repeated listening.

From its opening bars, the Toccata for Piano is a kaleidoscope of three note arpeggi in ever-changing keys: C major, Eb major, F major, Db major, but nevertheless remains strongly tonal.  The exploration and ambiguous quality of the harmonic material of the flowing opening passage is contrasted with the more disjunctive and texturally transparent material of the middle section. The rapidity and delicacy explored in the writing, so impressively realised in an early recorded performance by the composer’s wife, returns in the final pages. This is made all the more surprising by the coda, which briefly returns to the material of the middle section before finding a resolution on three descending Cs. (6)

Winter’s gained his teacher’s LRAM in 1950 and had joined the Graduate of the Royal Schools of Music course at the Academy with a view to being able to teach in schools. Although composing rather less at this time, he won a light music prize with An English Jig Op. 6a and later a duet version Op. 6b played by his wife and Margaret Kitchen as part of an Alan Bush programme.

Gaining the GRSM in July 1952, Winters commenced teaching music in Larkswood School, Chingford and was a strong advocate of singing and the Tonic Sol Fa method. (7)

At this time Winters embarked on composing a Thames Symphony, but all that came of it was a  single movement which became A River Pastoral (Intermezzo) Op. 7.First performed by the Halle Orchestra under Maurice Handford in a public rehearsal, A River Pastoral was subsequently broadcast by the Berlin Radio Orchestra conducted by Alan Bush. It remains one of Winters’ favourite works. The richly orchestrated, elegiac and lyrical sound canvas is instantly memorable for its opening rising motif, predominantly constructed around intervals of a 4th, which become integral to the whole movement. With this piece, and the romantic Viola Sonata, Op. 8 (one of number of works written for the instrument and which won the Harry Danks Prize), the powerful and at times bitonal Essay for Orchestra, Op. 9 (also given a public performance by the Hallé) and the somewhat more dissonant First String Quartet, Op. 10 (which won The Clements Memorial Prize). Winters’ compositional method and style briefly started to move towards a totally new and unexpected direction.  

Winters immersed himself in the 12-tone system and this resulted in some serial compositions, most notably the Three Inventions for Horn and Tuba, Op. 11, the Piano Sonata Op. 12 and the Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 13. However, by his own admission Winters felt that the esoteric, perhaps cerebral nature of the musical language and style would not endear itself to the general public. After a break in creative work, he became less preoccupied with serial music and composed a Miniature Suite for Recorders Op. 17 and the Concertino for Piano, Horn and Strings Op. 18. Both these works proved to be far more popular and accessible.

With the Variations for Two Pianos, Op. 19 that followed, here was a work that embraced a more neo-classical approach. Using as its main theme Friedrich Kuhlau’s Allegro burlesco from the Sonatina in A minor, Op. 88, No. 3, the seven variations that follow explore dissonance, structural symmetry, textural clarity, extensive use and development of the theme’s opening 3-note motif (Variation 1) and octave passages (Variation 6) reminiscent of Prokofiev. Here Winters’ musical language is decidedly more dissonant but within a tonal landscape. Such other works as his Sonatina for Flute and Piano, Op. 28 and the Sonatina for Piano Op. 29, also have a neo-classical influence. Winters also acknowledges the considerable influences of Prokofiev and Shostakovich on his own musical language. It is certainly the case that Winters’ knowledge and regard for the past is in no way inhibiting and has provided a rich stimulus for his creative imagination.

Middle Period Works

Spanning a 16 year span in the middle period of Winters’ composing output, the Symphony No. 1, Op. 23 and the Symphony No. 2 Op. 55 establish a significant development and maturity in musical form and language. What becomes increasingly evident over this period is Winters’ eclectic and intellectual rigour. Here there is a move away from the early influences to a more individual and original musical language. This is quite apparent in the harmonic and rhythmic contrast in the First Symphony which received its first performances in London in 1973, including a performance at the Royal Festival Hall by the then New Philharmonia Orchestra under Owain Arwel Hughes. The success of this work lies in his use of bold and colourful orchestral timbre and textural ingenuity, a rich and varied harmonic palette and an organic growth within the context of a taut and concise symphonic structure. Despite Alan Bush’s comment that perhaps the work was not rhetorical enough - its total duration is 16 minutes -Winters notes that he was particularly interested in brevity at that time. The Daily Telegraph critic wrote, ‘..the adagio’s spare and yet thoughtfully written lines show what Mr Winters can do. For a slow movement to reveal unsuspected weightiness is bit like Shostakovich and so was this symphony’s finale with the brass provocatively repeated A major chords pitted against a soaring C minor/major melody......the work left no doubt that here is a composer.’(8)

The Second Symphony, first performed by the Guildhall School of Music Graduate Orchestra in 1978, is a more extensive and expansive work with imaginative scoring particularly for the percussion section in the jocular and jazzy second movement. With the opening of the 1st movement being introduced with a long sustained B emerging from the lower strings and passed around to the rest of the string section, the sense and feeling of timelessness conjures up a sound-world not that dissimilar to the opening bars of Mahler’s 1st Symphony. As Winters goes on to mention in the programme notes, the timeless B... ‘.... collects on an A when the oboe joins in and in a leisurely fashion this pair of notes is discussed and trilled until the horns introduce the note C followed almost immediately by Eb on the xylophone and piano. After a brief cello cadenza C sharp is solemnly played by the brass. From these five notes the remainder of the work derives its main melodic material.’(9)

The 2nd movement, introduced on five approximate pitches for percussion instruments, also explores additive rhythms and more unusual timbres such as key tapping on woodwind instruments. The sombre opening of the slow third movement contains hushed string cluster chords, subsequent use of aleatoric techniques and incorporates most effective writing for solo cello and violas. With the final movement there is a reworking and recapitulation of earlier material particularly in the final thrilling Piu Mosso section.

Set within the context of the 20thcentury British symphonic tradition, that includes Vaughan Williams, Walton, Tippett, Arnold and Rubbra to name but a few, Winters’ works make an important  contribution to the genre. Along with the Violin Concerto, they represent the pinnacle of his orchestral output.

Over this period in time Winters taught music in a secondary school and later as a college lecturer up until his retirement in the late 1970s. Preoccupation with teaching in a secondary school resulted in him composing very little at this time. However, from 1967 came a series of works for children which were readily published. On moving to Gipsy Hill College as a lecturer he became prolific again and most notably composed Reflections for Recorder Op. 45 and Conversations for Recorder Consort, Op. 46.

Later Works

After the Second Symphony, Winters’ composed an astonishing variety of works spanning 14 years. Now living in Suffolk as a freelance composer he received numerous commissions, including, Caprice: Brass Fair for brass band, Op. 63, performed at the Brass Band Championships in 1983 and Studies from a Rainbow for piano, Op. 70, performed in Cambridge, the Purcell Room and most successfully in the States. 

One of the outstanding works of this period is Winters’ Meeting Point song-cycle, Op. 59, first performed in the Wigmore Hall in 1978. The cycle of five songs, which in a sense is autobiographical, sets the poems by Marlowe, Robert Graves and Louis MacNiece in a contemplative and sentient manner. With this and such later works as the exquisite Tributaries for solo harp, Op. 79, the light-hearted Mutations for two trumpets (1988) and Summer Songs for chorus, Op. 90, Winters continued to explore new directions in adventurous and versatile ways. As with his compositional output as a whole, one cannot deny that here is music that is more than deserving of a wider exposure and recognition in the concert hall, through radio broadcast and recording. Although many early recordings exist of Winters’ works and a number of scores are still available from the composer or his publishers, a reappraisal of much of his repertoire is now long overdue. The upsurge of interest in lesser known 20th century British composers, by such enterprising recording companies as Naxos (and indeed from other independent recording companies) in recent years, sets a strong precedent for the work of Geoffrey Winters now to be considered.

1. Geoffrey Winters Memoirs: A Life of Loves, Lavenham Press 2008
2. Winters wrote many very successful music books for use in primary and secondary schools over 25 years, published by Longmans Books. Many of these books became integral to class music teaching and essential coursework texts for teachers at a time when the National Curriculum did not exist. Such titles as 'Sounds and Music, Books 1-3' aimed at 11-14 year olds and 'Listen, Compose, Perform', the first coursework book for the new GCSE Music examination in the mid-1980s, gave teachers and pupils a structured and progressive approach that paved the way for a more coherent music curriculum.
3. Geoffrey Winters Memoirs: A Life of Loves, Lavenham Press 2008 3a Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. The recording of the Toccata was originally made onto aluminium disc at 78rpm in 1952 and subsequently transferred to CD recently.
7. 'I was a strong advocate of singing and in addition sight singing. I employed the rather unfashionable Curwen Tonic Sol Fa method along with its associated hand signs. I always related it to staff notation........ Later when recorders were introduced and then Orferry (emphasis on ostinati and tuned percussion),I widened my approach, but never gave up the voice as the main expressive element of music, given to, almost, everyone.'
Geoffrey Winters Memoirs; A Life of Loves, Lavenham Press 2008
8. Sleeve note to CD private recording of Symphony No 1.
9. Sleeve note to CD private recording of Symphony No 2.
A Yorkshire Suite Op. 2 (1949)
A River Pastoral Op. 7 (1954)
Symphony No. 1 Op. 23 (1961)
Pageant for Orchestra Op. 37 (1969)
Action, Reaction, Interaction Op. 38 (1969)
Celebration for Orchestra Op. 50 (!974)
Concerto for Violin Op. 51 (1974)
The Mind of Man for chorus and orchestra. Op. 52 (1975)
Symphony No. 2 Op. 55 (1977)
Elegy for a Countryside for Horn (viola) and strings Op. 75 (1982)
The Forest: Tomorrow? Op. 84 (1986)
Wind Quartet Op. 1 (1949)
String Quartet No. 1 Op. 10 (1956)
String Quartet No. 2 Op. 21 (1960)
Aspects for flute, clarinet, horn and harp. Op. 24 (1961)
Conversations for Recorder Consort. Op. 46 (1971)
Contrasts on a Theme of Liszt for wind quintet. Op. 54 (1976)
Five Epigrams for String Quartet. Op. 62 (1978)
Again the Grass Grows Green for flute, double bass
and piano. Op. 78 (1983)
Serenade for flute, violin, harpsichord and cello. Op. 82 (1986)
Mutations for two trumpets. (1988)
Preludes for Piano. (1947)
Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano. Op. 8 (1955)
Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano. Op. 13 (1957)
Variations for two pianos. Op. 19 (1960)
Sonatina for flute and piano. Op. 28 (1965)
Sonatina for Piano. Op. 29 (1966)
Reflections for Recorder. Op. 45 (1971)
Sonata No. 2 for Viola and Piano. Op. 57 (1978)
Domenico’s Music Box for Harpsichord. Op. 64 (1980)
Studies from a Rainbow for Piano. Op. 71 (1981)
Tributaries for solo harp. Op. 79 (1983)
Sky Dance for solo flute. Op. 88 (1988)
Two Joyce Songs for high voice. Op. 33 (1966)
Three Herricks songs for voice and guitar. Op. 41 (1970)
Phoebus Arise for soprano and ensemble. Op. 56 (1978)
Meeting Point song cycle. Op. 59 (1978)
Summer Songs for chorus and piano. Op. 90 (1990)
Caprice: Brass Fair. Op. 63 (1978)
A Walkabout Waltz. Op. 72 (1981)
Suite of numbers for recorders and glockenspiels. Op. 25 (1961)
The Year for junior voices and ensemble. Op. 26 (1962)
Sing It and Ring It for junior voices and ensemble. Op. 30 (1967)
Thames Journey for junior voices and ensemble. Op. 31 (1967)
Chanticleer for junior voices and ensemble. Op. 34 (1968)
A Cowboy Suite for junior ensemble. Op. 39 (1969)
Moonshine, a smugglers tale. Op. 61 (1978)
  • Indicates, manuscripts, sketches and correspondence lodged at British Library.     

Contact point/address for scores and performing materials:
Geoffrey Winters,
4, The Causeway,
Suffolk CO10 5JR.
TEL: 01787 211261
Article written by:
Martin Entwistle,
The Old Barn,
Cornwall PL11 3BQ.


Tel: 01503 230707.



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