Geoffrey Burgon: Brideshead and the Rest
Geoffrey Alan Burgon died on 21 September 2010. He will be most remembered for two pieces of TV music: the magnificent striding title theme for Brideshead Revisited (1981), which has been arranged many times for various instrumental forces and the Nunc Dimittis from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), which entered the charts. But he composed a large quantity of more serious (though always accessible) music, which I will try to recall, however incompletely.
He was born in Hampshire on 15 July 1941. In his teens he developed an interest in jazz, which he maintained all his life. He studied trumpet and, under Peter Wishart, composition at the Guildhall School. Until he was 30 he played in a variety of orchestras (Covent Garden, Jacques, Philharmonia, Northern Sinfonia and Capriol) and jazz groups, after which he concentrated on composition. Many of his more serious works were for voice(s): Five Sonnets of John Donne (1968), A Hymn to Venus, a Cantata on Medieval Latin Texts (1964), The Fall of Lucifer (a 1976 setting of a Chichester Mystery Play), at least two Magnificat settings, Veni Spiritus, Merciless Beauty (1997), Almost Peace, First Was the World, Alleluia Psallat, for the 2008 Newbury Festival, Alleluia Nativitas, a Mass (1984), Farewell Earth's Bliss and, acclaimed when it was premiered at the Hereford Three Choirs in 1976, a Requiem (Decca 470-380-2). In many of these pieces he seems to show a predilection for the counter-tenor voice.
His more serious work for instruments included a Chamber Symphony, Goldberg’s Dream for chamber orchestra (1975), the Little Symphony for wind, an early Concerto for strings (1963), a Gloria for six instruments, Sanctus and Variations for trumpets and organ, Five Pieces for string orchestra, several ballets, the first of which was The Golden Fish (1964), an Oboe Quartet and The Wanderer. Most substantial were concertos for piano, viola, cello, trumpet (for Crispian Steele-Perkins) and percussion City Adventures (for Dame Evelyn Glennie).
In Burgon's instrumental output, particularly, it is not easy to distinguish between "serious" and "light", if indeed such distinctions are always meaningful, but in the latter category we may tentatively nominate May Day Prelude, Little Missenden Variations for wind quartet,Three Nocturnes and Beginnings for harp solo, Fanfare and Variants for trumpets and trombones, Four Elizabethan Dances,Paradise Dances and Divertimento, all for brass ensembles,Lullaby,Aubade and Toccata for trumpet and piano and the seven short piano solos,From the Insect World.
Such was the variety of Burgon's concert music that it is hardly surprising that he resisted the temptations of Hollywood, where he would doubtless have done well, though he wrote scores for comparatively few large-screen films (Life of Brian (1979) and The Dogs of War (1981)). But television was an important stamping ground for his gift of melody. The Brideshead theme rivalled in memorable fibre half a dozen Eric Coates signature tunes. Other TV scores were almost as good.The Chronicles of Narnia,Longitude, Cider with Rosie, Island at War,Children of the North, the ITV Forsyte Saga (Decca 4722752) (a song from this was published), Silent Witness (1996), Dr. Who (1976), Testament of Youth (1979) and the Dickens adaptations Bleak House (1985) andMartin Chuzzlewit (1994), whose music he adapted for a concert suite. Dickens must have attracted him as he completed an opera on Hard Times (I have not traced any stage production). Literature was clearly an important interest for him. We can deduce this by some of the texts for his vocal and choral compositions; he is credited with writing crime fiction of his own. Other passions were cricket and fast cars.
I hope that, despite the sneers and indifference of some critics who seemed to think that writing tunes should not be encouraged, Burgon's work, whether for the concert hall, or as background to films or TV, whether or not adapted for concert purposes, will continue to be heard. Some CDs of his output have appeared (Merciless beauty on ASV CDDCA1059; Viola Concerto and Cello Concerto on Chandos CHAN10592); more must be encouraged.
Philip L. Scowcroft