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ROBERT CRAWFORD

by DR DAVID C. F. WRIGHT, PH.D.

© David Wright Ph.D
This article, or any part of it, must not be reproduced in part or in whole in any way whatsoever without prior written consent of the author.


Robert Crawford is a scrupulously exact composer and individual. He agonises over every note in his small output of outstanding chamber music. It is his inherent fastidiousness which is the sure foundation of his music. He comes from a family in which his father was both an artist and exceptional craftsman and his mother a poet. His two sisters continue the line of practical skills - one is a weaver, the other a potter. Like his father, Robert is patient in his work, aware that being prolific can produce sub-standard work.

He was born in Edinburgh on 18 April 1925. After schooling at Craigend Park and Melville College he was evacuated to Keswick where at the grammar school his musical studies continued with Bertha Pells who later married the composer Bernard Stevens. The Reid School of Music in Edinburgh did not suit his needs during 1943-44 so he went to the Guildhall School of Music in London in 1945-1949. However, during the war he had studied privately with Hans Gál at his Edinburgh home while working as a laboratory assistant having been rejected for Army service. Species counterpoint was taught and, perhaps Crawford’s expert contrapuntal "technique" owes something to this period of study. Gál had a mature and responsible attitude to both life and music, and this suited the serious-minded student whose love of music and a "somewhat crazy wish to compose music" drove him on. His painfully self-critical personality has made composition a struggle for him. Yet that conflict does not show itself in his fluent style. His admiration for Bach, Haydn and Schubert has given his work great lucidity and his recognition of the worth of Sibelius and, more especially, that of Bartok lies behind his impressive String Quartet No. l Op. 4 (1950). It was first performed at the ISCM Festival in Frankfurt by the Berlin Quartet in 195l. The compositional skill is impeccable; the musical argument is easily followed; the music is strong and vibrant but not overwhelming. At the end of the piece you are aware that you have undergone a satisfactory musical experience. A fellow composer, Thea Musgrave, said after hearing a performance, "This is real music."

The Piano Sonata No. 2 (1950) is a large-scale work striking for its memorable material and splendid writing for the instrument.

At GSM Robert studied viola with Ernest Yonge, conducting with Aylmer Buesst and played in the orchestra under Edric Cundell. But it was composition under the highly distinguished composer Benjamin Frankel that was the great attraction. Frankel advised Robert not to be so critical and obsessive and to write more rapidly. The result was Six Bagatelles for Piano (1948) performed that self-same year by Ilona Kab0s at the Wigmore Hall. Frankel was a fascinating person who had tremendous personal charisma.

Crawford won the Wainwright Memorial Scholarship and the Prize of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. His first commission came from the McEwen Commission of Glasgow University. This resulted in the String Quartet No. 2 Op. 8 (1956/7). Christopher Grier wrote of its elegance, wit, attractive astringency and real beauty. The Glasgow Herald proclaimed its intellectual intensity and that it was a masterpiece.

A further commission from the same source led to the composition of Ricercare (1986/7). The work is written for the same instruments as Schubert’s Octet (1824). Crawford’s work is in one movement, entirely based on the opening canonic pattern, which is then varied and developed. It was first performed in May 1987.

1991 saw the completion of two piano pieces: A Saltire Sonata written for Peter Seivewright and Sonata Breve written for the Scottish International Piano Competition. Hammered Brass for brass quintet and percussion was completed in August 1995. It was written to celebrate the ancient skills of craftsmen working with various metals. The peculiarity of each metal is captured in this notable score. His ability to write effectively for brass as well as strings stimulated interest in the prospect of an orchestral work. There has been some talk of a Viola Concerto. The Variations on an Original Theme for two pianos was commissioned by Jack and Jean Kerry and completed in December 1995. It has a twelve-note theme but the work is not serial; it merely "exploits the chromatic scale to the full". I await a performance of the Clarinet Quintet first performed by Douglas Mitchell and the Edinburgh Quartet in 1993.

On a personal note Robert married Stephanie Frankel at Hampstead in July 1949. She was no relation to Benjamin Frankel, incidentally. They had two children, Elliot and Judith. Sadly, Stephanie died of cancer in 1974. Four years later Robert married Alison, daughter of the composer Robin Orr.

Crawford was a freelance music critic from 1958-1970 and for the next fifteen years a Music Producer for the BBC. Among other things he has been an external examiner for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Robert is a quiet and determined person, a very courteous speaker and a composer of refined quality. While his quartets should not be singled out, they, along with those of fellow Scot David Dorward, have undoubtedly set a standard by which other works in this medium can be judged.

© David C.F. Wright 1996.

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