Buxton Daeblitz Orr, composer, born 18 April 1924, married (1) Isabelle Roberts,
1955 (2) Jean Latimer, 1968, died 27 December 1997.
Buxton Orr's substantial catalogue of expertly crafted compositions ought
to be part of the standard concert repertoire; instead, they are known to
a small cohort of admirers and to an entire generation of pupils who have
made sure that his music remains a living proposition.
Orr was born in Glasgow in 1924, into an artistic family: his mother, Marie
Daeblitz, was for years a mainstay of the Glasgow Citizens' theatre company,
and his maternal grandfather, Richard Daeblitz, an immigrant from Germany,
led the second violins of the Scottish Orchestra under conductors of the
stature of Nikisch, Richter, Richard Strauss and other names of like renown.
Buxton, whose voice never lost its Scottish burr, would hear stories of these
great men at his grandfather's knee.
Orr was initially intended to follow a career in medicine but, like Robert
Simpson just a few years earlier, abandoned it for music. Between 1952 and
1955, now established in London, Orr studied composition with Benjamin Frankel,
with whom he was later to work on a number of film and television scores;
he also took conducting lessons with Aylmer Buesst. It was following in
Frankel's film-music footsteps that Orr first came to public notice, even
if marginally, first with the scores to a number of Boris Karloff and other
horror films and then, with the score to the film of Tennessee Williams'
Suddenly Last Summer, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn
and directed by Sam Spiegel. The first of his serious works to attract genuine,
widespread attention was his one-act opera The Wager, completed in
1961 and premiered by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Well that year.
Orr's composing career progressed alongside growing prominence as a teacher.
He took up an appointment at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1965,
where he was to remain for the next quarter-century, giving up teaching to
devote himself to full-time composition only in 1990. Orr's commitment to
teaching was whole-hearted: he founded, for example, the Guildhall New Music
Ensemble in 1975 to allow his students to play "difficult" contemporary scores
by composers such as Birtwistle and Stravinsky. Indeed, teaching was never
a dry, academic experience for Orr: harmony and counterpoint weren't taught
by standing up and talking about them; instead, his pupils got to know their
theory from the music itself, from the understanding that comes with performing.
The breadth of his interests is confirmed in his ten-year conductorship,
from 1970 to 1980, of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra (founded by Barry
Guy, an Orr pupil), with which he toured England and the Continent, taking
the group to the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1972.
But despite his music-making and the hundreds of students who passed through
his hands at the Guildhall, it is for his own music that Buxton Orr will
be remembered if it is given a chance to be heard. His earliest works
are quite close to the soundworld of Britten, but it was another Benjamin
who was soon to prove more influential: his teacher, Ben Frankel, from whom
Orr adopted a kind of tonally directed use of the twelve-note row, contrapuntally
organised to produce music with a real sense of purpose.
His first love was the human voice and, by extension, the stage: apart from
The Wager (recently revised for chamber orchestra in the hope of
stimulating further performances), there are several music-theatre pieces,
The Unicorn (1981), The Last Circus (1984) and Ring In The
New (1986), for the last of which, with Michael Bawtree, Orr won the
1988 Seagrams Prize of the America National Music Theatre Network, during
his stay as composer-in-residence at the Banff Centre for Fine Arts in Alberta,
Canada. There are six song-cycles for voice and piano or instrumental ensemble,
as well The Knight and the Lady (1978) for solo voice, and The
Echoing Green (1961), after Blake, for children voices and piano or
His orchestral works likewise show his concern for his audience. In compositions
intended for serious listeners, such as the forty-minute Sinfonia
Ricercante of 1987, Orr deployed his considerable technique to produce
music that would satisfy the most demanding intellect. Yet in others, like
the plain Triptych (1977), the Fanfare and Processional for
strings (1968) or the Carmen Fantasy for cello and orchestra (1987),
his sense of humour guaranteed works of immediate appeal. (In fact, A
Carmen Fantasy began life as the first of a series of four operatic fantasies
for cello and piano; the others are Portrait of the Don (on Don
Giovanni, 1987), Catfish Row (on Porgy and Bess, 1997)
and Tales from Windsor Forest (on Falstaff, 1997).)
A consistent feature of Orr's surprisingly large output is his music for
brass or wind band, some ten in total and composed across his career. There
are two concertos, for trombone (1971) and for trumpet (1976), both with
brass band, and a number of other pieces, not least A John Gay Suite
for symphonic wind band (1972), Tournament for ten solo brass (1985)
and the recent Narration for symphonic winds (1993), drawn from music
for The Alchemist, an opera on which Orr was still working at the
time of his death. (He left part of the first act orchestrated and the rest
complete in piano score. After Benjamin Frankel's death Orr orchestrated
the piano score of Frankel '92s opera Marching Song; The
Alchemist now requires another composer to perform Orr the same service.)
There is also a substantial corpus of chamber music, including two string
quartets, three piano trios (the only "serious" Orr to have been recorded
on CD), a recent string trio, and most of the series of six Refrains, composed
between 1970 and 1992 for a variety of instrumental forces; these are basically
extended rondo structures in which, as the composer put it, "a recurrent
idea is used to bind together a total structure".
But a dry list of compositions doesn't give a picture of the man, of the
delighted twinkle in his eye when he was discussing something he held important
(I once sat virtually speechless through a dinner where Orr and Hans Keller
discussed, with genuine passion, the significance of a particular gesture
in a single bar in the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto). And he
never lost that Scottish ability to draw the humour from misfortune. He told
with glee of attending a performance of Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House
when he was suddenly stricken with the most appalling upheaval in his stomach.
Fearing the worst, he swiftly pushed his way past the knees and baleful glares
of the stalls audience to try to get out in time. And, Orr would ask with
a grin, what do you think the sailors' chorus on stage was singing at this
point? "Heave! Oh, Heave!"
It is time that the classical world caught up with the music of Buxton Orr.
That recording of the Piano Trios appeared around a year ago on the
Marco Polo label, and A John Gay Suite is due out before too long
from Naxos, the sister, budget label of Marco Polo; A Celtic Suite
for strings (1968) has also been recorded by Black Box. But that will hardly
give an adequate picture of Orr's ability as a composer. Two CD programmes
a coupling of the Sinfonia Ricercante and Triptych and,
less ambitiously, a disc of the two String Quartets and the String
Trio push themselves forward as an obvious place to start.
The composer Buxton Orr (b.Glasgow, 1924), died on 27th
December, in a hospice near his Hereford home, following a short
illness. He would have been 74 in April.
Orr gave up a career in medicine in the early 1950s to study
composition with Benjamin Frankel - with whom he was to have a lasting
friendship and professional association - and conducting with Aylmer
Buesst. His early professional work was in films (mainly of the horror
genre, such as "Grip of the Strangler", "Corridors of Blood" and
"Suddenly Last Summer") and in the theatre (including the original
production of "Flowering Cherry".
Later, his compositions embraced songs, chamber music, works for
brass and wind band, orchestral music and a one-act opera "The Wager",
staged by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells in 1961 and
subsequently broadcast. In 1965 he joined the staff of the Guildhall
School of Music and Drama and in 1975, founded the Guildhall New Music
Ensemble. Between 1970 and 1980 he was conductor of the London Jazz
Composer's Orchestra, touring England and Europe where, among other
venues, he participated in the 1972 Berlin Jazz Festival.
Orr received various commissions for new works from, among
others, Glasgow University, the Saltire Society, the Park Lane Group,
the BBC (1979 Bath Festival), radio Scotland, the City of London
Festival and Merseyside Arts.
His interest in music-theatre led to writing "Unicorn", "The
Last Circus" and "Ring in the New", the latter during his period as
Composer-in-Residence and Associate Director of the Music Theatre
Studio Ensemble at the Banff Centre for Fine Arts in Canada, and for
which he and Michael Bawtree were awarded the Seagrams Prize of the
American National Music Theatre Network in 1988.
In 1990, Orr gave up regular teaching to devote more time to
composition and moved to the Wye Valley, near the English-Welsh
border, where he lived until his death last month.
The composer's fluency and invention resulted in an
interesting range of works, from the lighter "A John Gay Suite" (1972)
for Symphonic Wind Band, to the expansive and cerebral "Sinfonia
Ricercante" (1987) for full orchestra, the latter demonstrating his
preoccupation with serial procedures in his serious output, which, in
part, he had acquired during his studies and association with Frankel.
Like many fine composers, his work is grossly underrepresented in the
recording catalogues, with, thus far, only one entire CD (his three
Piano Trios, on the Marco Polo label and played by the York Trio)
given over to his music.
Buxton Orr's background was not only musical: his close
relations numbered among them the Actresses Phyllida Law and her
daughter Emma Thompson.
He is survived by both his first and second wives and,
although he had no children, was much loved by all those younger
composers and musicians whose talent and careers he helped to foster
during many dedicated years of teaching and advice. He will be greatly
missed by all who knew him well and enjoyed his kindness and
It is with great sadness that I set about writing this obituary for
Buxton Orr who died on December 27th aged 73 after a short illness.
I wanted to share a few memories as a brief memorial which may be
shared by the many thousands of students that went through his hands
whilst he worked at the Guildhall School of Music (1965-1990). I was
one of a handful of young composers on the Advanced Composers
Course at the Guildhall. This ran as a post-graduate year for
composers from all backgrounds. Buxton was, I believe, one of the
movers behind establishing it and he had a weekly input. His method
of teaching was hands on : "Let's take a difficult piece and put it
together." I remember attempting the piano part of a piece by David
Bedford and making a complete mess of playing inside the piano.
Buxton was very calm and gave me extra time and many hints.
We met again when I wrote to him in 1987 just in case he had written
anything for children's voices. As it happened he had: the
unperformed The Echoing Green. The piece proved to be a great success
when it was performed at St. Helen's School, Abingdon. If Britten's
name had been attached to it, the piece would have been performed
countless times by now.
I saw him on and off but the last time was in April 1997 when
we spent the whole afternoon looking through his projected opera The
Alchemist which remained partially unorchestrated on his death. There
was another work: Piccolo Sinfonia on the computer. He was able to
give me a flavour of this piece. I wonder if it was ever completed.
In both of these pieces he was experimenting in new directions with
his own, personal style of twelve tone music.
Buxton wrote the programme notes free of charge for the CPO Frankel
series. Benjamin Frankel was Orr's teacher. His music, at one time
totally unfashionable, is now enjoying much wider exposure. Buxton
and other equally enlightened musicians have made such an effort to
resurrect Frankel's music greatly to our benefit.
Buxton was a generous and open man, who so very much wanted to
communicate through his music. When this happened he was in his
element and it did not matter what the medium or the performers. Some
of his works are being recorded and known. These include the John
Gay Suite, Celtic Suite and the film music. It is a great sadness
that he will not be around to enjoy the success of his music.
E.D. Kennaway, 218a Finchley Rd, London NW3 6DH. (
0171 435 2897. Fax 0171 419 2404).