Michael Hurd - Reflections
This section carries obituaries, personal reminiscences, critical assessments and other reflections on Michael's life and work. They have been gathered from published texts and internet research, or been sent directly to the editor of these pages.
By their nature there will be some common material in the entries but it was considered appropriate to reproduce them as they were intended to be read.
Further contributions, corrections or protests may be addressed by e-mail to the editor
Author, sometime Administrator Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester
My friendship and association with Michael Hurd began shortly after the publication, in 1978, of his acclaimed biography The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney. This is the book that can be said to have brought a full appreciation of the dually gifted genius of Gurney to public consciousness after many years of comparative obscurity and neglect.
During his researches into Gurney's life, Michael had visited my mother-in-law, Winifred Miles (née Chapman), who had known Ivor and felt a great affection for him. Amongst Winifred's treasures were a lock of Gurney's hair and many letters that he had written to her family and to herself from the trenches of the First World War. Early in 1979, Michael kindly sent her a complimentary copy of his newly published book, inscribing it "To Winifred, who knew Ivor ..."
Michael's biography of Gurney was followed in close succession by the publication of PJ Kavanagh's edition of the Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney (OUP) in 1982, and in the following year by a collection of Ivor Gurney War letters (MidNAG Carcanet), edited by RKR Thornton. Gurney's reputation was beginning to rise rapidly, and has continued to climb steadily ever since Michael ignited that first essential flame of biography. Consequently, it was wholly appropriate that Michael, himself a son of Gloucester, should be invited by Gloucester City Council to unveil a plaque to the memory of the city's eminent poet/composer on the site of Gurney's birthplace.
Unfortunately, the original property had long since been demolished, cleared away in favour of an architecturally undistinguished modern development. Construction work was continuing as a small group of us gathered around Michael for the unveiling ceremony, his short speech barely audible above the noise of pneumatic drills in nearby Eastgate Street. The plaque is mounted close to a service door in a dark causewav at the side of Boots the Chemist, and I shall never forget the look of bewilderment on the face of a frail Herbert Howells, there to remember his old friend Ivor. "I don't recognise this city," he said to me, "it is like a foreign country to me now."
Shortly after this, I began to ponder whether or not Winifred's collection of letters, and others in the possession of her sister Marjorie ('Micky'), could possibly be worthy of publication. By this time, my wife Anne and I had befriended Joy Finzi and had also met Diana McVeagh, both of whom suggested keenly that the letters should be made available to a wide readership. I promptly contacted Michael, who agreed that the letters presented Gurney in a new light as a man with a delicious sense of humour and a love of life, a good companion who easily gained the affection of children and adults alike. Michael encouraged me to write a biographical background to the letters, placing them in context, and so I set about creating a book from both the available written materials and the memories of Winifred, Micky and other Chapman descendants.
When my first draft was complete I sent it to Michael for comment and, by return, received a great deal of most helpful advice, all of which I readily accepted. More than this, Michael generously agreed to contribute a foreword to the completed book, Stars in a Dark Night (Sutton), the first edition of which was published in 1986.
Just as he had compelled Michael to work on his behalf, Ivor Gurney now began to take a leading role in the organisation of my life too. In 1987, the year that marked the 50th anniversary of his death, I knew that I would be obliged to organise some fitting tribute to him in Gloucester. Again, I sought Michael's advice and, following discussion with him and other like-minded friends, was privileged to be able to promote two well-attended concerts celebrating Gurney's life and work, which were held at St Matthew's Church, Twigworth, where Gurney is buried.
Inevitably, this 'taster' led to a quickening tide of requests for further Gurney occasions, and following my retirement from the Royal Air Force in 1989, I was soon plunged headlong into the organisation of a major event, a 'Summer Weekend of English Music and Verse to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Ivor Gurney', which was held in Gloucester from 27 to 29 July 1990. In addition to lectures, conferences, recitals, a coach tour to places of Gurney interest, and a specially compiled sequence of songs and readings (Songs on Lonely Roads), we organised a large exhibition in the Gloucester City Library, including a display of original Gurney manuscripts.
Michael played a leading part in the selection of items for inclusion in this exhibition, burning the midnight oil with our small team as we sifted through many dozens of documents in order to compile a truly representative and diverse display. The Summer Weekend proved to be an overwhelming success, drawing support from all over the UK as well as the USA and Australia. And undoubtedly many of those who came had discovered Gurney through reading Michael's beautifully written biography; he was in his element.
On leaving the RAF, I was appointed to the post of Administrator of the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, one of the three cities which hosts the festival in turn each year, the others being Worcester and Hereford. This gave me a triennial opportunity to repay some of Michael's help and support to me by featuring a little of his music in the festival. His Sonata for Violin and Piano was included in a 1989 Fringe Event recital.
In 1995, a splendidly imaginative production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, directed by one of Michael's friends, Gordon Fluck, was presented by the Court Players in the grounds of Tibberton Court on each of five nights during the festival week. Michael composed original music for the production, and proceeds from the event were generously donated to the newly formed Ivor Gurney Society, which was launched at the festival.
Then, in 1998, Roderick Williams, accompanied by the Cheltenham Chamber Orchestra conducted by Denise Ham, gave a splendid performance of Michael's impressive cycle of five songs for baritone and strings to words by Charles Causley, Shore Leave. In his programme note, Michael wrote that:
"It comes as something of a shock to realise that I made the first version of Shore Leave thirty-six years ago! That version, for tenor and strings, was first performed in Haslemere by Wilfrid Brown and the Southern String Orchestra on 2 February 1963. When preparing the score for publication I decided to rework it for baritone, and that version was first performed by John Barrow on 20 May 1967.
The poems come from Charles Causley's 1960 collection Union Street and chart his nostalgic recollections of six war-time years in the Royal Navy. Although they had no personal relevance for me, I found it easy to empathise with Causley's emotions. More importantly, his unashamed lyricism (rare in modern poetry) exactly matched my own addiction to straightforward melody.
The first and last songs ['Convoy' and 'Sailor's Carol'] are related musically and by the fact that both lament the death of comrades. The second and fourth songs ['Elizabethan Sailor's Song' and 'Able Seaman Hodge remembers Ceylon'] are by way of light relief — the nostalgia being this time for the delights available to the sailor on shore leave. The third song ['Shore Leave'] recalls the abiding effect on a poet whom fate happened to send to sea."
After the performance, fellow-composer Howard Ferguson, who was in the audience, strode over to congratulate a very happy Michael, smiling in the midst of enthusiastic and prolonged applause. Michael's Missa Brevis had been performed at the 1968 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival programme, a fact that I included in my book Three Choirs: A History of the Festival (Sutton, 1992). Within days of publication, Michael telephoned to congratulate me on it, saying how delighted he was with the book and how very much he hoped that I would have success with it. This was typical of him. On first meeting he could appear somewhat reserved, withdrawn even. But once the ice had been broken his generosity of spirit, warm heart and mischievous sense of fun were soon revealed.
Michael readily volunteered to serve on the committee of what has proved to be the very successful Ivor Gurney Society, even though this involved him in long journeys from his home in Hampshire to attend meetings and events in Gloucestershire. Never given to volubility, his contributions to our discussions were generally reserved for those topics upon which he had something helpful, wise and important to say, and then he would not hesitate to express his opinion forcefully. Consequently, the society benefited enormously from Michael's counsel and advice over many years.
From time to time, when he came to meetings held at my home, it was a particular pleasure to be able to give him a meal and to observe the hungry bachelor's obvious pleasure as my wife Anne presented him with a sample of her delicious home cooking. On such occasions he relaxed completely, the conversation flowed easily, punctuated by much laughter, and he often seemed reluctant to drive away at the end of the day. Visits to his tiny but delightful home at West Liss, its walls lined with books and pictures, were always of equal pleasure: a warm welcome and a meeting of minds.
Over the years, Michael and I were involved in various radio and television broadcasts featuring aspects of Gurney's life and work. I especially remember the occasion when we arranged to meet up in London for a leisurely lunch at a pub near Langham Place before reporting to the BBC. For over an hour we enjoyed the pleasure of sharing opinions on life, politics, music and much else besides, the usually quiet Michael, glass in hand, expressing forthright views with characteristic candour before we set off to keep our appointment with Radio 4.
That candour was occasionally in evidence on other memorable occasions, none more so than at the 1990 Gurney celebrations in Gloucester when, during a recital at St Mark's Church, the Auriol String Quartet were giving the premiere performance of Gurney's unpublished Molto Allegro in F. This proved to be a revelation. However, it was spoilt for Michael by an odd bag lady that wandered into the church, seated herself in front of him, and proceeded to rustle the contents of a bulging plastic carrier throughout the piece. At its end, eyes flashing and face red with rage, Michael stood over her and said: "Madam, if the composer had wanted to include a plastic bag in this work, he would have written it into the score!". Later, Michael turned to Anne and said, "and to top it all, the wretched bag was pink!".
Michael Hurd was a gifted composer, a writer of distinction, a man of impeccably good taste, and a good companion. I count myself privileged to have known him.
Rutland Boughton's grandson, in a 70th birthday tribute for the British Music Society News, December 1998
When I was 14, I took part in a performance of Jonah-man Jazz with my local church choir, complete with red cassock and ruff. It was exciting to do and refreshing from all those psalms and hymn tunes. But at this stage, I did not realise that some ten years later, I would become acquainted with the composer of that piece, Michael Hurd, who will be 70 this December. However, it gives me much pleasure to write this article and to pay tribute to Michael Hurd for all that he has done for my family in promoting the works and life of my grandfather, Rutland Boughton.
Apart from an appearance of his Shore Leave, a work for baritone and small orchestra, at this year's Three Choir's Festival, I am not aware of any other performances to mark the occasion of Michael Hurd's 70th year. To celebrate the life one of the country's leading authorities on English music should therefore not go amiss.
Much of Michael's music is published by Novello and he has written a number of titles for children as well as more advanced reading including his Outline History of European Music, a book whichI found to be a very useful reference when 1 was studying music. For a while, Michael was editor of Novello's Vocal Lines, a short publication distributed widely to amateur choirs, and he also oversee a short series of biographies on famous composers. His Oxford Junior Companion to Music (1979) rivals Scholes and he has also written a series of Young Person's Guide to ... books.
Michael does appear to have a particular interest in the music theatre and has conducted many successful amateur performances of the G & S operettas for his local Operatic Society. Of his own works, despite his admiration for the likes of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart, Michael has not produced any grandiose pieces but he has produced two successful chamber operas: The Widow of Ephesus, commissioned by the Stroud Festival and first performed in 1971 in the presence of HRH The Princess Margaret, and more recently The Aspern Papers, which received its first performance in 1996 in Australia.
The Widow is a short one-act opera written jointly by Michael Hurd and David Hughes. It has just three characters, The Widow (contralto), The Maiden (soprano) and The Soldier (baritone) and is essentially a black comedy about a widow falling for a soldier in the presence of her dead husband who was hanged instead of a criminal. The music is scored for a small band of woodwind and strings, although Michael does suggest that it could be accompanied by a pianist provided he " uses a little orchestral imagination ".
The Aspern Papers, however, based on the novella of the same title, is in three acts and is scored for larger forces. It is difficult to give the work proper assessment from the "back-stage" recording but I was struck by it and its reminiscences of Benjamin Britten and the film scores of John Barry.
Of his other works completed during the 1960s, Michael Hurd has written a number of choral pieces including Canticles of the Virgin Mary and Missa Brevis scored for SSA; A Song for St Cecilia (SATB) and Shore Leave. This This Day to Man commissioned by the Chichester Singers in 1974, is a setting of six hymns for the Nativity by poets of the 16th Century. A year later, his large-scale choral symphony based on words by John Clare, Shepherd's Calendar scored for baritone solo and orchestra, received its first performance by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Derek Goodger. Michael Rippon was the soloist. Other intriguing titles by Michael include Swinging Sansom, Hip Hip Horatio, The Phoenix and the Turtle and of course, Jonah-man Jazz.
Michael's three-movement concerto for oboe solo and orchestra Concerto da Camera - which he dedicated to the "genius of Francis Poulenc" - is to my mind one of his most outstanding pieces and deserves much more attention. Those of us who listened to Radio 3 around 1980 [actually 12th September 1984 (ed)] would have heard it being performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sarah Francis. It is certainly a work that is worthy of a look-in by a recording company.
Michael Hurd's interest in the music of other English Composers is apparent in his association with a number of societies. He was one of the original members of BMS; is affiliated to the Finzi Trust, has written extensively about Ivor Gurney, is a Patron of the Bantock Society and of course is Music Adviser of the Rutland Boughton Music Trust.
Michael's association with Rutland began in 1949 when he visited him at his home in Kilcot to consult him on his own compositions. At this time of his life, Boughton was in decline and there were very few performances of his music. However, ten years later Michael, who had already been moved by the success of The Immortal Hour began putting together his first biography, Immortal Hour - the life and period of Rutland Boughton, which was published by Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1962 - some three years after Boughton had died.
But that in itself was insufficient to bring the name of Boughton to the forefront of the British music scene again. Despite the prejudices, Michael remained committed to his cause and in 1978, the year of Boughton's centenary, Michael persuaded the BBC to broadcast a full programme dedicated to the composer. It was also the first time that some of Boughton's music had been heard since the 1920s.
In the same year, he helped to establish the current Boughton Trust through which he had been able to pioneer a number of commercial recordings beginning in 1983 with The Immortal Hour from Hyperion. In 1993, Michael revised his biography which OUP published under the title Rutland Boughton and Glastonbury Festivals.
Michael Hurd has many achievements to his name and has poured much energy into promoting others. Certainly, without Michael Hurd there would have been no due recognition of Rutland Boughton and the family owe him much gratitude for all that he does.
We wish him a happy 70th Birthday.
Conductor, The Havant Orchestras, Hampshire
I first met Michael Hurd in the mid sixties. Subsequently we became musical friends and later reviewing colleagues for Music in Education and The Strad. He was a staunch supporter of Havant Chamber and Symphony Orchestras, being initially attracted I believe by the fair leavening of British music in our programmes. Indeed, he persuaded us to investigate Rutland Boughton, which resulted in our performing the Third Symphony and the Oboe Concerti. But he couldn't tempt me with the Reunion Variations !
We commissioned works for each orchestra from Michael. I was a member of the Havant Secondary Schools Music Festival Committee and Michael's name came up with the next Festival (1967) in mind. A Song for Saint Cecilia was the result, premiered at Havant Grammar School following the unfortunate demise of the Festival.
When the tenth anniversary of the Havant Orchestras loomed, who better to approach for a celebratory work ? Living just up the road as he did in West Liss, close collaboration during the gestation of the music was made much easier, the resulting Dance Diversions being a perfectly apt and fine contribution to the 1972 festivities. Michael wrote in appreciation:
" A note to thank you for an excellent first performance. Everything went extremely well and I have a tape recording to prove it. And so I am deeply grateful, and grateful too for the chance to have written for a full orchestra. "
My copy of the printed score is gratifyingly inscribed by the composer:
" Sixty glorious years and many more to come. In grateful appreciation of all you have done and will do for British music. "
In the late 1970s Michael expressed a wish to write something for local oboist Geoffrey Bridge, 1st oboe in both orchestras. We managed to persuade Southern Arts Association and the Arts Council to support the resulting Concerto da Camera, duly given its first performance with Bridge in July 1979. As ever, Michael was courteous and appreciative by letter:
" Many thanks for Saturday's performance. I thought it all went very well - I was delighted with both the work and with Geoffrey's interpretation. The orchestra is a great pleasure to listen to - please thank them for working so well at it.
Altogether I'm much encouraged by the concerto and have begun to toy with the idea of something bigger. I don't see why one shouldn't have a cheerful, unfraught sort of symphony - there's no law that says symphonies have to be solemn and weighty, surely. "
in "Contemporary Composers", St James Press, London 1992
Michael Hurd is accomplished as both composer and biographer. After postwar harmony and counterpoint studies at Oxford under Bernard Rose and Edmund Rubbra (both also successful composers), he turned to Lennox Berkeley. Since then, French influence has remained strong in his work - the attraction not so much the lushness of Ravel or weightier demands of Messiaen and Boulez as the lightness and wit of Les Six, together with the freshness and lyricism their imitators brought to English music of the inter-war years.
Approachability characterises his output. The tuneful Concerto da Camera for oboe and his Flute Sonatina both pay tribute to Poulenc. Like Francaix and others, Hurd has a way of capturing that outdoor, "champetre" feel Poulenc achieves in his chamber or small orchestral works. Often in Hurd's music essentially tonal (though by no means always predictable) harmonies support a natural, flowing or faintly modal solo line, offset by gently syncopated rhythms that preserve an overall feeling of ease and well-being. A similar lyrical quality and mood characterises his gently jazzy Harlequin Suite for brass and the more recent Little Suite for Strings.
Hurd's fondness for singable tunes, rhythmic vibrance and approachability reflects his own musical origins and a profound dislike of unduly complex scores for amateurs. Urging that such music be as practical and manageable as possible, Hurd carefully limits the scope and performance demands of his instrumental or vocal pieces to the capabilities of the numerous amateur or semi-professional groups, notable in his native Hampshire, who have continued to turn to him for commissions.
His particular success has been in the vocal and choral fields. His chamber opera The Widow of Ephesus is a three-part, chorus-less one act divertissement, to a text by David Hughes and himself, based on the well-known Graeco-Roman tale. Its neat, economical scoring for single wind, string quintet with double bass and piano recalls Walton's The Bear, which wittily employs a related textual theme.
Hurd's attractive choice of texts reflects his fondness for secular word-setting, something he shares with several of those he admires or has written about, including Britten, Tippett and Finzi. While drawing on the Elizabethans (Five Epitaphs, Charms and Ceremonies, Flower Songs) and Dryden (A Song for St Cecilia), he has also composed unison songs in lighter vein to words by de la Mare and Charles Causley.
Shepherd's Calendar, his extended setting of John Clare for baritone, SATB and orchestra, is one of his most impressive achievements; a modal, almost ecclesiastical, French underplay is evident early in the work and increasingly inventive, vigorous canonic writing for voices and instruments follows as four contrasting movements are unveiled. In Shore Leave, a cycle for baritone and strings, he offers the clearest evidence of his affection for the unusually gifted English song composer, Ivor Gurney, of whom he has written the still definitive biography. An acknowledged debt to Britten (compare the latter's own Flower Songs and Hymn to St Cecilia) can be sensed in the counterpoint, invention and musical textures. Other important SATB works include his early cycle Music's Praise, which incorporates settings (with strings) of Shakespeare and Pope, the three brief unaccompanied Chaucer rondels entitled Merciles Beaute and the Elizabethan / Shakespearian threnody The Phoenix and the Turtle, into which he introduces a highly effective mezzo-soprano solo line.
Hurd writes especially well for equal voices; his delightful early work Charms and Ceremonies and the later Nine of Anon have optional unison of SSA parts. Of the Herrick pieces, Flower Songs are for SSA with strings, whereas Five Epitaphs sets the poetry unaccompanied. He has also used SSA forces effectively in his church music; Canticles of the Virgin Mary or the Missa Brevis, with its implicit tribute to not just Britten but the plainsong-influenced French school (Durufle or Langlais), like much of his equal-voice output works equally well with boys' or girls' voices, the continental debt immediately apparent in the tender berceuse and accompanying organ of the Mass's Sanctus.
Hurd's entertaining pop cantatas - the first Jonah-Man Jazz something of a trailblazer back in the mid 1960s - are too widely known and performed to need elaboration. Since the best-selling Jonah and Swingin' Samson, more than a dozen have emerged, their punchily, witty anachronistic libretti (usually by the composer) offset by neat pastiches of jazz, blues and other idioms Hurd admires or likes to share with his young singers, whom he always stretched sufficiently (he refuses to compromise young voices by "writing down" for them). Those on biblical themes include Adam-in-Eden and Prodigal, while among his longer efforts Hip-Hip Horatio, recalling a sea theme which surfaces often in his work, Mrs Beeton's Book and Mr Punch, a small-scale opera or entertainment for youngsters given its first performance in Sweden, all enjoy continuing success both at home and abroad.
Obituary notice in The Independent 16 August 2006
The composer, choral conductor and writer Michael Hurd's first music to appear in print was two groups of unison settings of Walter de la Mare, Araby, Please to Remember and Sailor's Song. The Silver Penny and Tillie in 1963 (collected with others as Sea and Shore Songs in 1970). This started his long-standing association with Novello & Co, who not only published almost all his music, but also his books, and whose history, Vincent Novello & Company, he wrote in 1981. When, in 1983, Novello issued a brochure listing Hurd's works published by them, it ran to 12 pages.
His many commissions came from local societies such as the Havant Symphony Orchestra and Havant and District Schools Music Festival, Southern Orchestral Concerts Society, the Farnham Festival, the Petersfield Music Festival, the Stroud Festival and the Hampshire Federation of Women's Institutes.
Out of these, Hurd developed an accessible line in popular cantatas for children's groups including Jonah-man Jazz (1966), Swingin' Samson (1972), Hip Hip Horatio (1974), Rooster Rag (1975) and Captain Coram's Kids (1988), which for perhaps twenty years were widely performed.
In the more serious of these Hurd uses a narrator, most dramatically, perhaps, in Pilgrim (1978), his response to a commission from Bedfordshire County Council to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Pilgrim's Progress. Also notable among these was his "music-hall guide to Victorian living", Mrs Beeton's Book (1982), using words from the celebrated cookery book to amusing effect.
A reminder came of the eloquence of his many serious vocal works, both choral and for solo voice and orchestra, when his orchestral song cycle Shore Leave, five enchanting settings of poems by Charles Causley, was revived by the baritone Roderick Williams during the 1998 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. This had first appeared as a work for tenor and string orchestra in 1963 when it was sung by Wilfred Brown at Haslemere in Surrey.
These works were crowned by the four-movement choral symphony Shepherd's Calendar, after John Clare, for baritone, chorus and orchestra, first heard in 1975.
Michael Hurd was born in Gloucester in 1928, the son of a cabinet-maker and upholsterer. He attended the Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester, and while still at school was encouraged in his musical interests by the Gloucester composer Alexander Brent-Smith. I can remember him fondly recalling the importance of Cheltenham Public Library in his musical education.
Called up for National Service, Hurd found himself in the Army Intelligence Corps where a posting to Vienna enabled him to indulge a growing passion for opera. He went up to Pembroke College, Oxford in 1950, to read music under Sir Thomas Armstrong and Bernard Rose, and was President of the Oxford University Music Society. Subsequently he was Professor of Theory at the Royal Marines School of Music at Deal from 1953-59. For many years he was a composition pupil of the composer Lennox Berkeley.
The death of his parents gave him a small inheritance with which he was able to buy (for only a few hundred pounds) the small cottage in West Liss, Hampshire, where he lived for the rest of his life. Going freelance, he developed a portfolio of musical activities which gave him a living and enabled him to compose. Locally these included conducting the Alton and Petersfield Choral Societies, together with Gilbert and Sullivan operettas for his local operatic society.
One of his singers remembers him as "highly thought of, dynamic, creative". He lectured widely, adjudicated, appeared regularly on BBC Radio 3, usually talking about British music (Rutland Boughton, Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi) and fulfilled many commissions, notably writing music for local choral societies, schools and orchestras.
When only 19 he had sought out the composer Rutland Boughton for advice on his own music, but soon found himself producing the first book-length account of Boughton's life and music which became his first significant publication in 1962, much later expanded as Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals for the Clarendon Press in 1993.
A longstanding friend of Hurd was the writer David Hughes and his wife the actress Mai Zetterling at whose house he had completed his book on Boughton. They introduced him to writing film music, for Flickorna (1968) and Scrubbers (1982). He wrote the music for a son et lumiére production at Kenilworth Castle in 1962 and incidental music for Edward II at Berkeley Castle and Comus at Highnam Court, both these last in his native Gloucestershire.
He had produced two operas for children, Little Billy, "a nautical opera" first performed at Brightlands School, Newnham-on-Severn in 1964 and Mr Punch, an "operatic entertainment for young people" commissioned by the Stiftelsen Institut für Rikskonserter, Stockholm, and first seen at Gothenburg in 1970. This operatic talent found a larger canvas when, working with David Hughes, he produced the dark one-act chamber opera The Widow of Ephesus for the 1971 Stroud Festival. Later came two more operas, The Aspern Papers (1995) and The Night of the Wedding (1998).
While Hurd's musical activities were largely focused on the UK and especially the south and west, he certainly travelled abroad, usually as choral conductor or adjudicator, visiting Rhodesia early on and Madras in 1985 to give choral workshops. He had a warm reception in Australia, writing to me how they "seemed to like" his music after his fourth visit in 1991. There, in 1995, he enjoyed the only production so far of The Aspern Papers. Indeed, all his operas were given there and he was beginning to wonder whether if he were younger he would prefer living in Melbourne.
Hurd's books included many for children, including Young Person's Guide to Concerts (1962), Young Person's Guide to Opera (1963), Young Person's Guide to English Music (1965) and an extensive revision to The Oxford Junior Companion to Music. He became Novello's editor for their series of short biographies, and contributed the volumes on Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Elgar to Faber's "The Great Composers" series.
As well as Boughton, the other composer Hurd was notably associated with was the Gloucestershire-born Gurney, on whom he wrote the first full-length study, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (1978). Here he wrote from personal experience, not only of his boyhood's Gloucestershire, but of the experience of being a composer. In his book The Composer (1968), Hurd was undoubtedly writing autobiographically when he wrote "From the moment the composer is born, his mind begins to hoard away musical experiences."
Hurd was long associated with preparing for performance the music of the two composers he notably championed, Gurney and Boughton, and with a local operatic group, Opera 70, he actually conducted a stage production of Boughton's opera The Lily Maid at Chichester in 1985. Early in his career the Farnham Festival performance of his Canticles of the Virgin Mary had appeared on LP and with the Rutland Boughton Music Trust he was able to arrange the promotion of commercial recordings of Boughton's operas and orchestral works.
And yet he never seemed able to pull together the organisation necessary to arrange the recordings of his own music which would have given it a higher profile than it at present enjoys.
Michael Hurd was a solitary and private man, albeit a charming and humorous one. Although I was acquainted with him for more than 30 years, I never had any hint of his family or any personal relationships.
Music critic, East Hampshire Post
(the closing paragraphs of an entertaining attack on extravagant conducting styles)
... and then I remember something that soothes my irritation with The Contortionists. You will agree that what Petersfield does today, England does tomorrow and we have in our midst a man who, to my mind, is a model in these respects.
I refer to that fine composer and conductor, Mr Michael Hurd. Whenever I have been present at a concert under his baton, I have been allowed to enjoy it without the distractions I have complained of so bitterly above. Mr Hurd does his work with dignity, with no attempt to exploit personality, and with the single aim of giving us music pure and free from distraction.
East Hampshire Post: Thursday 15 November 1984
Royal Marines Band Service web forum
In the words of one leading newspaper, we were told ‘Music world mourns death of composer’. This headline referred to the death in August of Michael Hurd, very well known to so many of us as the Professor of Harmony and allied musical subjects at the Royal Marines School of Music during the years 1953 to 1960.
I was among the first of his pupils and I was lucky enough to get to know him really well. His soft, gentle manner coupled with a bright, acerbic wit, soon endeared him to all the members of his various classes. There would not be one man in any of them who could find a criticism of his teaching technique, always a kind word of encouragement for those that found the mysteries of the ‘passing six four’ in the same class as the Theory of Relativity.
For the ‘bright’ and the ‘not so bright’ student he was patience personified and could be relied upon to show, by musical example, how something could be made more acceptable than the student’s original. His own musical education was completed at Oxford where he read music under the gentle guidance of Sir Thomas Armstrong, later Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, who befriended many of us that were lucky enough to be selected to go there and complete our own musical educations.
Michael was always an extremely private man and even those that were closest to him in the world away from the Royal Marines School of Music, knew little of his private life. This is hardly surprising when one considers the bulk of work that he achieved; over eighteen books, all on the lives of English composers, in particular those of the songwriter, Ivor Gurney and of Rutland Boughton.
His own compositions, of which there are many more than we knew about, are characterised by a gentle, lyrical quality. His wonderfully witty way with words is seen to best advantage in some of the light-hearted works that he wrote for amateur choirs. Works such as Mrs Beeton’s Book in which he uses, as a text, the classic recipes and day to day instructions for servants in that famous set of house-keeping rules, formulated in Victorian times, by Mrs Beeton.
He was a highly regarded conductor and choral trainer, and on several occasions was appointed Composer in Residence in Australia where this quiet, gentle and above all witty Pom was happily accepted as a civilising influence.
He is greatly missed by all that knew him. Vale, Michael Hurd.
Composer and pianist
I knew Michael reasonably well and always liked him. We got on very well, I think. Oddly enough we met mostly at the Port Fairy Festival, when I was appearing there as composer and pianist, or in Melbourne at the home of the late Michael Easton, who ran the Festival.
In 1993 the Festival put on his opera The Widow of Ephesus which I recall as very entertaining and skilful. In 1995 they staged The Aspern Papers. I responded to this work with a good deal of enthusiasm and indeed have often thought about the piece - I am glad there are plans to record it.
The criticism of the time was that it lacked a dramatic dénouement but I felt rather that it was a thoughtful and and rather moving exposition of a human situation that was unusual in operatic terms but nonetheless engrossing. The style, as I remember, was fairly conservative, reminiscent perhaps of Poulenc in his sentiment-filled mood, but none the worse for that. I felt it was a sincere and deeply-felt response to the subject matter and deserved to be heard again. As I recall, I was one of the few people who felt that it was successful !
Tribute in Petersfield Festival programme, 9 March 2007
For almost half a century Michael Hurd, internationally respected composer, author and broadcaster, devoted much of his time and energy to music in Petersfield and the surrounding area. There were few organisations, from Farnham and Alton in the north to Fareham in the south, which were untouched by his influence.
Michael was born in Gloucester on 19 December 1928, and was educated at the Crypt School. Though a leading light in the school's cultural life, he received no formal musical training. He taught himself to play the piano and to compose, and was sufficiently versed in the subject to read music at Oxford on completion of his National Service. In 1953 he joined the staff of the Royal Marines School of Music at Deal, and in 1960 settled in Liss to begin a career as a freelance musician.
He was encouraged by Kathleen Merritt, who conducted his Sinfonia Concertante at a S.O.C.S. Concert in 1973, and his association with the Festival began in 1966, when he was an adjudicator. Two years later he became Music Adviser for the Youth Day and began the urgent task of revitalising it. Two-part songs about daffodils dancing in the breeze were no longer likely to engage their attention, he reasoned, and he began to introduce pop cantatas and instrumental works with great success, conducting the Youth Nights for the next ten years.
He joined the Festival Committee and the Music Committee in 1971 and succeeded Alan Lunt as Chairman in 1985. Six years later he became President, a position he held until his death. During this time several of his works were heard at the Festival, most recently his gently lyrical choral symphony A Shepherd's Calendar. whilst in 1984 the Festival commissioned Mrs Beeton's Book, a music-hall guide to Victorian living, for the Ladies' Choirs.
There were privately, however, times when he was disenchanted by the standard of performance, and together with the conductor Mark Deller and Ann Pinhey he devised a plan to modernise the Festival. It was firmly rejected, but he was pleased that over the years some of his suggestions had been incorporated as a matter of course. Such was his vision.
In 1970 he began a 28 year association with producer Michael Harding as conductor of the Petersfield Operatic Society, during which time all thirteen Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were performed. He missed just one year, when he was in Australia in 1995 directing his opera The Aspern Papers at the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, which he had co-founded in 1990. He returned to conduct The Gondoliers in 2004. From 1979 until 1999 he was musical director of the Hi-Lights, and he took the opportunity to revive several forgotten English musicals of an earlier era, The Arcadians, The Quaker Girl and A County Girl, as well as Johann Strauss, Offenbach and the usual Broadway blockbusters.
Michael's abiding passion was for English music, and he became an acknowledged authority on Rutland Boughton and Ivor Gurney, both of whom were the subject of his pioneering biographies. As a young composer he was encouraged by Boughton, whom he repaid by conducting several of his near-forgotten works, including Bethlehem and The Lily Maid. He also wrote short monographs on Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett and several books on music aimed at young people.
Michael greatly admired the music of Puccini and Korngold. and their gift of melody permeates his own work. He had no time for the over-intellectual obscurity of much 20th century music, but composed for the pleasure of his performers and the delight of his audiences. "Why write two tenor parts ?" he asked. "It's hard enough to hear one sung properly !". His sensitivity to poetry made it inevitable that choral music should dominate his output, though his orchestral works are greatly admired by those who know them, particularly his Concerto da Camera, for oboe and orchestra, which was written for Geoffrey Bridge and the Havant Chamber Orchestra in 1979.
Perhaps he is best remembered for his jazz cantatas for children, which generated an instant appeal even to non-musical pupils, with their witty lyrics and catchy tunes. It was at a performance of one of these, Jonah-Man Jazz, at the Bordon Schools Music Festival in 1972, that I first met Michael, and he told me that it was simply the product of a mis-spent Christmas.
He was the master of such under-statement. as Hi-Lights producer Roger Wettone recalls. At the end of another triumphant week of performances his first words would be, "Well, that's another one we got away with !".
A final, and very pertinent, memory comes from Kenneth Hick. On one occasion Michael addressed a rowdy section of the Operatic Society chorus, "If you listen very carefully, you may hear something to your advantage.".
School and Oxford contemporary, music scholar
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 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 - eg 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 Novellos 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 his adopted 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 Petersfield Hospital on August 8th 2006.
Managing Director, Novello and Co Ltd
Novello is extremely proud and I believe fortunate to be Michael's principal publisher. He has been one of the great musical communicators and a composer whose music touched very many people, at all levels of musical competence, amateur and professional, in the UK and on a broad basis internationally. It seems to me that his was a very natural gift and one that he will be long remembered for and which so many of us have been lucky to experience.
Regrettably I had been able to meet Michael only very rarely but I was always taken by his good humour and concern for others. I am sorry that I will not have the chance to get to know him better.
From a letter of condolence, August 2006.
Composer, chairman Ivor Gurney Society
It was at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1998, that I first met Michael Hurd, having been introduced to him by Anthony Boden, the then chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society. I was immediately struck by Michael’s warm-hearted and kind nature, as well as his brilliant conversation; one that bristled with intellectual banter and showed an endearingly self-deprecating wit.
As our friendship developed he became more candid and began to adopt a delightfully avuncular manner towards this younger composer. I felt instantly drawn to him and from the outset it was clear that we shared many similar musical and aesthetic interests. Michael was through and through a gentleman and his engaging old school demeanour did not bring with it any stuffiness or affectation. He revelled in musical ‘gossip’ and anecdotes, and he had an armoury of bon mots at his disposal, which he would drop casually into our conversations. However, one would always have to be on one’s toes, as he would often make references to scholarly classical or literary allusions!
His knowledge of minor English composers was quite remarkable and he could regale one upon the many little known facts about the lives of these fascinating characters. To those who did not know Michael very well he might have appeared rather aloof or even shy. He was certainly a very private man and he would often use humour as a foil to parry those who tried to pry. However, the more one got to know him, the more he let down his guard and the more friendly he became. The mask he wore in public hid a rather sensitive inner life - a life that he revealed only occasionally on a personal level, but one that is perhaps more fully understood when one listens to his ‘serious’ classical works, and especially his intimate songs.
One could argue that his music reflects the two sides of his personality. On the one hand, his jazz, operatic and stage works projected the comedic qualities that he enjoyed so much in life, while on the other, his serious compositions were reserved for his most personal and reflective thoughts. Indeed, he admitted as much when I pressed him on this point.
When discussing the slow movement of his ‘Sinfonia Concertante’, he said, ‘I’d certainly own up to a vein of melancholy – but it’s all part and parcel of being English. And I suppose that frivolity is simply the same thing in reverse’. His off-hand dismissal of any suggestion that he might be able to express deep thoughts as a composer was part and parcel of his absolute honesty and his self-criticism as a composer. Having said that, reading through our correspondence, it is striking to note how many times Michael makes reference to his compositions and his obvious pride in his achievements.
In this brief reminiscence, I have selected from his letters some of the musical highlights and other observations that Michael related to me about his life and music. I think they bring a fascinating insight into this wonderfully engaging musician - a man whom I can say, it was a great privilege to have known.
One of his earliest letters dated 2nd November 1999, contained the sad news about the death of his friend, the composer Howard Ferguson. ‘You will want to know that Howard Ferguson died on 31st October, ten days after his 91st birthday. Peacefully in his sleep – marbles intact, and (apart from age) completely healthy. As good a death as anyone could wish for.' Michael went on to conclude, ‘I shall miss him, though. A really lovely man. And the one composer whose musical advice could always be relied on for sympathy and sanity. He was also good for gossip about what our musical ancestors used to get up to. You’d be surprised.’
Early in our friendship Michael and I would send one another recordings of unusual pieces of music that we thought neither of us knew. This was always great fun! One such recording he sent was a complete CD of orchestral works by the Australian composer Michael Easton. I had not come across his music before, but it was very enjoyable and I could definitely see why Michael was attracted to it. In this connection, Michael was very proud of being the originator of a summer music festival in Melbourne. The festival was called the Port Fairy Festival, and he described how it came into being in a letter dated, 1st November 2000.
‘The Port Fairy Festival [was] named after the ship ‘Fairy’, that discovered it to be a safe anchorage in the 1840s. I am proud to say that it was my idea. Michael [Easton] had organised a Melbourne production of my chamber opera ‘The Widow of Ephesus’, and we decided to take the cast of three down to Port Fairy, where Michael had a small house, in order to rehearse in a concentrated fashion. I fell in love with the place – mid 19th century and quite unspoiled – a bit like the Wild West. It turned out to have a couple of nice churches, a disused cinema, several useful hotels, a decent school hall, and what amounted to a miniature theatre.
With regards to his own music, Michael mentioned in a letter dated, 9th February 2000 having composed a new choral work and then went on to say that ‘there are rumblings about another commission. I sort of hope that it will fall through. I find it more and more difficult to write anything that convinces me. And as to finding new words to set – I mean, words that are suitable for choirs and which haven’t been set already, either by me or anyone else whose work convinces me so that I dare not court comparison – its almost impossible. And I have a library of nearly 300 volumes of poetry!
Michael’s comments about courting comparison resonate with the sentiments he expressed in the very first letter he sent to me. He also gave me one of the kindest compliments I have ever received, and is yet another example of the kindness he would often show towards younger composers.
‘I’ve been meaning, for some time now, to congratulate you on the CD of your songs – please excuse the delay. As it is the earliest of your settings, you probably won’t want to hear that ‘Midnight lamentation’ is a masterpiece – the sort of song that is absolutely ‘right’, and therefore warns every other composer off that particular poem. (By the way: I like your additions to Mr Monro).Can anyone obtain copies of any of the songs – ‘Midnight Lamentation’ especially? For ready money, I mean’. [7th October 1999]
Some of Michael’s most amusing asides were often reserved for fellow musicians and especially music critics. On this subject we were both in agreement and held the same opinion that Sibelius did, who once said, that no one has ever raised a statue to a music critic. In the extract that follows, I will leave blank the name of the offending critic!
‘Once [Mr X] has freed himself of the limitations in appreciation that come with the ‘Sell-by Date of Music Criticism’, he is (as he should be) quite complimentary. They can’t seem to see that it is what you say and not the vocabulary you choose to say it that matters. But it’s like the Accountancy School of musicology. Hopeless!’ [3rd May 2000]
Michael was clearly delighted by the renewed interest in his music and by the raft of commercial recordings that were soon to be released. ‘The recordings will emerge at some time, as yet unspecified. The 'Sinfonia Concertante’ as part of a Naxos ‘English String Miniatures, Vol 3’, and the Concerto da camera’ on an ASV label along with other oboe concertos by Rawsthorne, Leighton, and Gardiner. I’m very pleased with the first edits – though God knows what the critics will make of music that could have been written in 1900.’
By the end of 2001, all the above recordings had either been released or were soon to become available. Michael was clearly pleased with them.
‘I don’t want to frighten you, but my COMPLEAT (sic) ORCHESTRAL WORKS are now available on CD. Relax! ‘Compleat’ means only four pieces – I don’t suffer from Havergal Brian Syndrome. The orchestral recordings have startled me somewhat, in that they all seems so cheerful. I appear to have weathered three-quarters of an alarming century without the slightest sign of angst. Evidently I have the genes of an ostrich. The most I can manage is wistful and mildly melancholy. Deep emotion eludes me, evidently.’ [19th Sept 2001]
A leitmotiv running through many of our letters was the question of whether music can express, in an autobiographical sense, a composer’s deepest thoughts and emotions. For my part, I argued that it was possible and so raised the issue in connection with his ‘Sinfonia Concertante’.
‘I’m afraid that the slow movement is not a plaster on some emotional wound – at least, if it was, I cannot now remember the circumstances. I don’t really think that music works that way. Emotion recollected in tranquillity maybe, but seldom specific. I’d certainly own up to a vein of melancholy – but its all part and parcel of being English. And I suppose that frivolity is simply the same thing in reverse. Thinking back on that slow movement. I rather fancy that the passacaglia element was dredged up from some earlier work. Best not to ask how things come about – the answer is nearly always mundane and cold-blooded than the romantic in us would like to think. And so much is down to the performance (which pleased me greatly, by the way), so it is all rather puzzling. [28th November]
Like a ‘dog with a bone’, I pressed the point again, which was answered in a follow up letter dated 6th December. In discussing Michael’s song cycle ‘Shore Leave’ I felt that there was an autobiographical element to it. Michael’s response was typically elusive.
‘I’m glad you found the songs of some interest. They are not specifically autobiographical – save that by my time of life you have experienced most of the feelings and events the poems touch upon. Melancholy seems endemic in English composers – probably the weather! But my life is not in the least bit sad – comic, if anything, and certainly nothing to complain about. And most of my music is quite cheerful – though one responds, of course, to the moods of the poets one chooses to set… I know what you mean by the mixed emotion one gets from clapping eyes on the truly beautiful: transfixed with wonder and gratitude, but saddened to think that it will fade. Maybe it is this that brings melancholy to the music?’
Some of our letters touched upon the process of musical composition. Michael’s perceptive description of his approach seems to me so true that I feel that I could have written it myself!
‘I find I tend to like what I am writing when I’m writing it, but then fall into doubt and general gloom for a while. It does take time for any sort of perspective to form – a good performance helps. First performances are nothing but apprehension – slow journeys in the tumbril! The best work seems to come when one is completely lost in the act and time stands still (rather like sex, in fact!), but it doesn’t happen often, alas. I suppose that the Beethovens and Wagners of this world were always away with the fairies. Permanently high on self-absorption’. [28th November 2001]
Further reflections on musical composition came out of a discussion about some of my own music. I had just sent him a recording of my Piano Quintet and String Quartet. His reply was as always honest and very gracious.
‘I greatly enjoyed and admire the Quintet and Quartet, and certainly think it would be good, and well justified, to get them on a professional label. What about SOMM? Both works strike me as being true chamber music. And both, alas, arouse a certain envy in me, in that I do not see myself being able to grapple successfully with the enormous challenges such works entail. A solo instrument and a piano I can manage, but four naked lines exposing every last weakness of musical thought!!! Oh dear!
Towards the end of this letter, Michael returned again to the perennial question of emotions and music. ‘Although I can concede that emotional events can prompt an immediate musical response, that emotional state does not last during the lengthy period of actual composition, so it inevitably becomes a recollected state of mind. Tchaikovsky is very firm on this point when pouring oil on the troubled waters of Madam von Meck’s reactions to his music. And my admired Strauss (R), points out that the head that wrote ‘Tristan und Isolde’ must have been ‘as cold as ice’. Think of controlling such a gigantic score as it unfolds without a hitch! But this does not mean that one cannot get ‘lost’ in the process of composition – so absorbed that time stands still. It doesn’t happen with every work, but when it comes it is marvellous – as beyond time and place as good sex.’
One of the more unusual topics we discussed was whether sexuality had any bearing upon creativity, especially in music. [Interestingly, I also had this same discussion with the American composer, Ned Rorem]. Michael believed that creativity was the product of an artist’s fundamental dissatisfaction with the world as they found it. I would certainly agree with this view. One only has to remember what some of the great artists of the past have said on this subject - ‘I, a stranger and afraid in a world I never made - A.E. Housman or ‘I had a lovers quarrel with the world’ - Robert Frost, are just two quotations that come to mind. I did, however, argue that sexual identity might have an influence upon certain aspects of a composers work. For example, the texts one might choose to set. Michael agreed that this might be true, but in the end he believed sexual orientation played a very minor role in creativity, if at all.
‘I’m not sure about the role of sexuality in music. Do you, in fact mean ‘sex drive’, or ‘orientation’? If the former. I think there may well be a connection. It is certainly true that the greatest music always moves towards climaxes of some degree or another. If there isn’t a visceral quality, it probably isn’t ‘great’ music. I imagine that the root of all creativity, at whatever level, is a fundamental discontent with the life-cards one has been dealt, and therefore a determination to reinvent the situation/condition more to one’s own taste. ‘Move over God, and let me have a go’. Then, with a bit of luck, we become our own therapists. For some, the Mahlers and Elgars, the therapy never ends. For others, the RVWs and the Strausses (R), it works but leaves a permanent afterglow of creative objectivity that can go on an on to ever greater things. I compose, therefore I am’. [28th December 2001]
Our last letters dealt mainly with an idea for a joint Hurd/Venables CD recording. Firstly, we discussed the possibility of a chamber music disc.
‘Trawling through my vast (!) oeuvre I find the only chamber works that might warrant inclusion on CD are: Sonata for Flute and Piano, 8 min, Sonata for Violin and Piano, 13 min and Five Preludes (piano) 7 min (but these were written as pieces for amateurs. Even I can play ‘em!)’ [19th April 2003]
We also explored the possibility of recording a selection of our songs, but Michael wanted his ‘Shore Leave’ cycle to be recorded in its original form, that is as a work for string orchestra.
‘So far as songs are concerned (all for baritone) we have the following: Shore Leave (5 Charles Causley) 10 min, The Day’s Alarm (5 Paul Dehn) 10 min and Carmina Amoris (5 Classical texts) 10 min. [19th April 2003]
Sadly, nothing came of either project. The main stumbling block with a joint song recording was that all three of Michael’s song cycles were written for the baritone voice, but at this point in my career I had written relatively little for baritone.
Since Michael’s death in 2006 the British Music Society created The British Music Society Charitable Trust. This was made possible by the generous bequest contained in Michael’s will towards the BMS. As a consequence, the trust is making funds available for future recordings. One of the first to appear is a recording of the song cycle, ‘Shore Leave’ performed by Roderick Williams and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Martin Yates.
This beautiful and finely wrought work shows the ‘other’ side of Michael’s creativity. Whilst the overriding atmosphere of the music is wistful and resigned, Michael’s lighter touch is still very much in evidence, especially in the fourth song, ‘Able Seaman Hodge remembers Ceylon’. Having said that, at heart of the work is his setting of ‘Shore Leave’ – the cycle’s title song. Here, melancholy gives way to something altogether deeper. A soul searching and contemplative engagement with the words has produced a powerfully moving song. For me, this setting alone puts pay to Michael’s description of himself as a rather ‘light weight’ composer.
I would like to end with a quote by Michael. Its amusing and self-effacing honesty is the way Michael saw himself and the way I wish to remember him.
‘You think I’m ‘inspired’!! No, dear. A dried out old husk. But cheerful, nevertheless, and grateful for a happy life.’
Conductor and composer
I first met Michael when I became Musical Director of the Chichester Singers in 1979, a choir that had a few years previously commissioned a choral work (This Day to Man) from him. I wanted to encourage the choir to give a second performance of this sensitive and beautifully crafted piece, and went to see Michael to discuss the work. A man of considerable personal modesty, when Michael discovered that I too was a composer he was keener to discuss my music than he was to explore his own.
This was the beginning of over 25 years of what I like to think was a warm friendship, during which Michael was enormously encouraging of my own career and deeply appreciative when I was able to programme his music - choral and instrumental - in concerts that I was conducting. In a world where so often huge egos and prickly personalities are evident, he was a breath of fresh air.
Writing a brochure note for Novello in 1982, Jonathan Willcocks also offered this assessment of Michael's music:
Unlike many contemporary composers, Michael Hurd writes music that is immediately attractive both to performers and audiences. He purposely eschews experimental techniques, partly because they are foreign to his instinctive inclinations, and, more significantly, because his work is overtly intended to express and interpret literary and musical ideas in a manner that will be accessible to the many.
Thus while his music lies within the tonal framework with which most choral singers are familiar, it successfully avoids the pitfall of becoming an exercise in a dated style that is both unstimulating and condescending. In this respect his choral music is not unlike certain works of Benjamin Britten in its attractive vocal writing and clearly defined suitability to the performing capabilities of many groups, both amateur and professional.
In common with all accomplished composers of vocal music, Michael Hurd's works exhibit an easy and equal partnership between words and music, the one always enhancing the other. The opening section of This Day to Man with its allegro setting of 'O sing unto this glittering, glorious King' finds a natural reflection of the bouyant words in irregular, lilting rhythms, underlined by the sparkle of typically transparent and uncluttered orchestration. The simplicity of the four-part unaccompanied setting of Thomas Pestel's 'Fairest of morning lights' in the same work is akin to the technique of the English madrigalists. But the unassuming homophonic style is spiced with a harmonic awareness that avoids the predictable, while preserving the elements of the period that give the words and music their unity.
No less convincing is his setting of Shakespeare's metaphysical poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, which he treats in a deliberately simple style, relying on the juxtaposition of mezzo-soprano voice with largely homophonic choral writing that probes gently at the edges of tonal harmony. A similar confrontation of simplicity and subtlety can be found in his one-act opera The Widow of Ephesus - though here his capacity for verbal and musical humour, allied to a decided flair for theatrical effect, provide additional strengths.
Most ambitious of his larger works is the choral symphony Shepherd's Calendar, a setting of the nineteenth century poet John Clare for baritone soloist, four-part chorus and orchestra. Subdivided into four movements, it explores the seasons of the year and the changing fortunes of the poet in a typically restrained and sensitive fashion. The orchestration of woodwind, horns, harp and strings becomes a prominent feature in the textural colour of each section, from the starkness of the opening 'withering and keen the winter comes' to the sparkle and brilliance of the second movement.
Again the natural rhythms and metres of Clare's poetry are allowed to hold sway in the rhythmic changes which are a frequent feature of Michael Hurd's writing. The influence of the great contrapuntal composers also finds regular outlet in the musical adhesion of line against line - not in a mechanical process of construction, but one which is alive to the possibilities offered by the text and resulting in the logical growth of melodic material.
In a less serious yet equally accomplished vein, Michael Hurd has written the words and music of several highly entertaining and imaginative 'pop' cantatas. Very much pioneers in this field (Jonah-man Jazz, for example, was written in 1966) these attractive works have proved an invaluable source of musical material for performers of all ages. His fluency of style and natural inventive wit ensure their continued popularity both as performing pieces and under the considerable test of repeated rehearsal.
Though mainly regarded as a choral composer, Michael Hurd's orchestral and chamber music shows a similar directness of utterance. Like Lennox Berkeley, with whom he studied, he believes in clarity, economy and lyricism. A direct comparison may even be drawn with his prose writing, which exhibits the same stylistic elegance and sensibility.