Stephen Oliver - In memory of a brief but brilliant career

Stephen Oliver would have been 60 this year. In advance of a concert in Norwich, the composer is celebrated by his friend, the actor Simon Callow
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The Independent Culture

The composer Stephen Oliver, who died hatefully young in 1992 of Aids-related complications, was literally prodigious: when he was still a schoolboy, he wrote a trumpet concerto, a film score, three major cantatas, a number of ensemble and choral works, and three operas; when he submitted compositions for the Chester Music Festival under an assumed name, he won several years running, often against adults with published work to their names. Before he went up to Oxford, Pernod sponsored a whole concert of his music, which the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra played at the Blue Coat concert hall in Liverpool; while he was at the university (where, as his friend Adam Pollock wrote, "lessons were somewhat superfluous for him"), he wrote the operas All the Tea in China in 1969, The Duchess of Malfi in 1971 and The Dissolute Punished in 1972. By the time he left, eight of his works had been published by Novello.

There was, it seemed, nothing he couldn't do, and not only musically: he translated libretti, he wrote plays, he scripted television series, which he also presented. The only musician of comparable versatility in our times was Leonard Bernstein: like that great multi-tasker he wrote effective, witty, accessible music for film, radio, dance and theatre, including famous scores for Nicholas Nickleby and Peter Pan, for the RSC; he wrote a West End musical (Blondel) too. And, again like Bernstein, he wrote abstract music that was complex and challenging, sometimes abstruse. He was a complete musician.

I first became aware of Stephen as a member of the audience for RSC productions. Whenever I consulted the programme to find out who had written the incidental music, it always turned out to be Stephen. One could never have guessed by hearing it because he spoke with so many musical tongues. I said to someone: "This is the Mike Yarwood of music." He could do anyone – Abba, Bach, Cage and so on through the alphabet. I thought that this facility might be dangerous for his soul. I knew about his operas, his musicals, his radio work. But who was he? I found out when I met him at the National Theatre in the late Seventies: I was playing Orlando in a critically unsuccessful production of As You Like It and he'd been to see it. Someone introduced us, he said he'd loved the production, and I (no doubt trying to show I knew who he was) volunteered that I'd tried to play Orlando as if he had been written by Berlioz, all jagged lightning, and not, as he is usually played, as if he had been written by Puccini, an arrow shot into a clear blue sky, and he said, without qualification or mitigation, that that was the single most pretentious remark he'd ever heard in his life. We were friends from then on.

Years later, when we were travelling on the Tube together, I announced that I wanted to do an all-black production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and this time he actually hit me, quite hard. "That's the most patronising thing I've ever heard in my life." He pulled no punches, just shot off his thought as it entered his brain, and if it wounded – tant pis. It was swarming with thoughts and ideas, that brain of his, fertile to an almost Mozartian level of playful brilliance. And not just playful: he was always casually making connections of the most unexpected, revelatory kind. I was surprised that when he fronted his television series about opera this capacity for the dazzling but always illuminating connection didn't somehow work: he came over as bumptious, opinionated, too clever by half. In life, one would never have thought that: there was a tender, human quality to him that made one understand instantly that he knew whereof he spoke and that the surface brilliance was merely the cascade out of which the rainbow emerged.

Tenderness is the word that comes up again and again in my recollection of Stephen. It is everywhere in his music, in Beauty and the Beast, in the scores for Peter Pan and Nicholas Nickleby, especially, and especially unexpectedly in his last, austere masterpiece, Timon of Athens. In life, he would rarely allow himself to express it. In the awful months in which he nursed his partner, Hugh, through mortal illness, his native vivacity became almost prickly; but sometimes he would allow himself a word, a phrase, a look which spoke of his great heart, his huge capacity for compassion and love.

When, not long after, my partner died, by his own hand, at the absurdly early age of 35, I wanted to commemorate him in music – something that people might sing for years to come – and I called Stephen, who knew and loved Aziz, and said that I'd like to commission a setting of the Emperor Hadrian's famous apostrophe to his own soul, which Marguerite Yourcenar used as the epigraph to her novel Memoirs of Hadrian. Without hesitation, Stephen said, "Wonderful, of course, I'd love to." Knowing Stephen, I expected to hear that he'd done it the following morning, but I didn't hear from him until a whole week later – an eternity in Stephen's terms – and then he said, "I've finished it. But it turned out to be a little more ambitious than what we discussed. It's a ricercare for four voices, it lasts about 20 minutes, it's fiendishly difficult and will need a couple of days' rehearsal. Cantabile want to do it, as does the BBC, but you'll have to pay for the rehearsals, about a thousand pounds." Trying to absorb all this, I said, "But Stephen, I don't have a thousand pounds," and he said, cheerfully, "Never mind then, I'll have it bound and embossed and I'll send it to you." "But Stephen, I don't read music." "Never mind, it'll look lovely on your shelf," and I said, "Don't you want to hear it?" and he said, "You idiot – I've ALREADY heard it. I WROTE it."

Not so long afterwards, Stephen, too, died. And not so long after that, Cantabile got in touch with me, and in time they performed it, under my direction, as part of a trilogy of pieces by Stephen: two droll one-act operas, Commuting and The Waiter's Revenge, and this piece (Ricercare No 4), which we did in the Church of Scotland kirk behind the Fortune Theatre, off Drury Lane, as a sort of ritual, the altar covered with sand and candles. It was hugely difficult to sing, but it is painfully direct emotionally, and seemed a sort of threnody for Stephen and for Hugh and for Aziz and for a whole generation who had died needlessly young.

I miss him still. He was instinct with the life force; his work was rich and witty and direct and accessible. He had achieved astonishing things, which we have, but even better work was ahead of him. The profundity and the brilliance were beginning to match each other. As I say these things, I hear him say, "That's the most pretentious/ patronising/ preposterous thing I've ever heard in my life." He was one of the most purely joyful men I ever met, and the least self-regarding or solemn. At his memorial service, which he planned down to the last semi-quaver, he decided that I should read a review of Hamlet by George Bernard Shaw. I didn't think it was particularly interesting. In the event, it raised gales of laughter at exactly the right moment in the service. Pure Stephen, to have wanted it and to have known how to get it.

On 9 May, we're celebrating, slightly late, what would have been his 60th birthday with a concert at the Norwich Playhouse, which gives a pretty good idea of his range: a first half, featuring Cantabile and songs from Timon, three songs from his incidental music to an RSC production of The Tempest, three or four numbers from Blondel and a delicious song from his radio version of The Lord of the Rings. That half ends with a complete performance of his masterly 25-minute opera A Man of Feeling performed by Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Company, while the second consists of his glorious score for Nicholas Nickleby, performed by the London Mozart Players under Nicholas Cleobury, with me interweaving evocations of Vincent Crummles, Wackford and Fanny Squeers, Sir Mulberry Hawk and other Dickensian gargoyles into the musical texture. The evening offers a musical portrait of a man whose contribution to music on these islands was almost bewilderingly multifarious. It should be a most joyous occasion.

Stephen Oliver at 60, Norwich Play- house (, 9 May