Obituary: Thomas Pitfield

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The Independent Culture
JACK OF many trades - artist, engraver, poet, teacher, calligrapher, bookbinder, furniture designer and builder, ornithologist - and master of most of them, too, Thomas Pitfield will none the less be remembered chiefly as a composer, of unemphatic, beautifully crafted music.

Thomas Baron Pitfield was born in Bolton in 1903, his father a master- joiner and builder and his mother a dressmaker. He grew up in a world with little material comfort. In A Cotton Town Boyhood (1993), one of several slim and elegant volumes of autobiography, all illustrated with his own drawings, designs and engravings, Pitfield wrote that he could "remember often being wakened in the very early morning by mill hooters, and then hearing the clatter of mill-girls' clogs on the flagstoned pavements".

Pitfield's early life was one long struggle against adversity. His mother made no secret of the fact that he was an unwanted child; he was, he recalled, "never given toys, except by relatives". His family he found "anti-bookish" and never saw anyone reading anything other than the Book of Common Prayer; Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows and other common joys of childhood reading were beyond his ken.

When he was 14, what he called "the official end of my boyhood" came when he was "pitchforked unwillingly into the drawing office of a large engineering works, Hick Hargreaves" - he had learned woodwork and carpentry skills in his father's workshop as a child. He was to spend seven and a half years of "serfdom" at Hick Hargreaves, designing flywheels and other pieces of industrial equipment.

His anti-intellectual family did allow him to have piano lessons, however, paid for with the meagre income he earned from his job; he also studied the organ until he couldn't afford any more instruction - even though he preferred to spend his money on lessons rather than food. He was composing songs and simple pieces of chamber music from the age of 16, self-taught; what was probably his first public performance came when his organ teacher presented one of his songs, with the leading contralto from the Halle choir. Pitfield was astonished when his father turned up at the concert - "the only member of my family who ever went to hear one of my works performed".

Before long he was a practised composer, writing for friends and local groups and, as musical director of the local Shakespeare society, contributing incidental music to the productions. That set a pattern to which he would adhere all his life: his music was almost always practically intended, for musician friends, acquaintances, amateurs, children - he took pleasure in being useful.

With the savings from his job, he enrolled for a year at the Royal Manchester College of Music (he couldn't afford a second year), mainly studying harmony but also attending Frank Merrick's ensemble class. Yet "I never exposed myself as a performer, for the very obvious reason that it would have been disastrous, but neither did I disclose to him that I aspired seriously to becoming a composer." Likewise, though he took cello lessons from Carl Fuchs - who had played in the Halle Orchestra under Sir Charles Halle himself and risen to be principal cellist under Hans Richter - Pitfield said nothing of the several works for cello and piano (including a sonata) that he had written by then.

With increasing musical confidence he founded a string quartet, which played more or less anything they could get their hands on, including Pitfield's own compositions. His father was proud enough of his son's achievements to buy him a piano, but his death shortly afterwards condemned Tom, now 25, to stay at home to look after his invalid mother. He was stuck there until the age of 31, in "a single-handed battle with my mother that never subsided until I left home".

Pitfield emerged from the hardships of his youth without a trace of the bitterness one might have expected. That might have had something to do with his gentleness of his views, though they were very firmly held: he decided at an early age to become a strict vegetarian and a pacifist - beliefs that continued to mean much to him all through his life.

A scholarship to the Bolton School of Art in 1930 allowed him to train for three years as a teacher of art and cabinet-work, a discipline which combined with his musicality when the Hubert Foss, head of the Music Division of Oxford University Press, began to commission him to provide covers, frontispieces and other illustrations for OUP publications, one of which was Britten's Simple Symphony.

Pitfield was now starting to get performances in his own right, and OUP and Augener began to bring out his compositions - first, and chief, among them the Prelude, Minuet and Reel for piano, destined to become his best- known work. Its title reveals both Pitfield's classicality and his attraction to the inflections of folk-song: although he was largely self-taught, he cited a book of 221 Scottish folk-tunes as one of his earliest influences, and he learned Russian folk-music from his wife, Alice Astbury, whom he married after a seven-year engagement in 1934. Alice grew up, with Russian as her first language, outside Moscow, where her Lancashire father managed a cotton-mill; the family narrowly managed to escape back to Britain after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and their boat was harried by German submarines between Archangel and Aberdeen.

A succession of jobs as a teacher, usually of various craft skills, for pays of a pittance, brought Pitfield up to the Second World War, which he spent as a conscientious objector; his objection was admitted on condition that he carry on teaching. In the 1920s he had written a number of ballet scores for the Liverpool Ballet Club and when, at the end of the war, what Pitfield described as "backstage machinations" rescinded an invitation to teach at the Royal Manchester (now Northern) College of Music (RNCM), those ballet connections came to his aid: Arnold Haskell commissioned a series of around 100 short piano pieces for the exam syllabus of the Royal Academy of Dancing.

The job offer was renewed in 1947 and Pitfield became professor of composition. He and Alice, herself a fine pianist, moved to Bowdon in Cheshire (where John Ireland had been born almost 70 years earlier), and there he lived for the rest of his life; Alice survives him. He inspired great affection both in the local community, in Bowdon and beyond, and among his Manchester students. Among them were a number of composer-pianists, not least Ronald Stevenson, John Ogdon and John McCabe, who described Pitfield as "a guide rather than an instructor", saying,

He was quite liberal in his approach, although he didn't like a lot of things that were happening in modern music in the early Sixties, but he was still able, to a great

extent, to put aside his own personal taste and deal with practical things, the instruments, structural things, and so on.

Pitfield could turn his hand to almost anything: music apart, he was an accomplished artist as well as a master-craftsman, drawing buildings, landscapes, trees - a source of inspiration throughout his life. He had an impish love of limericks, often devising them around the names of musician acquaintances. He shamelessly enjoyed the quirks of nonsense verse, as in these lines written for his 75th birthday:

Here I am, still seemingly alive,

And slowly coming up to seventy-five,

That is, I think, three-quarters of a century

(My skill with sums is only rudimentary).

At this ripe age I find the problem difficult

To sort out quickly from my birth certificult.

For all the diversity of his skills, the music will be Pitfield's main epitaph. He wrote prolifically all through his life: chamber music, choral music, pieces for musician friends, amateurs, children. He was active throughout his retirement, writing prose and verse, drawing, corresponding and, of course, composing, battling failing eyesight even this year in an attempt to set one of his own limericks. Though he never pushed for it, he drew enormous pleasure from performance of his music.

But he was its own worst enemy. Once he felt that a piece was no longer likely to be performed, like Handel he would recycle the best ideas and often discard the original score. Those early Liverpool ballets are lost. So is the first of three piano concertos, as too a violin concerto, a bassoon sonatina and countless other pieces.

An Olympia CD currently being recorded, scheduled to include his Recorder Concerto, will help draw attention to Pitfield's music. The RNCM, which in 1993 released one of the very few other CDs of his music (of chamber and piano music and songs), is establishing a Pitfield archive and will be glad to hear of any scores in private hands. A sinfonietta composed for Sir John Barbirolli was recently rediscovered in Pitfield's shed. Some 18 orchestral pieces are published and thus accounted for; so are three trios, six sonatas, 13 sonatinas and around 20 other chamber pieces, eight stage works, many more choral pieces and a generous quantity of songs. But the sheer extent of his achievement will probably never be known. Pitfield himself would have shrugged and smiled.

Thomas Baron Pitfield, composer and teacher: born Bolton, Lancashire 5 April 1903; married 1934 Alice Astbury; died 11 November 1999.