Arnold Cooke

Composer who studied with Hindemith


Arnold Atkinson Cooke, composer: born Gomersal, Yorkshire 4 November 1906; Director, Festival Theatre, Cambridge 1932; Professor of Harmony, Counterpoint and Composition, Royal Manchester College of Music 1933-38; Professor of Harmony, Counterpoint and Composition, Trinity College of Music, London 1947-78; died Five Oak Green, Kent 13 August 2005.

Arnold Cooke was one of the last British musicians to study with Paul Hindemith at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in Berlin before the Nazi rise to power. On his return to England, he went on to build a national reputation as a composer and over the 40 years following the Second World War, when he was at his most prolific, wrote in almost all forms.

The second of three brothers, Arnold Cooke came from a comfortable middle-class family at Gomersal, near Leeds, his father a director of a company manufacturing carpets. Arnold was influenced by his violin-playing grandfather. His education was a typical middle-class inter-war one of prep school, Repton and Cambridge. He went up to Gonville and Caius College in 1925, at first to read History, but then moving on to Music, under the influence of Edward J. Dent, then newly appointed as Professor of Music. From 1929, again influenced by Dent, he went to Berlin, where he remained for three years.

In 1932 Arnold Cooke succeeded another British Hindemith pupil, Walter Leigh, as musical director at the Cambridge Festival Theatre, writing music for Peer Gynt and The Merchant of Venice, but soon moving to Manchester as Professor of Composition and Harmony at the Royal Manchester College of Music (1933-38). Throughout the Thirties he enjoyed performances of his latest works, largely of music for small combinations, although in 1936 Havergal Brian, writing in Musical Opinion, hailed Cooke's early short cantata Holderneth as "his finest work" at the time. Cooke made his first appearance at a Queen's Hall Promenade Concert on 30 August 1934, when Sir Henry Wood presented his Concert Overture No 1, which had come third in a competition run by the Daily Express.

The BBC broadcast Cooke's Three Pieces for Piano in 1936 and there were other chamber works including a Harp Quintet which featured the celebrated harpist Maria Korchinska in December 1934, a String Quartet (there would eventually be five) played by the Griller Quartet in 1935 and a Violin Sonata (the first of two) in 1939. In 1937 he produced a Sonata for Two Pianos commissioned by Adolph Hollis and Franz Reizenstein, heard at the Wigmore Hall. Cooke had known Reizenstein in Berlin. He declared his left-wing politics in 1939, by contributing the wind band "Introduction" to the first concert of the Festival of Music for the People at the Royal Albert Hall, organised by Alan Bush with music by Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy and Alan Rawsthorne, and performed on 1 April.

Cooke moved to London in 1938 and wrote a piano concerto which was accepted by the BBC and broadcast by Louis Kentner on 11 November 1943, by when Cooke was a naval officer. He was demobbed late in 1945 and survived on various one-off freelance activities, including music for Louis MacNeice's radio play Njal's Saga. Other commissions at the time included a concert overture, Processional, for the 1948 Cambridge Festival, a Concerto in D for string orchestra commissioned by the BBC Overseas Service, and incidental music for a film on the Colorado beetle.

In 1947 Cooke was appointed Professor of Harmony and Composition at Trinity College of Music, a position he held for over 30 years, finally retiring in 1978. The following year, he met his companion Billy Morrison, with whom he lived until Morrison's death in 1988. In 1948, too, he received his Doctorate from Cambridge University, his submitted works being a Sonata for Viola and Piano dating from 1937, the Piano Concerto broadcast in 1943 and his then recently completed First Symphony, first heard in a broadcast by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult on 26 February 1949.

Cooke used the pseudonym "Manounian" when, in 1949, he proposed Mary Barton as the subject of an opera, submitting a libretto by W.A. Rathkey after the novel of industrial exploitation and unrest by Mrs Gaskell, as a candidate for the Arts Council Festival of Britain opera competition. He failed to get past the first round, when his synopsis was rejected. Although he went on with the opera and completed it in 1954, it has never been produced. A one-act comic opera, The Invisible Duke, followed in 1975-76.

He was much more successful with his ballet Jabez and the Devil, commissioned by the Royal Ballet and first seen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961, a suite from it also being heard at that year's Promenade Concerts. It was recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Nicholas Braithwaite for Lyrita in 1975, although the planned CD reissue has never appeared.

Cooke's six symphonies, although warmly received in their day, have not been heard for many years. Fifteen years after the first, the Second Symphony was first performed by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Leonard at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and was soon followed by the Third (1967), the only one to have been commercially recorded (in 1975). Cooke's standing at this time is reflected in the fact that the Fourth was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society for one of their Festival Hall concerts in 1975. The following for Cooke's symphonies has diminished since then, for lack of performances. His Fifth Symphony was broadcast by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in Manchester conducted by Bernard Keeffe in 1979, but his Sixth, of 1984, has remained unperformed.

Cooke had five premieres at the post-war Proms: his overture Processional (1948); the Oboe Concerto, possibly his most popular orchestral work (1955); the suite from his ballet Jabez and the Devil (1962); his Variations on a Theme of Dufay (1969) written to commemorate the Indian scientist and artist Dr Homi Bhabha, killed in an air crash; and the Cello Concerto, one of the BBC's 1975 commissions which was played by Thomas Igloi.

Cooke's symphonies were essentially in the accessible idiom sometimes called "Cheltenham Symphony", but his contribution to the Cheltenham Festival in fact started with his first Clarinet Concerto, played by Gervase de Peyer in 1957. Cooke's lyrical Violin Concerto soon followed, introduced byYfrah Neaman at the 1959 Festival. Later came the Second Piano Sonata played by Rosemary Wright in 1966.

Cooke had many other festival commissions, notably at Cambridge, for which he wrote many substantial works; also for the Hovingham, Aldeburgh, Bath, City of London and Cardiff festivals. For the annual St Cecilia Day service in London in 1961 he wrote his anthem "O Sing Unto the Lord". In 1984 his old school, Repton, commissioned a piece for the opening of their new music school, and Cooke responded with his orchestral Repton Fantasia which, based on the Repton School Song, also introduced Parry's hymn tune "Repton" and the Pilgrim Hymn.

Cooke produced a substantial body of organ music. After a Prelude, Intermezzo and Finale in 1962, he responded to church invitations to celebrate the opening or restoration of their organs, with his Fantasia (1964) and Toccata and Aria (1966). Later came short pieces and two substantial sonatas (1971 and 1981). After he had stopped regular composition, at the age of 84, he was persuaded to write a suite for organ to celebrate the new organ at his local Tudeley Parish Church.

He was also a pioneering composer of serious music for the recorder, first with a full-blown concerto for Philip Rogers heard in 1957. Cooke wrote 20 works for recorder in a variety of ensembles. At first he enjoyed the championship of Carl Dolmetsch and subsequently responded to the characteristic playing and enthusiasm of John Turner with a Capriccio for recorder and piano (1985). Turner, also a Cambridge man, had first contacted Cooke when a student, asking for recorder music, and, typically, had been sent an original manuscript. Turner responded with many performances and introduced Cooke's Five Poems of William Blake in 1988, and subsequently he and the soprano Tracey Chadwell many times gave Cooke's Three Flower Songs for soprano and recorder.

Cooke stopped writing after 1987 and in 1993 he suffered a stroke, from which, fortunately, he recovered. A brief Blake setting for voice and recorder, Song of Innocence, was his memorial for Chadwell after her untimely death in 1996, and was Cooke's last music.

Lewis Foreman

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