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Bill Colleran: Leading music publisher

Bill Colleran was a prominent music publisher. For many years he was a director of Universal Edition, the British branch of the Viennese firm of the same name, one of the most distinguished and innovative music publishers of the 20th century. In particular, UE championed, promoted and established, in a wide-ranging catalogue of modern and classical composers, the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (the "Second Viennese School"), which dominated the musical avant-garde from about 1906 until after 1970, when general interest in modernism began to decline under the return of conservative populist regimes and thinking, and the gradual removal of the arts from education.

Colleran was well known to many people, not only as a music publisher and a sociable and popular personality, but for his wide interest in things, people and culture generally, particularly modern painting. He was, nevertheless, something of a mystery man, who never talked about his origins, youth or education. Born in Epsom, Surrey in 1929, he went to school in Hillingdon, and although he spent some time at Cambridge, he never had a formal university education. He was adopted by a step-father – who also gave him a half-sister by the same mother, a toy-maker by trade. He was always uncertain of his real parentage, but believed it to be largely German and Irish.

He earned his spurs at UE during the late 1950s, under Dr Alfred Kalmus, who had founded the London branch of the publishing firm in 1936. Colleran became responsible for sales and was later a director of the firm. He made it his special task to develop a list of British composers, most of whom had previously had much difficulty in achieving performance, let alone publication, as most music publishers concentrated on established repertory and works of more obvious popular appeal.

This required much lobbying in the UE Viennese headquarters, which still thought of Britain as largely "Das Land ohne Musik", a country inclined only to accept the big European names. Without Colleran's efforts, not only to overcome resistance, but to achieve British performances for his stable of new composers and to get them known in the music departments of universities and music colleges, many might well have given up or emigrated. They included Harrison Birtwistle, David Bedford, Nigel Osborne, Cornelius Cardew, James MacMillan, Dominic Muldowney, Simon Holt, Wilfred Mellers, Bernard Rands, Vic Hoyland, Paul Patterson and others, including some Americans such as Morton Feldman. His composers were not only clients, but also good friends.

Largely through Mellers, Bill Colleran had long had a connection with York University, famous for the breadth and depth of its interest in contemporary music, and when he retired from UE in 1994 – a retirement that was painful and unwanted, and came about because of pressures arising from the changing economic and cultural climate – York enabled him to set up a University Music Press to publish British composers. Together with John Paynter, he had previously established York University's Music in Action Summer School, which brought together many of the composers he had published to teach music, dance and drama to other teachers.

He also chaired the board of NMC, a charitable company created to record new British music, which since its foundation in 1988 (by the Society for the Promotion of New Music) has already issued over 140 recordings. His chairmanship is remembered as inspirational and effective.

At the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music in 2002, Bill Colleran received the Leslie Boosey Award for lifetime achievement, given by the Performing Right Society and the Royal Philharmonic Society to an individual who has "made an outstanding contribution to the furtherance of contemporary music". He had previously received the Royal Society of Arts Radcliffe Award for Excellence in Graphics and Music Publishing, and earlier this year he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Music at York University.

He was married three times and had one son, Marcus, who went into the bookselling trade. His last wife, Elizabeth Kim, looked after him devotedly during his last illness, pancreatic cancer, which he endured courageously while trying to lead as normal a life as possible. He was particularly pleased to have been at the Royal Opera in April this year for the success of The Minotaur by Birtwistle, now perhaps the outstanding British composer, whom Colleran had long championed.

Colleran will be remembered by musical colleagues and his many friends from all walks of life, who appreciated his charm, wit, insouciance and elegance, as well as by the many music shops where he was a regular caller to promote and sell the publications of UE. Many composers owe as much to his commitment as to their talent, and his long-term influence will be considerable.

John Calder

William Martin Colleran, music publisher: born Epsom, Surrey 25 November 1929; staff, Universal Edition 1958-94, director 1970-94; chairman, NMC Recordings 1993-2004; three times married (one son); died Munstead, Surrey 6 July 2008.