Denis ApIvor

Composer neglected for six decades by the musical establishment

Denis Apivor was the perpetual outsider in British musical life, a composer who ploughed a lonely but determined furrow in the teeth of 60 years of near-complete indifference from the establishment.

Denis ApIvor, composer and doctor: born Collinstown, West Meath 14 April 1916; married 1942 Grace O'Brien (died 1945), 1947 Irene Russell (marriage dissolved 1954), 1962 Rima Austin (died 1997; one son, one daughter), 2001 Suwaree Houyphai; died Robertsbridge, East Sussex 27 May 2004.

Denis Apivor was the perpetual outsider in British musical life, a composer who ploughed a lonely but determined furrow in the teeth of 60 years of near-complete indifference from the establishment.

The neglect was partly of his own making: in the mid-1950s, disgusted by the cavalier dismissal by Sadler's Wells of what may be his masterpiece, the opera Yerma, he turned his back on "all musical, social and political contacts" for some three decades and concentrated on composition, without making the slightest effort to bring his works to the attention of performers.

Yet the few musicians who are familiar with his music regard it - as they did the composer - with a respect that borders on reverence. ApIvor himself realised that, despite a catalogue of over 100 works, a full assessment of his worth lies some distance in the future. Four of his five symphonies, for example, and three of his four operas have yet to be performed. There is not a note of his music currently available on CD, although most of his works - some 80 songs, works for piano, guitar (he wrote the first British guitar concerto, in 1954, premiered by Julian Bream) and various chamber combinations - don't demand large forces.

Though Irish-born, ApIvor, as the name suggests, came from solidly Welsh stock. His clergyman father, Elwy ApIvor, had a parish in the centre of Ireland; Denis was born during the April Revolution and returned with his family to his ancestral Wales during the civil war in 1921.

His interest in music was evident from an early age, and so in 1925 his grandmother arranged for Denis, then nine and already a chorister in the local church, to sit the scholarship which allowed him to join the choir of Christ Church, Oxford. The new surroundings provided an immediate stimulus: Denis was composing by the time he was 10.

He transferred (after a tuberculosis scare) to the choir of Hereford Cathedral, where his father was now a chaplain and where his musical education continued: he taught himself the clarinet and learned piano and organ - and kept composing, mainly songs. But his parents wouldn't consider a career in music, and so in 1934 he reluctantly took up a medical course at University College London.

In London he made contact with a circle of musicians with whom he was probably the last living link, an irreverent band of boozy Bohemian intellectuals which had initially formed around the composer Peter Warlock, who committed suicide in 1930: Constant Lambert, Bernard van Dieren, Cecil Gray, Alan Rawsthorne. ApIvor hoped to have lessons from Herbert Howells but put his foot in it by revealing an enthusiasm for the music of Howells' bête noire, van Dieren, then "dying by the day" from kidney disease.

The composer who did agree to teach me at this time, at Gray's request, was Patrick Hadley . . . Paddy Hadley, later Professor at Cambridge, was no stranger to the bottle, and . . . was happy to teach, provided there was a bottle of sherry between the piano pedals. Later the task devolved upon Alan Rawsthorne . . .

ApIvor's circle of friends also included two notable poets, Dylan Thomas and Roy Campbell.

During his studies with Rawsthorne, ApIvor composed The Hollow Men for baritone, chorus and orchestra, to words by T.S. Eliot, much admired when it was finally premiered in 1950 under Lambert's baton (also its last performance to date). But the outbreak of the Second World War forced him to concentrate on his medical work, as he wrote in a third-person autobiographical note:

the end of 1939 saw the composer already installed in London hospitals as a war doctor, a year or so later involved in casualty treatment in Hitler's "blitzkrieg" on London.

War service took him also to hospitals in India; he returned when hostilities ended. His urge for composition was undimmed, though, and he began an opera buffa, She Stoops to Conquer, to his own Goldsmith-based libretto (1942-47); it remains unperformed. Before that, in 1940, he had set about an orchestration of Busoni's monumental Fantasia contrappuntistica, performed to general acclaim 12 years later.

ApIvor's friendship with Constant Lambert led to his sole run of public successes. Shortly before his drink-driven death in 1951, Lambert recommended ApIvor to the choreographer Andrée Howard, resulting in commissions for five ballets, among them A Goodman of Paris, A Mirror for Witches (based on the Salem witch-hunt that would soon stir Arthur Miller) and, the most successful of all, the Lorca- inspired Blood Wedding, which took the stage in countries from Turkey to Chile.

ApIvor felt an especial sympathy with Lorca (he eventually translated his complete poetry, over a thousand pages), and the impact of Blood Wedding brought a further commission, for the opera Yerma. ApIvor moved to Trinidad, where he had taken a part-time medical post (he was now qualified as an anaesthetist) to carry him through the composition of Yerma; he completed the orchestration back in Britain, in a cottage near Sudbury.

He never understood why - despite the international success of Blood Wedding and the support of some major musicians, among them Sir Arthur Bliss - the Sadler's Wells board then turned their teeth against Yerma; he suspected a resentment of the left-wing librettist Montagu Slater. Profoundly disillusioned, he began his self-imposed exile from the musical world. (He was, though, deeply moved when, "miraculously", the BBC brought Yerma into the studios and broadcast it in 1961, conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens.)

Under the influence of Warlock and van Dieren, of whose works he generously prepared a number of performing editions, ApIvor's earliest style had been a kind of chromatically inflected diatonicism; he admitted that Stravinsky, too, had had a bearing on his ballets. In the late 1950s his music began to move towards serialism, reinforced from 1960 by an acquaintance with recordings of Webern - though his vocal music always remained lyrical. Even when serialism became the dominant dogma of the day, it aided ApIvor not a whit: William Glock at the BBC turned down his major work of the 1960s, the Dylan Thomas cantata Altarwise by Owl-Light (1961).

From the late 1980s, though, and independently of similar stylistic shifts by other recalcitrant modernists such as the Estonian Arvo Pärt and Pole Henryk Górecki, ApIvor

began composing small works with a deliberate intention to restrict the material to a few tones in each piece, and avoiding harmonic complexity or aggressive modulation, to concentrate on a continuous melodic approach, and significant and clear emotional content.

The "continuous melodic approach" he described produced music that was directly expressive - for the Canadian composer-pianist Gordon Rumson, his Eliot setting Eyes that Last I Saw in Tears (1994) is "one of the most beautiful songs ever composed"; Rumson compares its "tragic undercurrent expressed without exaggeration" to the lament in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

In 1990 ApIvor and his third wife, the choreographer Rima Austin, settled at Telscombe, in Sussex. When blindness made letter-writing impossible, he communicated by cassette, incidentally preserving a trove of reminiscences.

Young performers would come and consult him about his music. A study of his music has been completed, and a biography is underway. Recordings are being discussed, and the Kingfisher Quartet premiered the Second and Third String Quartets in Brighton at the end of April. He may have taken some consolation in the evidence that the tide at last was turning.

Martin Anderson

Suggested Topics
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home