Edward Harper: Composer who championed contemporary music in Scotland

A CD of Edward Harper's music released by the Edinburgh label Delphian Records last year bore the title Miracles, after the penultimate movement of his Second Symphony, the main item on the disc. The miracle was rather that Harper had not only survived to see it released, he even lived long enough to begin a Third Symphony in spite of a lengthy battle against bowel cancer that he faced with courage and calm. That battle appeared to be won, but the cancer metastasised into the liver, with fatal results.

Harper was one of the main forces for contemporary music in Scotland, one of those rare composers happiest when deploying his energies in the promotion of other people's music: he founded the New Music Group of Scotland in 1973 and directed it until 1991, and was also the ensemble's pianist. Far-sighted commissions – to composers such as James MacMillan, Thomas Wilson, Eddie McGuire, Lyell Cresswell and Craig Armstrong – confirmed the perspicacity of his musical judgement.

Edward Harper – "Ed" to everyone who knew him – was born in Taunton, in Somerset, on 17 March 1941; the West Country background was later to feature in his own music. He read music as a student at Christ Church College, Oxford, from 1959, graduating with a first in 1962, followed by postgraduate work at Oxford and further studies with Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music in London (1963–64); there the qualities that had singled him out in Oxford were further recognised with the award of the Cobbett Prize for chamber music in 1964. But it was the next period of study – with Franco Donatoni in Milan in 1968 – that were more to Harper's modernist tastes: he was already using serialism in his own composition, a stylistic phase which reached its fullest fruition in his Piano Concerto of 1970.

By then he had already spent six years on the staff of the institution to which he remained faithful for the rest of his life: the Faculty of Music of Edinburgh University. After 13 years as lecturer, he was appointed Senior Lecturer in 1977 and Reader 12 years later.

But Harper's commitment to his students went well beyond the pedagogical: a number of his key works were written for them. One of them, Bartók Games of 1972, signalled a rapprochement with tonality which went hand in hand with an engagement with the music of the past, in this instance through reference to Lutoslawski's Venetian Games. His first opera, Fanny Robin (1975), written (to his own Hardy-inspired libretto) for the Edinburgh students to perform alongside Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, uses a theme from Purcell's work and quotes from folksong in an evocation of his own West Country childhood.

Harper was to return to opera repeatedly. His largest work was the full-length Hedda Gabler, premiered by Scottish Opera in 1985, soon after its completion. Another chamber opera, The Mellstock Quire, based on Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, followed in 1988; like Bartók Games and Fanny Robin it was intended for performance by amateurs. Another amateur opera, The Spire, based on William Golding's novel, was written in 1993, though it has yet to be performed; and a children's opera, Lochinvar, was premiered in 2000.

Harper's First Symphony, written in 1979 as a tribute to Elgar's own First Symphony, was purely orchestral. His love of writing for the voice – also heard in two major orchestral song-cycles, Seven Poems by e.e. cummings (1977) and Homage to Thomas Hardy (1990) – came to the fore in his Second Symphony, a sort of Child of Our Time of our time, which sets a text touching on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to make an impassioned plea for tolerance. The Second Symphony was premiered in 2006 without its first movement (it was completed the following year): Harper's illness was already making his presence felt.

The NHS, indeed, was unable to do anything more to help him and so, with his third wife, the cellist Louise Paterson, he travelled to Vienna for treatment that restored health and spirits and unleashed a final burst of creativity, culminating in the Third Symphony, Homage to Robert Burns. It was commissioned as part of Scotland's celebration of the 250th anniversary of Burns' birth, and Harper had almost completed the first movement of what was sketched as a 35-minute work at the time of his death.

Harper was one of those rare composers with little sense of self. His music often honours his colleagues, near and far, as in the Ricercari in Memoriam Luigi Dallapiccola for chamber ensemble, the orchestral Intrada after Monteverdi and In Memoriam Kenneth Leighton for cello and orchestra. His efforts as performer were extended to student composers as well as to more distinguished names. Paul Baxter, a student of Harper's before he founded Delphian Records, found that at meetings of the Music Faculty "Ed rarely had much to say – when he had, it was copiously intelligent, dry, witty and distinctly to the point". His "collegiate generosity", Baxter recalled, "remained one of the most compelling aspects of his make-up towards right to the very end": Baxter had not made an orchestral recording before Miracles but Harper insisted that the project go to Delphian. Yet he expected neither recognition nor reward: when he was asked if he might accept an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University, he considered the idea for a couple of days before turning it down – he didn't want to appear presumptuous.

Martin Anderson

Edward Harper, composer and pianist; born Taunton 17 March 1941; married firstly Penny Dickson (marriage dissolved), secondly Dorothy Shanks (deceased, one son, one daughter), 2003 Louise Paterson; died Edinburgh 12 April 2009.

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