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.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game