Edwin Carr

Prolific and practical composer
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The Independent Online

Edwin James Nairn Carr, composer: born Auckland, New Zealand 10 August 1926; died Waiheke Island, New Zealand 27 March 2003.

After the death of Douglas Lilburn in 2001, the acknowledged leader of New Zealander composers was Edwin Carr, whose music trod a fine, though vigorous, line between tradition and modernity. He was aware of the potential dichotomy:

So-called serious music has lost or not been able to attract a good deal of its audience because so many composers are obsessed with intellectual experimentation. I too explore possibilities from time to time in my work but I am mostly preoccupied with bringing back the melodic side of music and never being too abstruse, harmonically, rhythmically or formally. Apart from the important evocative element in music I like to make music which is never too far away from "song and dance".

Carr's childhood fascination with music was fed by his father's collection of jazz, pop and classical records. Prom concerts in Wellington simultaneously encouraged an interest in the orchestra and an aversion to Wagner, and a New Zealand visit of the Coldstream Guards in 1933 sparked a fondness for brass, percussion and Sousa marches - all influences later reflected in his own works.

Edwin Carr attended Otago Boys' High School from 1940 to 1943 before going on to study music at Otago University and Auckland University College, though he left without finishing his degree when a bursary from the New Zealand government brought him to London. Until 1953, he was a composition student of Benjamin Frankel at the Guildhall School of Music, establishing a reputation of his own at the same time: his Mardi Gras Overture, written in 1950, carried off the first prize at the Auckland Festival, and he won the medal of the Royal Overseas League with his Prelude, Three Dances and Epilogue for two pianos (1953).

His run of trophies continued in 1954, with a British Council scholarship that allowed him to study with Goffreddo Petrassi at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome; a further scholarship, in 1957, took him to Carl Orff at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich. While in Italy, Carr composed two ballets - Cacciati dal Paradiso and Electra, both in 1955 - for Il Nuovo Balletto d'Italia; they were scored for two pianos and Carr, a fine pianist, toured Italy with the company, acting as both music director and duo pianist.

Carr's return to New Zealand in 1958 was marked by a first orchestral commission, Nightmusic - Scherzo, performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under John Hopkins. It initiated a long series of orchestral works, including four symphonies (1981, 1984, 1987 and 1993), a Sinfonietta (1979), two piano concertos (1962 and 1985) and one for violin (1995).

His early commissions didn't hold him in New Zealand for long and in 1960 he moved first to Sydney, where he worked for the Australia Broadcasting Commission, and then returned to Britain. For 12 years (1960-72) he was a part-time teacher at the Suffolk Rural Music School. In 1961-62 he renewed his studies with Benjamin Frankel.

Carr enjoyed regular performances in Britain, and commissions frequently came his way. One of them, in 1970, was from the Arts Council, for Nastasya, an opera based on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, and required a trip back to New Zealand to work with the librettist Edward Hill. In 1973 a two-year Mozart Fellowship at the Otago University (in Dunedin) brought a longer stay, but afterwards Carr was on the move again, this time settling in Australia, taking up a part-time lecturing post at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music.

His permanent return to New Zealand followed in 1984, maintaining the balance of teaching and writing until 1987, when retirement allowed him to devote himself entirely to composition, after 1991 in a house on Waiheke Island, in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland Harbour. His already brisk output now speeded up yet further: the list of works from the 1990s is almost double that of each preceding decade; in 2001 he added an autobiography, A Life Set to Music.

Carr's final tally of works sits at around the hundred-mark. They cover a wide range of expression, admitting both dissonant modernity and the reassuring outlines of tonal melody. He had a lively ear for orchestral colour and a buoyant feeling for rhythm.

A practical composer, Carr was ready to turn his hand to some unusual instrumental combinations. The Four Elements (1988) features two mandolins, mandola and guitar, Waiheke Island (1996) is for four different members of the oboe family and In the Rangitaki Valley and Coup de Folie (both 1998) require eight hands on two pianos. They joined a sizeable corpus of more conventionally scored chamber music, including two string quartets (1954 and 1979), a piano quintet (1966), horn trio (1982) and an octet for winds (1989).

Ted Carr was conscious of his role as a New Zealand composer, and New Zealand imagery and texts are a regular feature of his music. An early homage to one of his first composition teachers came in 1948, in the form of his Variations on a Theme by Douglas Lilburn for piano. Maori often appears in the titles of his works, such as Te Tau ("The Seasons" (1976), consisting of Makariri - Koanga ("Winter - Spring") for piano and Raumati - Ngahuru ("Summer - Autumn") for piano duet, and Akaraua, four symphonic sketches from 1999. A 1996 commission from the NZSO saw him working with Bruce Mason, one of the country's most prominent writers, on a seascape called The End of the Golden Weather.

His national status was acknowledged in 1999, when he was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Martin Anderson