John Duarte

Prolific composer for the guitar

John Duarte abandoned his career as an industrial chemist when he became fascinated by the infinite possibilities of the guitar, particularly its capacity for polyphony and harmony, and went on to become a prolific composer for the instrument.

John William Duarte, composer, teacher, writer and chemist: born Sheffield 2 October 1919; married 1943 Dorothy Seddon (two sons, one daughter); died Barnet, Hertfordshire 23 December 2004.

John Duarte abandoned his career as an industrial chemist when he became fascinated by the infinite possibilities of the guitar, particularly its capacity for polyphony and harmony, and went on to become a prolific composer for the instrument.

Duarte's background was not a musical one, nor did he ever study music formally. Contact with music began as a child, with the banjo of an acquaintance. He progressed through the ukulele to the guitar, which he studied with Terry Usher. But science was his main study, and, after gaining a BSc with honours from Manchester University, he became Chief Chemist in a Ministry of Supply factory.

In the 1940s he began to write for BMG magazine, which featured him on its cover in 1948. A year later he published a guitar composition in the New York quarterly Guitar Review and thus already had a considerable reputation when, during a visit to a music shop, he met Len Williams, who was already established as a leading teacher of the guitar. Williams, returning from Australia in the early 1950s and seeking to enlarge the musical education of his talented young son John, persuaded Duarte to give up his career in science and move to London, which he did in the early 1950s.

By that time, Duarte had also given up the trumpet, with which he had once publicly performed a trumpet concerto, and the double-bass, with which he had played in sessions with Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt.

Duarte taught at the Spanish Guitar Centre, which Williams senior had founded. John Williams, already hailed as a young virtuoso of outstanding talent, acknowledged the early influence of Duarte by including his transcriptions of Bach (two of the Cello Suites) in his first recordings, along with Variations on a Catalan Folk Song Op 25, one of the most enduring and most recorded of Duarte's compositions.

In 1947 Duarte had met Andrés Segovia, the foremost pioneer of the guitar's 20th-century revival, and Segovia later recorded the first English Suite Op 31 (there were to be six "English Suites" in all, following the example of J.S. Bach). It was seldom that the great Spanish guitarist looked towards English music until he was attracted by Duarte's music. Duarte's perception of what the guitar was capable of was further enlarged when he met Ida Presti, a guitarist of unsurpassed brilliance who died far too early. For her and her husband Alexandre Lagoya he wrote Variations on a French Nursery Song Op 32 (" J'ai du bon tabac"), a difficult work that tested even that legendary duo's abilities.

The list of John Duarte's compositions (about 150 in all, most of them published) shows an exceptionally wide range of styles. The variations form, well suited to the guitar's capacity for colour and mood, features prominently, but other challenges were met with an imaginative and professional skill. In Dreams Op 91, written for the Amsterdam Guitar Trio, the language alternates between aleatory, atonal and graphic, contained within a conventionally notated framework and allowing spontaneous reaction between the performers. The work was later performed by the Zagreb Guitar Trio, another high-powered ensemble with the required brilliance of technique.

Much of his commissioned work was written with the performers' particular circumstances in mind, including nationality. He would happily turn his hand to a set of Greek dances or a collection of Moravian folk tunes, or grapple with the cross-rhythms of a traditional Venezuelan waltz. Like his jazz-based pieces, the results invariably revealed an unerring ear for the essence.

Works that included the flute and, notably, the human voice brought out a lyric warmth that tended to take a back seat to harmony in the solo guitar pieces. The songs contained humour too, and his settings of verses by Spike Milligan, Hark Hark, the Ark Op 103, revealed yet another facet of his nature.

His own sense of fun came to the fore in a tercentenary tribute to Henry Purcell, Henry's Purple Parcel Op 118, written for six guitars and drums. The title is explained by the treatment given to the name Purcell by two different but equally uninformed computer spellcheck programs. This versatility puzzled some commentators, who found difficulty in perceiving the true Duarte. But this was, in fact, the true Duarte, never easy to categorise, always unpredictable, his agile and fertile mind able and willing to leap without apparent effort from one area of music to another.

One of his last commissions was for a set of variations for solo guitar on Purcell's Round O, the theme that Britten used for his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. It was performed in April 2004 at the International Guitar Festival of Rust, Austria, which not only commissioned it, but also instituted the annual John Duarte International Guitar Competition.

Duarte never held an appointment in a British music academy, but for many years he directed a very successful summer school in Somerset. There were other compensations, including a stream of invitations to teach and lecture abroad, all accepted with enthusiasm. He produced several books, mainly about guitar technique, and was a practising journalist throughout his musical career.

Last October - on his 85th birthday, as it happened - he was awarded the prized Chitarra d'Oro (golden guitar) by the International Guitar Festival of Alessandria, Italy, for " Una vita per la chitarra" ("A Life for the Guitar"). He could not be present, but it was a good note on which to end a long career spent in the service of music.

Colin Cooper



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