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John Veale

Composer blocked by Glock

John Douglas Louis Veale, composer: born Shortlands, Kent 15 June 1922; married 1944 Diana Taylor (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1972); died Bromley, Kent 16 November 2006.

John Veale's career as a composer spanned half a century, including notable film scores, but was interrupted by a period when his lyricism was critically unacceptable. A succession of striking late scores was crowned by the large-scale Violin Concerto and populist Third Symphony, the latter soon to be broadcast by the BBC.

He was born in 1922 at Shortlands, Kent, the son of Sir Douglas Veale, for 30 years Registrar of Oxford University. The family moved to Oxford in the late 1920s and Veale's education was a typical middle-class one of the time, at the Dragon School followed by Repton and then, during the Second World War, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he read History. Subsequent army service found him in the Education Corps.

Veale reminisced that it was while working as a farm labourer in the "truly glorious summer" of 1940 that "the notion of musical composition as the focus of my life finally crystallised in my mind". He studied music with Egon Wellesz while he was an undergraduate, later returning to him after he was demobbed.

During the latter period he wrote incidental music for Ouds, including Anthony Besch's 1947 production of Love's Labour's Lost, featuring his fellow students Kenneth Tynan and Lindsay Anderson. Later Oxford productions with Veale's music included Maxwell Anderson's Winterset and Nevill Coghill's The Masque of Hope.

Veale said that he got on very well with Wellesz on a personal level, but was completely out of sympathy with him as a composer: "I took nothing from Wellesz except his very clear explanation of the techniques of Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg." Perhaps more important was William Walton's enthusiastic encouragement. "I did not study with Walton," said Veale: "I don't think he had any students, but he was very helpful."

Later an American Commonwealth Fellowship allowed him to study in the United States from 1949-51. Typical of such arrangements, Veale's application was made in haste and without any real knowledge of his destination, and he opted to study for one year with the composer Roger Sessions. When, after the first year, a renewal of the scholarship became a possibility, Veale chose Roy Harris, seeing Harris, with his wide-spanning modal polyphony and triadic harmony, as Sessions's direct opposite. Veale thus became possibly Harris's only British pupil, a unique influence not only felt in his works of the time, but still in evidence in his own Third Symphony, his last work.

In 1947 Veale had worked for the Crown Film Unit writing mood music, which, conducted by John Hollingsworth, was not for any specific film, but rather for library use as required. Consequently its composer never knew where his music was actually used. A junior research fellowship at Oxford from 1951 to 1953 followed his American study. Yet Veale was soon able to become a full-time professional composer, celebrated in the 1950s for his film music, writing for such movies as The Purple Plain (1954), The Spanish Gardener (1955), High Tide at Noon (1956) and Portrait of Alison (1956).

In those days film scores did not have the independent critical cachet they do now, and when many years later his film company asked Veale to send them the scores he did so. "I was naïve," he admitted ruefully:

I just sent them, although they were unique manuscripts, and the film company promptly destroyed them. That's the only reason they wanted them!

Thus, although he was, briefly, a leading name in 1950s film music, Veale lost his capability of easily responding to the later vogue for film scores, and to have them played and recorded.

Veale originally sketched his First Symphony in 1944, while he was in the Army and about the time he was first married, and it reflects the period when doodle-bugs began to fall across England. The symphony was completed in 1947, and first performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Weldon in 1948. Revised, it was taken up by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé at the Cheltenham Festival in 1952. Veale had an increasing pattern of early successes, including an evocative portrait of San Francisco, the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, which he called Panorama, introduced by Boult and the LPO in 1951 and heard at the Proms in 1955.

Veale's first child, Jane, died in 1951 at the age of four, and he wrote an Elegy for flute, harp and strings in her memory. It was taken up by the flautist Richard Adeney with Maria Korchinska and the Boyd Neel String Orchestra. There was also a String Quartet (1952) played by the Amici String Quartet and a concert overture, Metropolis, in 1955 given at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves. Also with the LSO, Veale's engaging Clarinet Concerto of 1954 was played by Sidney Fell under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent.

He was thus being played by the leading musicians of the day, and a significant career as a composer seemed to be in prospect. In 1959 BBC forces gave the premiere of his bold choral setting of Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan".

However, like many another composer working in a tonal idiom at that time, Veale became persona non grata, particularly in BBC circles, almost overnight, as a consequence of the avant-garde revolution engendered by Sir William Glock's appointment as Director of Music at the BBC. There followed "12 bleak years of creative sterility", when he nearly gave up composing, received almost no performances and was forgotten by his 1950s audience. His last orchestral score at that time was the four-movement Second Symphony, completed in 1965.

With a family to support, Veale became a journalist on the Oxford Mail, where he was film critic. A lifelong sympathy with organised labour found him doggedly refusing to return to work after a newspaper strike in the late 1970s and he was sacked. He subsequently became a copy editor at the Oxford University Press.

Nineteen eighty-four saw his return to composition and the completion of the colourful Song of Radha for soprano and orchestra and a romantic large-scale violin concerto which he had started in 1982. By chance I was able to recommend the concerto to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986 when they had an unexpected gap in their schedule, and it was taken up enthusiastically by the violinist Eric Gruenberg. It was so well received by the orchestra they followed it with Veale's latest work, the brilliant Demos Variations. The composer seemed to find new inspiration and returned to composition. The concerto was recorded by Lydia Mordkovitch for Chandos in November 2000 and issued in 2001 to a warm critical response.

A succession of orchestral and other works followed, including the dramatic Apocalypse (at first entitled Where Was God?) for chorus and orchestra, Triune for oboe, cor anglais and orchestra (1993) and a Third Symphony (completed in 1997 but only orchestrated just before his eyesight deteriorated in his last years) which was recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth earlier this year but is yet to be broadcast. The bold lines of the one-movement symphony seem to be looking back to his American journey so many years before.

Veale's last years were possibly his most frustrating, as his health and his eyesight deteriorated, and the cancer from which he eventually died took hold. Yet very slowly performances began to accrue. These were started by an Australian friend, Max Keogh, who commissioned, broadcast and recorded three atmospheric choral pieces, Sydney Street Scenes and Encounter for two guitars, followed by the issue of the recording of his Violin Concerto in 2001 and the BBC's broadcast of the first symphony, Metropolis and Panorama.

A keen amateur ornithologist and astronomer, John Veale was very much a community activist in his village near Oxford, and he often said his proudest achievement outside music was succeeding in leading the "Flashers Campaign" which resulted in the removal of the powerful night-time lights on the Benchley Radio Mast near Oxford.

Lewis Foreman