Obituary: Buxton Orr
Wednesday 31 December 1997
Buxton Orr's substantial catalogue of expertly crafted compositions ought to be part of the standard concert repertoire; instead, they are known to a small cohort of admirers and to an entire generation of pupils who have made sure that his music remains a living proposition.
Orr was born in Glasgow in 1924, into an artistic family: his mother, Marie Daeblitz, was for years a mainstay of the Glasgow Citizens' theatre company, and his maternal grandfather, Richard Daeblitz, an immigrant from Germany, led the second violins of the Scottish Orchestra under conductors of the stature of Nikisch, Richter, Richard Strauss. Buxton, whose voice never lost its Scottish burr, would hear stories of these great men at his grandfather's knee.
He was initially intended to follow a career in medicine but, like Robert Simpson just a few years earlier, abandoned it for music. Between 1952 and 1955, now established in London, Orr studied composition with Benjamin Frankel, with whom he was later to work on a number of film and television scores; he also took conducting lessons with Aylmer Buesst.
It was following in Frankel's film-music footsteps that Orr first came to public notice, even if marginally, first with the scores to a number of Boris Karloff and other horror films and then, with the score to the film of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer (1959), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn and directed by Sam Spiegel.
The first of his serious works to attract genuine, widespread attention was his one-act opera The Wager, completed in 1961 and premiered by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells that year.
Orr's composing career progressed alongside growing prominence as a teacher. He took up an appointment at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1965, where he was to remain for the next quarter-century, giving up teaching to devote himself to full-time composition only in 1990.
His commitment to teaching was whole-hearted: he founded, for example, the Guildhall New Music Ensemble in 1975 to allow his students to play "difficult" contemporary scores by composers such as Birtwistle and Stravinsky. Indeed, teaching was never a dry, academic experience for Orr: harmony and counterpoint weren't taught by standing up and talking about them; instead, his pupils got to know their theory from the music itself, from the understanding that comes with performing.
The breadth of his interests is confirmed in his ten-year conductorship, from 1970 to 1980, of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra (founded by Barry Guy, an Orr pupil), with which he toured England and the Continent, taking the group to the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1972.
But despite his music- making and the hundreds of students who passed through his hands at the Guildhall, it is for his own music that Buxton Orr will be remembered - if it is given a chance to be heard.
His earliest works are quite close to the soundworld of Britten, but it was another Benjamin who was soon to prove more influential: his teacher, Ben Frankel, from whom Orr adopted a kind of tonally directed use of the 12-note row, contrapuntally organised to produce music with a real sense of purpose.
His first love was the human voice and, by extension, the stage: apart from The Wager (recently revised for chamber orchestra in the hope of stimulating further performances), there are several music-theatre pieces: The Unicorn (1981), The Last Circus (1984) and Ring In The New (1986), for the last of which, with Michael Bawtree, Orr won the 1988 Seagrams Prize of the America National Music Theatre Network, during his stay as composer-in-residence at the Banff Centre for Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada.
There are six song-cycles for voice and piano or instrumental ensemble, as well: The Knight and the Lady (1978) for solo voice, and The Echoing Green (1961), after William Blake, for children's voices and piano or orchestra.
His orchestral works likewise show his concern for his audience. In compositions intended for serious listeners, such as the 40-minute Sinfonia Ricercante of 1987, Orr deployed his considerable technique to produce music that would satisfy the most demanding intellect.
Yet in others, like the Triptych (1977), the Fanfare and Processional for strings (1968) or the Carmen Fantasy for cello and orchestra (1987), his sense of humour guaranteed works of immediate appeal. (In fact, A Carmen Fantasy began life as the first of a series of four operatic fantasies for cello and piano; the others are Portrait of the Don (on Don Giovanni, 1987), Catfish Row (on Porgy and Bess, 1997) and Tales from Windsor Forest (on Falstaff, 1997).)
A consistent feature of Orr's surprisingly large output is his music for brass or wind band, some ten in total and composed across his career. There are two concertos, for trombone (1971) and for trumpet (1976), both with brass band, and a number of other pieces, not least A John Gay Suite for symphonic wind band (1972), Tournament for ten solo brass (1985) and the recent Narration for symphonic winds (1993), drawn from music for The Alchemist, an opera on which Orr was still working at the time of his death. (He left part of the first act orchestrated and the rest complete in piano score. After Benjamin Frankel's death in 1973 Orr orchestrated the piano score of Frankel's opera Marching Song; The Alchemist now requires another composer to perform Orr the same service.)
There is also a substantial corpus of chamber music, including two string quartets, three piano trios (the only "serious" Orr to have been recorded on CD), a recent string trio, and most of the series of six Refrains, composed between 1970 and 1992 for a variety of instrumental forces; these are basically extended rondo structures in which, as the composer put it, "a recurrent idea is used to bind together a total structure".
But a dry list of compositions doesn't give a picture of the man, of the delighted twinkle in his eye when he was discussing something he held important (I once sat virtually speechless through a dinner where Orr and Hans Keller discussed, with genuine passion, the significance of a particular gesture in a single bar in the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto). And he never lost that Scottish ability to draw the humour from misfortune.
He told with glee of attending a performance of Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House when he was suddenly stricken with the most appalling upheaval in his stomach.
Fearing the worst, he swiftly pushed his way past the knees and baleful glares of the stalls audience to try to get out in time. And, Orr would ask with a grin, what do you think the sailors' chorus on stage was singing at this point? "Heave! Oh, heave!"
It is time the classical world caught up with the music of Buxton Orr. The recording of the Piano Trios appeared around a year ago on the Marco Polo label, and A John Gay Suite is due out before too long from Naxos, Marco Polo's sister, budget label; A Celtic Suite for strings (1968) has also been recorded by Black Box.
But that will hardly give an adequate picture of Orr's ability as a composer. Two CD programmes - a coupling of the Sinfonia Ricercante and Triptych and, less ambitiously, a disc of the two String Quartets and the String Trio - push themselves forward as an obvious place to start.
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