Peter Cork: Music teacher to Dudley Moore and composer for television and radio
Cork and his Baptist minister father went to matinees to listen to the magnificent movie scores
Tuesday 30 October 2012
Peter Cork taught Dudley Moore piano and helped Norma Winstone sing; he wrote music for films, television and radio; and, in the last decade of his life, he began a new career as a solo pianist, playing and improvising around the tunes from old musicals that he so loved. Cork, who has died aged 85, had an extraordinary career.
Cork was born in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, where his father was the Baptist minister, a man of strong character who had returned, still afflicted by the effects of mustard gas, from the trenches of the First World War: he brought back the cornet that he had played in a military band. So there was at least a little music in the family and the cornet, with an aunt's wind-up gramophone and collection of records, possibly got Cork junior into music. The family moved back to Ashford in Kent, and Cork's parents bought him an upright piano when he was eight, and found a local teacher who spotted and developed his talent. He raced through the grades very quickly, and scored the highest exam marks in the county.
He also became obsessed with the sounds of the cinema, especially the magnificent orchestral film scores that the German exile Eric Korngold was writing in Hollywood. Cork, with his father (who, because of his profession was not expected to visit such temples of temptation as the cinema), had to go to to matinees beyond the beady eyes of parishioners, and there they sat enthralled through The Adventures of Robin Hood, which had a rousing Korngold score, as well as many screen musicals. Young Cork soon knew exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, which was to write music for movies.
While studying to be a music teacher at Goldsmiths College during the Second World War, he wrote a dissertation on film music that he sent to Roy Webb, another Hollywood hero, who had composed the scores for Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, among other major films. Webb wrote back approving of Cork's thesis, and they stayed in touch when Cork went on to study under Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music. Jacob was a melodist and a brilliant arranger, and he confirmed his student's love of traditional musical structure and good, sweeping tunes.
Cork's long teaching career began at Dagenham County High School in 1950, where he later met the precociously talented Dudley Moore, helping him towards an Oxford music scholarship. Moore had greatly valued his support (and criticism), and they continued to write to each other even after Moore eventually moved to California. Moore's wise and witty letters sent from Hollywood to his old teacher were published in 2006. Cork was a gifted teacher happy to help all levels of pupil.
The jazz singer, Norma Winstone, another Dagenham student, remembered his personal enthusiasm and encouragement, which had inspired instrumentalists and singers wherever he taught. He lived and worked in Australia during the 1960s, where his school choirs won all the available prizes. When he returned to Britain, he became head of music at London's Clapham County girls' school, where he wrote full-scale musicals for the pupils to perform, and produced them, long before it became usual for every secondary school to put on a show.
All the while, he had continued composing song-cycles, piano and orchestral suites, returning at last full time to composition when, in 1976, at the age of 50, he gave up teaching forever and began to work for the BBC on special commissions, as well as composing many hours-worth of library music. using every possible style from Victorian pastiche to big band jazz.
Through-written scores were not common on British television then, except in the most prestigious productions, and TV drama used a lot of library music, especially under the credits, so one of Cork's numbers became the signature tune for a Channel 4 series, The Years Ahead. However, radio producers were still then able to commission original music, and Cork worked with the poets Patrick Howarth and James Sutherland Smith, blending their verse with his music for Radio 3; he also composed for Radio 4 literary programmes.
In 1994, he wrote the script and music for a much-praised dramatised documentary, The Road from Marriage Farm, telling the story of his grandparents. Throughout the 1990s, Cork released a series of well-reviewed CDs of his own music, including a chamber suite inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass. His orchestral suite, A Man of Kent, recorded by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Gavin Sutherland, was featured in Brian Kay's Light Music Programme and in the 2011 Light Fantastic season, both for Radio 3.
Cork's music went on being performed in the Folkestone/Dover corner of Kent, his home area, to which he was much attached, thanks to the energetic championship of the local music director, Michael Foad. It was for Foad that Cork began to give his sell-out solo piano recitals, mixing his own music with favourites from musicals dating back to his childhood and years in the cinema stalls.
He gave the last of these in December 2011, and his final appearance at the keyboard was to accompany his own song-cycle celebrating the seasons, in January this year. All proceeds from his concerts went to the Cambodia Trust, which raises money to supply and fit artificial limbs to those maimed by the mines left behind by war. Cork had fallen in love with the country when he visited it in the late 1960s on his way back from Australia.
Cork never married, but he maintained a close family of friends, and some of them would often accompany him on the long walks through the Kentish countryside that he managed up to his 80th birthday. Many grateful ex-pupils also kept in touch.
Peter Thorrington Cork, composer, pianist and music teacher: born Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, 14 December 1926; died Folkestone, Kent 24 September 2012.
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