Professor Robin Orr

Composer and founding chairman of Scottish Opera who promoted the cause of modern music
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The Independent Online

Robert (Robin) Kemsley Orr, composer: born Brechin, Angus 2 June 1909; Director of Music, Sidcot School, Somerset 1933-36; Assistant Lecturer in Music, Leeds University 1936-38; Organist and Director of Studies in Music, St John's College, Cambridge 1938-51, Fellow 1948-56, 1965-76, Honorary Fellow 1987; University Lecturer in Music, Cambridge University 1947-56, Professor of Music 1965-76 (Emeritus); Professor of Theory and Composition, Royal College of Music 1950-56; Gardiner Professor of Music, Glasgow University 1956-65; Chairman, Scottish Opera 1962-76; CBE 1972; married 1937 Margaret Mace (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1979), 1979 Doris Winny-Meyer; died Cambridge 9 April 2006.

Robin Orr was unfortunate in his generation in that he was born halfway between Michael Tippett in 1905 and Benjamin Britten eight years later. Their work and reputations in the years after the Second World War overshadowed all other British composers, while in the years before the war there had been virtually no public acceptance of new music at all. That interest would only come with the arrival of the Young Turks of the Manchester school, born 30 years later, who grew up in the post-war boom in state education, which included, for those who wanted it, advanced musical education, and had the advantage of Arts Council subsidy for the performance of new works.

When Orr was a young man there was little incentive for a musician to compose, and he was well into middle age before he could benefit from the same state help that his juniors took for granted. Although he was a good and respected composer, capable of wit and depth, and interesting harmonic and rhythmic innovation in his compositions, and much dramatic intensity in his operas and other stage works, it is probably more as a teacher and a guru that he will be remembered.

Born in Brechin, Angus in 1909, at a time when musical studies were hardly known in Scotland, he was fortunate in that his father was such a music lover that he had an organ built into his house, which Robin was taught to play at an early age. At Loretto, a prestigious but strict and spartan public school, the headmaster sternly countered Robin Orr's declared wish to become an artist or a musician; his father finally rescued him to go to the Royal College of Music where he was accepted in 1926, just before his 17th birthday.

There he studied organ with Sir Walter Alcord, piano with Arthur Benjamin and composition with Charles Wood. At the RCM he came across Sir Thomas Beecham, Dame Ethel Smyth, Sir Henry Wood and other notable visitors, and was able to study a wide range of music not frequently heard, and especially not in Scotland. On the advice of one of his tutors, he applied for and won an organ scholarship to Cambridge and was accepted at Pembroke College. He was then 20.

Orr was much impressed by the teaching system at Cambridge, where music students had to learn to compose in the different styles of past masters, and in later life he believed that this grounding in the music of the past, and of current composers as well, was the best possible foundation for a musician, whatever branch of the profession he entered. Edward Dent instructed him in composition, and later sent him to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, where his fellow pupils included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter and Lennox Berkeley. He also studied piano and composition with Alfredo Casella for a time in Siena, and in the middle Thirties taught at a school in Sidcot and at Leeds University.

While in Cambridge, Orr engaged himself in local musical activities as organiser and performer, enjoying college life, which he found idyllic in the late Thirties, with free college meals, a civilised atmosphere and a dedication to high culture. An early composition, Three Songs of Innocence (1932), was performed there by Gladys Parr, with John Barbirolli playing the cello in the accompanying string quartet, and it was well received.

Like Benjamin Britten, Orr was increasingly looking for inspiration to foreign influences, which were frowned on at both the RCM and in Cambridge (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky being in particularly bad odour), and this was one reason he went to Paris in the late Thirties.

When he returned to Cambridge in 1938 he was offered the post of organist at St John's College. This led to much practical musical activity - he was responsible for a choir that was frequently invited to tour - but the war soon curtailed musical life. Orr then found himself at the centre of the many musical refugees from the Nazis who headed for Cambridge; many became close friends, and among those he helped and lodged were Kurt Jooss, whose distinguished ballet company had particularly annoyed Hitler, and Roberto Gerhard. He also put up London friends like Dent, a strong advocate of his music, and there were times when music flowed out of every room in his house.

During the war Orr served first in the Home Guard, and then was posted to Medmenham in Buckinghamshire, an RAF base where, with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, he was concerned with photographic intelligence. Much of the work was co-ordinating underground activities and the spy networks in German-occupied countries. He still found time to compose and some works were broadcast and recorded as well as played in concert. Max Rostal and Franz Osborn premiered his Sonatina for Violin and Piano in 1943, and other works followed.

In 1946 he returned to Cambridge as both Lecturer in Music and organist at St John's. The following year Cambridge initiated a Music Tripos, the first British university to do so, and this attracted a growing flow of music students, so his activities increased. Orr began writing incidental music for university play productions. Some of it became such a major part of the production that he was accused of really writing operas disguised as drama.

In 1950, finding that he had too little time to compose, he passed on his organ duties to the best of his pupils, and returned to the RCM as Professor of Theory and Composition. In 1956 he was offered the Chair of Music at Glasgow University and during his tenure composed many works, the most important of which was Symphony in One Movement (1963).

An article he wrote for the Glasgow Herald about the Wexford Festival that included a description of the gastronomic and liquid delights of the event brought him an invitation to write a weekly food column for the newspaper, which he found a relaxing as well as a profitable hobby: it led to invitations to contribute to gastronomic magazines and books and to many free restaurant meals. Robin Orr was a jolly, plump man and his rotund figure was convincing evidence of his fondness for food, wine and his native beverage. He fully justified his membership of the Scottish Society of Epicureans.

During his nine years in Glasgow, Orr was very concerned with music in Scotland and helped to promote the cause of contemporary music to a reluctant musical establishment and a public that was even more conservative in Edinburgh, home of the world's largest arts festival, than in the city where he taught. He was delighted when Alexander Gibson left Sadler's Wells Opera to become conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra, and enthusiastically helped him with his Musica Viva series of concerts, where new works were discussed before or after performance and frequently played twice. Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Stockhausen started to become known and accepted, and many Scottish composers including Iain Hamilton and Orr himself were given a platform. This didactic approach to modern music was soon imitated elsewhere, most notably in Liverpool. New music in London remained for some time the domain of specialist musical societies.

When approached by Gibson, whose ambition was to start a Scottish opera company, Orr enthusiastically offered his support, and when the project became reality was elected chairman. The Scottish Arts Council decided not to back the first season, but STV gave £1,000, which caused the SAC to have second thoughts, and they matched it with a guarantee against loss; the first season of Scottish Opera was held with two operas in 1962. In spite of many difficulties, the determination of Gibson, of Peter Hemmings, a former student of Orr's at Cambridge and the very effective administrator of the new company, and of Orr himself, kept the company going; four decades later, in spite of government cuts, it is still one of the most adventurous and successful of British opera companies.

It later mounted three Robin Orr operas, Full Circle (with a libretto by Sydney Goodsir Smith) in 1967, Hermiston in 1975 and On the Razzle in 1986. Robin Orr was not simply the chairman of Scottish Opera, but an active participant in its planning, programming and fund-raising. Having again moved south, in 1976 Orr resigned after 15 years as chairman, as it was not possible still to be active with the company.

In 1965 Orr was appointed Professor of Music in Cambridge, the first Scot to hold the post, and after his retirement in 1975 continued to live in Cambridge, although he spent much time in his last years in his Swiss chalet with his second wife, a native of Zurich. In 1995 he adopted Swiss nationality in addition to British and among his later compositions was the Sinfonietta Helvetica (1990).

John Calder