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Stephen Dodgson: Composer hailed for his guitar works


Stephen Dodgson composed music in most forms, though his more than 40 scores including guitar ensured him a specialist following among guitarists. His First Guitar Concerto, written in 1956 for Julian Bream and played by a teenage John Williams, was set for popularity, but tended to be eclipsed by Malcolm Arnold's Concerto, which Bream introduced soon afterwards.

Dodgson came from a well-off artistic family, his father the painter and teacher John Dodgson (1890-1969). After Berkhampsted School and Stowe, Stephen was conscripted and soon found himself in the Royal Navy on Atlantic patrols. After demobilisation there followed short-lived teaching posts while he studied composition with Bernard Stevens.

In April 1947 he entered the Royal College of Music with horn as his first study, with Frank Probyn. But composition was his real love, studying with RO Morris and Patrick Hadley. While a student Dodgson won a Cobbett prize for a Fantasy String Quartet. Leaving the RCM in July 1949, he won the Octavia Travelling Fellowship, which took him to Italy.

Dodgson's teaching career was largely focused on the Royal College of Music, first in the Junior Department before he became professor of composition and theory in 1965, remaining for 17 years. His FRCO was awarded in 1981.

Dodgson was probably best-known for many years as a familiar voice on the Third Programme/Radio 3. Yet his life is largely the narrative of his music, and over a career spanning 60 years he produced a substantial catalogue in almost all forms.

In 1949 Dodgson won a Royal Philharmonic Society prize for a set of orchestral variations, repeated in 1953 with a Symphony in Eb. Notable for its slow movement, a "romantically inclined" Passacaglia, the symphony had a Patron Fund rehearsal in 1952 and was performed in January 1954. Later that year an Society for the Promotion of New Music by the LSO at London's Festival Hall heard Dodgson's "romantic overture" Taras Bulba, which was well-received.

However, he was attracting commissions for chamber and instrumental music. Typically, in 1953, a young Julian Bream encouraged him to write for the guitar, resulting in his Prelude, Nocturne and Toccata, but he was disappointed when Bream strained his arm, delaying the first performance. He also wrote extensively for recorder, most recently for John Turner. Dodgson had an enthusiasm for the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and from the 1950s he wrote extensively for the harpsichord, producing five sets of Inventions. In 1959 he married the harpsichordist Jane Clark, who survives him.

There is a significant cycle of nine string quartets written between 1984 and 2006 recorded by the Tippett Quartet for Dutton Epoch; in fact there survive several earlier quartets. When planning the recording Stephen was persuaded the quartets would have a wider appeal if coupled with his flute and clarinet quintets. Similarly, the six substantial Piano Sonatas have been recorded by Bernard Roberts, who has also recorded his trio and bagatelles for piano.

Dodgson's principal opera is Margaret Catchpole – Two Worlds Apart, a music drama in four acts (the heroine was once described as a "female Dick Turpin"). He loved costume drama and there were also the chamber operas Cadilly and Nancy the Waterman. Cadilly was first seen at the Purcell Room in 1969 with puppets. More recently both were given (2002, 2007) at St Albans. Cadilly, the story of a miller who persuades the simpleton Billy to rescue his wife's sister from jail by changing clothes with her, succeeds through atmosphere and knockabout humour.

There was also substantial incidental music for a succession of BBC dramatic productions. After The Beaux Stratagem in 1961, Dodgson enjoyed a sympathetic collaboration with the producer Raymond Raikes, who commissioned music for Congreve's Love for Love in 1965, soon followed by The Old Bachelor. There followed more than a dozen plays including Marivaux's comedy The Legacy and Plautus' Mostellaria ("The Ghost of a Play"). His music for John Ford's Perkin Warbeck (1970) was distinguished by David Munrow's recorder playing.

Between 1970 and 1972 Dodgson provided scores for such major productions as Aristophanes' Women in Power; Morte D'Arthur; Shakespeare's Henry VI and Macbeth. This was followed by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Vanbrugh's A Journey to London and, in autumn 1974, Ben Jonson's The Silent Woman and Ravenscroft's The London Cuckolds.

His concertos and concertante works are the best known, and include two for guitar, for guitar duet, for violin and guitar, for flute, clarinet, piano, harpsichord, harp, bass trombone, recorder, and viola da gamba. There is also the charming song cycle The Last of the Leaves. Dodgson's mature orchestral music is crowned by the series of symphonic movements which he called "Essays for orchestra". Starting with the first (1980) premiered at the 1982 Cheltenham Festival, they appeared over many years.

When Dutton Epoch proposed an orchestral disc of Dodgson's music, I visited the composer to discuss repertoire. He was enthusiastic but it was only then I discovered there are actually nine Essays. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra recorded the first five under the able direction of David Lloyd-Jones, and they made a convincing sequence on their own account.

Chairman of the National Youth Wind Orchestra from 1986, Dodgson also wrote sympathetically for brass and wind bands with Bandwagon, Marchrider, the Capriccio Concertante for clarinet and wind orchestra, Flowers of London Town, a symphonic sequence after Blake, the tone poem The Eagle, and sextets and septets for smaller groups, notably for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. He remained remarkably active throughout his eighties but seemed to be fading in his last months.

Lewis Foreman

Stephen Cuthbert Vivian Dodgson, composer: born Chelsea, London 17 March 1924; married 1959 Jane Clark; died Barnes, London 13 April 2013.