OBITUARIES: Christopher Palmer
Friday 27 January 1995
Christopher Palmer was a highly original critic and a multi- talented musician active and expert in many fields.
There was Palmer the skilful "arranger" - a dimension of music he raised to new levels of accomplishment. It was wholly characteristic of him that, even in hospital struggling against the onslaught of Aids, he was excited by the idea of a possible arrangement that might be made of the children's music (boys' voices) from Part II of Mahler's huge Eighth Symphony, the setting of the final scene from Goethe's Faust. Only he could have come up with such a magnificently improbable idea.
Then there were two receptacles into which his gifts bubbled over: the film studio and the recording studio. His work for the movie industry, where his skills as an orchestrator, added to his vast knowledge of the cinema and its idiosyncratic technical requirements, made him in constant demand, often amounted to a creative collaboration with the composer whose music, against the clock, he was scoring. He worked with and for some of the most celebrated Hollywood composers of the day; Elmer Ber nstein wasa long-standing friend and admirer of his musicianship, as was Mikls Rsza.
Palmer was equally at home in the recording studio. One of his last recording projects was A Shakespeare Scenario, a compilation of incidental music by Walton, a composer he much admired. This was a series of records which brought into play Palmer's gifts as producer and arranger - quarrying from a mass of incidental music a host of viable sequences and suites, music much too enjoyable to be left buried.
He was particularly good at these rescue operations. Good too at managing a recording. I worked with him on a couple of projects, an anthology of Britten's Blues, from the Thirties, and a complete recording of Britten's last opera, Death in Venice, made for a television film directed by Tony Palmer. I was impressed by the excellence and experience of Christopher Palmer's ear but, above all, by the sympathetic relationship he created, whether with orchestra or singer. He was always encouraging, kind and patient, but never satisfied until he had got what he wanted out of the performers.
It is difficult to define his taste in music. He loved composers who were prolific and whose techniques - especially in their orchestral or operatic works - were of a high order of sophistication and subtlety. Hence his enthusiasm for Prokofiev, Ravel, Britten, to whose music he brought special insights. The Britten Companion he edited in 1984 contains some remarkable examples of his writings on music, informed by an unusual wealth of references, literary and musical, sympathy with the composer's aims,and an ability to come up with challenging ideas that had occurred to no one else.
There is no doubt that his criticism reflects the breadth of his interests and the pattern of his education. After attending Norwich School, he took up a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in the first instance to read modern languages, but in midstream he switched to music. In 1973 he published Impressionism in Music, a substantial and carefully researched and edited monograph, and perhaps the most "scholarly" - though he would not have much cared for the term - of his many publications.
It was not only the established and successful composer who fascinated him and about whom he wrote. Palmer was a champion of composers, especially English composers, whom he thought undervalued, George Dyson and Herbert Howells among them; and in the literary field, too, he put together a remarkable anthology of the prose of Arthur Machen.
So diverse a professional life, inevitably, was not easily organised and Palmer always needed a support team. He was never able to master the art of proof-reading. The errors he did not notice and allowed into print reached legendary status. It is good news that a new edition of his Howells study, first published as Herbert Howells: a centenary celebration (1993), is on the way, though with its endearing Palmeresque blemishes removed.
Palmer's last piece of work was completed when his illness had remorselessly reduced his capacity to write. But his courage and determination enabled him to turn in a lengthy introduction to Cradles of the New, a new book of mine which I may be excused mentioning because it offers us a marvellous self-portrait of Christopher Palmer, his ideals, beliefs and idiosyncrasies, and, not least, his gift for friendship.
I first came across him when he was a schoolboy, and he wrote to me seeking information about Mahler. Later, when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he came to see me, to ask my advice about pursuing a career as a writer on music. He was a handsome, imposingly tall man, always strikingly dressed; there was something genuinely glamorous about his appearance. At the very end of his illness, when it seemed that he was almost transparent and weightless, it was as if his youth had returned to him: the schoolboy I had never met in the 1960s.
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