Obituary: David Gow

Click to follow
David Godfrey Gow, composer and teacher, born London 6 April 1924, died Swindon 23 February 1993.

DAVID GOW was one of that group of fine British composers who receive reasonably regular performances and occasional broadcasts but never quite achieve the wider public recognition that would seem their due. His output was quite large, based mainly on concerto forms and the string quartet in the instrumental field, as well as a considerable body of choral and vocal compositions.

He was descended from a family of Scottish fiddle-music composers and performers of whom Niel Gow (1727-1807) and his youngest son, Nathaniel (1766- 1831), were the most renowned. Although David Gow never forgot these Scottish roots and always deposited copies of his scores first with the Scottish Music Information Centre before the English one, he was London-born and spent his life mainly there and in the south-west of England. He studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Gordon Jacob and Frank Merrick, winning the Clements Prize in 1945 for his Clarinet Quintet. Thereafter he studied privately with Alan Bush and took the B Mus and M Mus degrees of Durham University. During the 1950s he wrote prolifically but in the 1960s he became much more self-critical and discarded many of these earlier compositions.

In 1967 Gow received the Hans Oppenheimer Prize of the Saltire Society for his Quartet (Op. 28) for flute, oboe, violoncello and harpsichord. He lectured for the Workers' Educational Association and taught Liberal Arts at the Isleworth Polytechnic. In 1962 he was appointed lecturer in music at Swindon Technical College, where he taught until his retirement. Here he encouraged and stimulated many students whose initial musical potential seemed limited. At the same time he was a lecturer also for the Extramural Department of Bristol University.

David Gow was closely associated with the Music Department of the Open University from its inception. In this capacity he contributed valuably to the course material and was a most successful music Course Tutor for the South- west Region, bringing his clear, no-nonsense approach to music, music theory and history to this new army of keen mature students, many of whom had no previous academic knowledge of the subject. In addition, he was a regular and popular member of the teaching staff of the intensive Open University Summer School music courses. Here perhaps he will be best remembered for his characteristically lively and perceptive contribution to arguably the most successful and popular of the third-level courses, 'The Development of Instruments and Their Music', which ran for 10 years.

He was a dynamic member of that impressive and distinguished team of academics who gathered for these summer schools each year, first at Warwick University and subsequently at Cardiff. Again, his refreshingly direct and enthusiastic approach to teaching his subject, coupled with his often outrageous sense of humour, endeared him to students. Many of them not only continued to develop their musical interests but kept in touch with him and were to be seen subsequently attending concerts of his works in London and elsewhere.

Gow enjoyed the co-operation and friendship of many fine performers, many of his works being written especially for them. As well as concertos for violin, guitar, saxophone and trombone, he wrote a Piano Concerto in 1980 for Philip Martin, first performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves, a Basset Horn Concerto in the same year for Stephen Trier premiered by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, a Viola Concerto (Double Aria) for Martin Outram and a Violoncello Concerto for Timothy Hugh, this last receiving its premiere on 6 January, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester. At the time of his death he had completed a Marimba Concerto for Evelyn Glennie which will be given its first performance later this year in York.

Of his nine String Quartets, the later ones (Nos 4 to 9) were written as a result of his happy association with the Maggini Quartet, No 7 (Quartetto Amabile) of 1989 being dedicated to these players. Many of his solo piano works received their first performances also from Philip Martin, among which the Age of Gold (1977), Twelve Preludes and a Postlude (1979) and the Piano Sonata (1984) are probably the best. For Philip Martin and his wife, Penelope Price Jones, he wrote a number of song cycles, including A Star Shall Arise (1976), on astronomical subjects (like his friend the composer Robert Simpson, Gow was a keen astronomer), and A Woman Young and Old (1984). Another fine cycle came in 1982, entitiled Fifteen Faces of Love, for vocal quartet and piano.

Gow enjoyed a close association with choral groups, most notably the former BBC Northern Singers and their conductor Stephen Wilkinson, who gave many fine performances of his works including the cantatas Star Gazers, The Wreck of the Deutschland and Walden. His setting of 'Ave Maris Stella' is particularly beautiful and one of only very few of his works ever to receive a commercial recording. In recent years his music began to be heard abroad and he attended performances of his works in Prague, Brno, Bratislava and Kiev.

Kindness to his students was typical of him his character; he was always prepared to write works for any who showed talent and interest. For the Hounslow Youth Orchestra, he wrote his Mini Symphony in 1968 and for the pupils of Marlborough College he wrote his Quintet for Clarinets in 1974. He was equally generous to local amateur choirs. If his purely orchestral works are less known, his Overture 125 commissioned by British Rail deserves popularity and his Symphony No 3, Wessex Heights, for Thomas Hardy's 150th anniversary celebrations in 1990, is a fitting testimony to another of his interests.

David Gow will be remembered for the ever warm and welcoming hospitality given by himself and his wife Margaret to their friends at their home in Axford and subsequently Aldbourne, in Wiltshire, where hours of down-to- earth music talk, spiced with much humour, were to be enjoyed. Throughout the last eight years, when he was dogged by ill-health, his spirit never flagged. He continued to be positive, optimistic, bright and creative to the end.