Obituary: Harold Truscott

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The Independent Online
Harold Truscott, composer, pianist and writer, born Ilford 23 August 1914, married 1948 Margaret Madge (one son, two daughters), died Ashford Kent 7 October 1992.

HAROLD TRUSCOTT was one of Britain's most outstanding and least adequately celebrated composers. He was also a pianist of prodigious sight-reading ability and an unrivalled musical polymath: his knowledge of Western classical music was legendary - Truscott simply knew it all, in its obscurest nooks and crannies.

His profound understanding of the 'standard classics' was complemented from his earliest days by a similar appreciation of the music of an astonishing range of composers. For almost half a century he contributed a steady stream of articles to such publications as Music Survey, Music Review, the Listener, Tempo and Music and Musicians on figures who were receiving virtually no critical attention from any other quarter: Clementi, Dussek, Reger, Tovey, Schmidt, Bantock, Brun, Burkhard, Korngold, Kipinen, Pfitzner, Rubbra and dozens more.

Truscott's extraordinarily catholic enthusiasms were formed largely by his own dogged exploration of printed scores, which he began acquiring and reading as a child, eventually amassing an enormous library. He was largely self-taught in music, though he studied briefly (1943-45) at the Royal College of Music in London (composition with Herbert Howells, piano with Angus Morrison and horn with Frank Probin; he also had some sporadic organ lessons). From 1939 to 1948 he was employed by the Royal Mail, often doing night-work while he continued his studies by day. In 1956, after six years' teaching piano, harmony and composition at Blackheath Conservatoire, and two at Sandwich Secondary Modern, he was obliged by approaching government restrictions on teacher qualifications to spend a year at Bretton Hall teachers' training college in West Yorkshire. Immediately thereafter he joined the music department of Huddersfield Polytechnic, where he was to spend the rest of his professional career, first as a Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer; nine years before his retirement in 1979, he was appointed Principal Lecturer.

But it is for his own music that Truscott will be remembered. For over 50 years he produced a stream of original and powerful compositions that have excited admiration among the few who know them, but which, for want of a publisher, have not yet found the wider public they deserve.

In the booklet for two 75th- birthday concerts organised in 1989 by the Havergal Brian Society (Truscott was a friend and early champion of Brian's music), Robert Simpson praised Truscott's own work for 'its determined concentration, its strength of form, the originality with which it extends the possibilities of traditional tonality, and its essential humanity'. His musical language is perhaps best characterised as vigorously and resourcefully contrapuntal, unashamedly - though not unadventurously - tonal, occasionally reminiscent of some of the composers he admired (Brian, Medtner, Hindemith) and yet instantly identifiable as Truscott. The backbone of his output is a series of 17 magnificent piano sonatas (an 18th was unfinished) unmatched since Beethoven's, and there are other works for piano and organ. There are also three sonatas for violin and piano (and two others unfinished), another for solo violin, three for clarinet, and individual sonatas for cello, oboe and horn, as well as other pieces of chamber music. On a larger scale, there is also a symphony, two completed movements for the projected Second and Third Symphonies, a suite for orchestra and Fantasy for strings (only the profound Adagio-Finale of the First Symphony has yet been performed, by a student orchestra at Huddersfield). A piano concerto and oboe concerto exist in sketches; and a 10-part a capella Kyrie was all that was completed of a Mass.

His devotion to the composers he admired also expressed itself creatively, in transcriptions of string quartets by Volkmann and Fuchs and completions of several of the 11 piano sonatas that Schubert left unfinished.

In spite of broadcasts by Truscott himself in the early 1950s, and John Ogdon (Sonata No 10) in 1969, the belated growth of interest in Truscott's music began in 1981 when, again at a meeting of the Havergal Brian Society, the pianist Peter Jacobs performed the Seventh and Eleventh Piano Sonatas (the first of these was dedicated to Brian). Jacobs went on to make LP recordings of eight of the sonatas for the Altarus label, and a cassette of two others for the British Music Society. A compact disc of five chamber works is in preparation.

In addition to a book on Franz Schmidt's orchestral music in 1984 (the first instalment of what was planned as a three-volume series) and an earlier one on the Beethoven string quartets, Truscott had virtually completed an extensive study of Schubert's piano music and had been working on books on Korngold and on Mendelssohn. A collection of his articles was under discussion at the time of his death.

Harold Truscott was a quiet genius, constantly capable of surprising his friends with unexpected shafts of knowledge: he was, for example, also an authority on Richard Crompton's 'William' stories and the films of Buster Keaton.

He expressed his views bluntly and honestly enough to upset some of the contemporary composers he wrote about (he had no time for dodecaphony) and to earn the undying gratitude of others. But he did not push himself or his music, and was almost embarrassed by the praise that Jacobs recordings began to attract for him. Drawing on an ever-present cigarette, he would meet compliments with a quiet grin and a self- deprecating comment that usually dissolved in a gale of alarmingly bronchial laughter.

(Photograph omitted)