Obituary: John Wright

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The Independent Online
Ernest John Wright, commercial artist and composer, born the Curragh County Kildare 24 August 1911, married 1936 Grace Wright (died 1990), died Isleworth Middlesex 5 February 1993.

APPRENTICED as a commercial artist in the late 1920s, John Wright worked for London advertising agencies for many years. But he was a born composer. Like all genuine artists, he worked hard to master technique both as composer and clarinettist. Hearing him expound his orchestral music on the piano was a daunting experience. On clarinet his proficiency was evident. On the piano he often fumbled and slurred. Despite this, the ineffable charm of his melodic invention was unmistakable. The scores showed his mastery of form.

Genial, open-minded, thoughtful, affectionate, sincere, a good listener and talkative, Wright won many friends. He had some faults, usually observable in creative minds. He could be stubborn and egotistical; though to a lesser degree than any other talented artist I have known. Commercially he never made much money.

After secondment to the Ordnance Survey, Wright's main war service in the RAF was centred on mapping skills. He was a foundation member of staff at SHAEF HQ. His fragmentary autobiography, Just As It Happened: a composer's story, 1911 to 1947 (1992), was condensed from a much longer text. He wrote as he talked, with numerous parenthetical digressions. All are intrinsically interesting, but hard on the eye. He wouldn't admit merit in short sentences, although musically he was a master of them. He loved London. Pepys, Boswell, Hazlitt and Lamb were among his favourite authors. Wright's many vocal settings are memorably succinct.

Mainly self-educated in the fine arts, he had instinctive good taste and good judgement in selecting words for music. So his Six English Songs (1965/66) include poems by Robert Bridges, Dowson, Herbert Palmer and two forgotten poets, Edward Davison and Cecil Floerscheim. The Hesperus Songs (1973) to Beddoes, Byron and Shelley deserve a wide audience. His first symphony (in E flat: 1958) in its second movement includes stanzas 89, 90 and 97 from 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' for high soprano. His programme note for the symphony avers the need for a voice like Eva Turner's. The Vaughan Williams Trust paid for part-books to be copied for a projected performance in 1966.

Educationally and socially independent, John Wright had a keen critical intelligence. In 1950 he burned all his early music, plays and poems. His output since then comprises work for orchestra, for chorus, two operas to his own libretti (Phaedra, 1961) and a comic opera, The Spring Field Affair (1989). The Second Symphony (1972: F minor) was followed by a third (1990-93) on which the short score was completed. Full orchestration of the last movement was alone unfinished. There are four string quartets, one of which was played by the Kantrovitch Quartet, and many works for varied chamber ensembles. A sinfonietta for strings (1976) commemorates Ralph Vaughan Williams. There are at least three extant ballet scores.

Wright's dual existence, as commercial artist and composer, mirrored his mixed luck in musical performance. Ernest Harden during the 1930s and 1940s encouraged, guided and gave excellent performances of many early works by him with the West London Symphony Orchestra. Matyas Seiber conducted the first London performance of Wright's Divertimento for Oboe and Strings (1948) with the unforgettable Helen Gaskell as soloist. Later the BBC invited her to broadcast it and Evelyn Rothwell also broadcast the work superbly. Bernard Partridge premiered Wright's 1969 Violin Concerto under Joseph Vandernott in 1975. Vandernott also gave other superb performances of Wright's work. At Partridge's invitation Wright composed new cadenzas for the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms. Malcolm Arnold sponsored Wright's election to membership of the Composers Guild of Great Britain in 1959.

John Wright's equable temperament and inexhaustible physical and intellectual energy first stalled in 1973. An operation to remove a blood clot failed. Next day his left leg was amputated. His wife Grace's devoted support enabled him to continue a normal existence afterwards. Grace did everything for him domestically, leaving him free for composition. A man of wide cultural interests and resource, he continued to visit art exhibitions and museums, and read extensively on all matters of public moment concerned with the arts.

Richmond on Thames Arts Council was negotiating with John Wright to assume posthumous custodianship of all his musical scores and parts. This should facilitate study and further performances of his music.

(Photograph omitted)