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Obituary: Geoffrey Bush

Lewis Foreman
Monday 02 March 1998 00:02 GMT

IN HIS life as a musician, Geoffrey Bush combined a whole-hearted dedication to teaching and to musical scholarship with a notable career as a composer, together with a range of behind-the-scenes activities particularly for the Performing Right Society Members Fund, the Composer's Guild and the John Ireland Trust.

Bush spent five impressionable years as a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, from 1928 to 1933, an experience which left him with a detailed first- hand knowledge of, and lasting love for, the English choral tradition. It also inspired him to compose, though, when he moved on to Lancing College, Jasper Rooper demanded self-criticism, and Bush destroyed everything he had written to that date. "Looking back", remarked the composer, "I rather regret my lost innocence."

His dedication to composition resulted in lessons with the composer John Ireland, with whom he remained a lifelong friend until Ireland's death in 1962. Later he became Musical Adviser to the John Ireland Trust. Ireland encouraged him to enter - successfully - for the Nettleship Scholarship in composition at Balliol College, Oxford, where he succeeded George Malcolm in 1938, though his studies were interrupted by the Second World War.

A pacifist - and later supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship - during the war he became Assistant Warden at the Hostel of the Good Shepherd, Tredegar, in Monmouthshire, looking after difficult evacuee children, in an area of startling deprivation. During this time he wrote much music, including the puppet opera The Spanish Rivals, later produced at Brighton in 1948 and for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Most of this music was later withdrawn, but a violin Sonata eventually achieved publication. When Bush returned to Oxford immediately after the war, as a Masefield Memorial Student, he was regarded as the composer in student circles. The composer Joseph Horovitz has warm memories of the Sonata, which made so strong an impression he even now remembers whistling it in the street. Despite its youthful romanticism, it retains its appeal.

Geoffrey Bush spent his life championing British music, as scholar and teacher. Yet his lectures on 20th-century music, which inspired many generations of first-year BMus students at King's College London, showed a wide first- hand knowledge, and no special pleading as far as British composers were concerned, though possibly his regard for Prokofiev and Shostakovich was apparent. (Several students remember his generosity with Mars bars as an accompaniment for their studies of modern music.)

Bush's career as an educationalist started as a lecturer with the Oxford University Extra-Mural Delegacy between 1947 and 1952. He then moved to the Extra- Mural Department at London University, with which he was associated, in various capacities, for over 40 years (Staff Tutor in Music 1932-64; Senior Staff Tutor 1964-80; Music Consultant 1984-87). He once, in all seriousness, told me he was overpaid as a teacher but underpaid as a composer.

He was a wonderfully sympathetic person, remarkable for his equable temperament and urbane intelligence. His lectures gripped his students, and no one ever felt Bush was talking down to them. He was selflessly devoted to the PRS Members Fund, which he chaired for 11 years.

Bush was visiting Professor at King's College London for 20 years, where he was appointed by Thurston Dart in 1969. A firm champion of adult education, he was also the moving spirit behind the London University External Diploma in the History of Music, and was the active instigator of the Society for Diploma-holders from this course, which this year celebrates its 24th season.

His activities extended outside London, to the Extramural Centre's Summer School at Westonbirt, for many years. The critic Robert Layton remembers playing through Schumann's Piano Concerto with Bush on a second piano as early as 1948. Later the end-of-course pantomime assumed legendary status, with Bush year after year being the prime mover, writing cabaret songs in great haste and playing them all. On these occasions another of his passions would become evident - Broadway musicals.

Geoffrey Bush was a stern critic of his own earlier music. Yet his list of works is substantial, dominated by songs, including a dozen sets or cycles for voice and piano, and others for instrumental or orchestral accompaniment. One or two, especially his settings of "The Wonder of Wonders" and "Sigh No More Ladies", have achieved almost classic status.

His six operas were all written with an eye to practical production, most notably his setting of John Drinkwater's play X=O, becoming a grippingly drawn pacifist opera, The Equation (1967). The remainder of his output was varied, encompassing some 21 orchestral works and music for piano, smaller forces and organ. His choral works, both unaccompanied and with small orchestra include the widely sung Christmas Cantata (1947) and the delightful Summer Serenade (1948), settings of seven English poets from Thomas Dekker to Shelley.

His First Symphony was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in 1954, and at the Proms in 1959. This powerful and enjoyable score had the misfortune - with the later Second - to be seen as a "Cheltenham Symphony" at the time when, as Bush saw it, William Glock engineered a shift in taste at the BBC.

A tonal composer who wrote tunes had a hard critical time of it in the 1960s. This, temporarily at least, made it an unacceptable genre. The Second Symphony waited 35 years for a second and adequate performance, only ending when it was recorded for Lyrita in 1994. As a post-Waltonian symphonist Bush was remarkably persuasive, the slow movement of the first symphony - an "Elegiac Blues" in memory of Constant Lambert - in particular showing more of Bush's heart on his sleeve than he may have intended. What a pity that the failure of the Second Symphony, as he saw it at the time, resulted in his abandoning the form.

Geoffrey Bush's scholarly work was particularly directed towards English songs; he edited volumes of Parry and Stanford songs and two miscellaneous volumes covering the 19th century, for Musica Britannica. He also completed work on two volumes of Elgar songs for the Elgar Edition which failed to appear when that publication programme halted.

His composer's tribute to John Ireland came in splendidly idiomatic performing editions of various fragments - including the Two Symphonic Studies, comprising music from Ireland's film music for The Overlanders, and the incidental music for the BBC's wartime production of Julius Caesar, edited as Scherzo and Cortege. The recording of his recent orchestration of Stanford's Third Piano Concerto, commissioned for CD, was approved by Bush before he died and is scheduled for issue by Lyrita before the end of the year.

He was an active tennis player, but an armchair cricketer. In a typical remark on the failure of Sterndale Bennett's piano sonata The Maid of Orleans he wrote: "Since Bennett was a cricket enthusiast, it may not be inappropriate to recall that even Bradman was dismissed for nought on his last Test appearance. Bennett's last innings was also a failure."

He was widely known as a pianist, and in Oxford at the end of the war accompanied the soprano Sophie Wyss. He was appointed as organist at St Luke's, Chelsea, in succession to John Ireland, in 1946. Later he appeared as accompanist to his own songs, and recorded a range of them for Chandos in 1981.

His sympathetic book Musical Creation and the Listener first appeared in 1954, while two volumes of essays, Left, Right and Centre and An Unsentimental Education, followed in 1983 and 1990, including autobiography and material previously published or broadcast talks. His voice is unmistakable, particularly his precise mode of expression, throwaway humorous remarks, and occasionally waspish asides.

A lifelong fan of detective fiction, he collaborated with his friend the composer Bruce Montgomery (more familiarly known as "Edmund Crispin") in the story "Who Killed Baker?". Bush had never known his father, Christopher Bush, and always longed to do so; recently he had been thrilled to discover that he had published a detective story.

To mark Geoffrey Bush's 70th birthday the Songmakers' Almanac promoted a Wigmore Hall concert. The programme was a typical spectrum of his enthusiasms, and was styled "A Celebration of English Song 1850-1990", including his own. The hall was packed and Bush went on stage dressed characteristically in a bright red pullover and sporting an equally bright yellow bow tie. No one present could believe the anniversary this youthful and energetic figure was celebrating.

Lewis Foreman

Geoffrey Bush, composer and teacher: born London 23 March 1920; married 1950 Julie McKenna (two sons); died London 24 February 1998.

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