Professor Alun Hoddinott: Composer of prodigious energy who prompted comparison with Haydn

Friday 14 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Alun Hoddinott was one of the few Welsh composers whose work is well known outside Wales, and one of the most versatile and prolific British composers of all time. He wrote in a wide variety of forms, and at such an astonishing rate that one wag among his compatriots famously referred to him as the only composer in Europe who could write music faster than it could be played. His prodigious energy went into the making of operas, symphonies, sinfoniettas, sonatas, concertos, oratorios, fugues, motets, film music, dance suites and cantatas, as well as a large number of chamber, vocal and choral works. This protean fluency and versatility prompted none less than Sir Charles Groves to draw a comparison between Hoddinott and Haydn.

Perhaps Hoddinott's most popular success was his first opera, The Beach of Falesá, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson with a libretto by Glyn Jones, which was given its premiere by Welsh National Opera at Cardiff New Theatre in 1974. It marked a new phase in his work, with its more frequent use of instruments in extended solo roles, sharp-etched dramatic outbursts and a deepening of orchestral colour appropriate to the atmosphere of its romantic subject.

Among his later operas were The Magician (1976), with a libretto by John Morgan (for HTV); What the Old Man Does is Always Right (1977); and The Rajah's Diamond (1978) and The Trumpet Major (1981), the last-named based on a novel by Thomas Hardy, on both of which he collaborated with the writer Myfanwy Piper. His last work in this genre was Tower (1999), inspired by the colliery of that name at Hirwaun, the last deep mine in South Wales.

Alun Hoddinott was born in 1929 in the mining town of Bargoed, at the top of the Rhymney Valley, where his father was a teacher, and brought up in Pont-Iliw, near Swansea, after his father took a post there. The family was not especially musical but the boy showed an early interest in composition and started taking violin lessons at the age of four. Educated at Gowerton Grammar School, he won a composition scholarship to University College, Cardiff, graduating in 1949. While still a student he wrote an overture, a symphonic suite for orchestra, a cello concerto and several string quartets, together with songs and choral works; all these were performed publicly and some were broadcast, but were later withdrawn and are not now listed as part of his oeuvre.

After studying privately for a few years with the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin, Hoddinott joined the staff of the Cardiff (later Welsh) College of Music and Drama in 1951. His first success as a composer came in 1954 when his Clarinet Concerto No 3 was performed at the Cheltenham Festival by Gervase de Peyer and the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. In 1953 he was awarded the Walford Davies Prize for composition and in 1957 he won the Arnold Bax Medal, the first of many triumphs in a long and illustrious career.

Cheltenham was to be the scene of several Hoddinott premieres in the years that followed, among them the Harp Concerto of 1958, the Symphony No 2 of 1962 and the Piano Concerto No 3 of 1966. These early works displayed what came to be recognised as an identifiable Hoddinott sound consisting of a darkly brooding lyricism, cumulative in its effect until the tension is broken and dispersed in a series of jaunty scherzi. The sound is sometimes said to be "Celtic" but that is a somewhat old-fashioned view of Celtitude, though the colour, scintillating effects, fiery outbursts and sheer panache of Hoddinott's music may well qualify for the epithet.

He moved to the music department of his old college in 1959 and became Professor of Music there in 1967, a post he held until his retirement 20 years later.

Hoddinott often wrote in response to commissions from music festivals. The cantata Dives and Lazarus was composed for the Farnham Schools Festival and performed there in 1965 with the Welsh National Opera Chorale. The text is a version of the folk-tale of Dives, the rich man who goes to Hell, and Lazarus, the poor man who goes to Heaven, but cast in the mould of Stravinsky's A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, that is to say it is a short homily about good and evil and their rewards, with the musical style suitably stripped down for children.

His Variants for Orchestra, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1966, and Night Music, performed by the New Philharmonia Orchestra in the year following, signalled a change of direction which owed something to the Polish school represented by Lutoslawski and Penderecki. Even so, the influence of Bartók and Hindemith was still apparent in the slow nocturnal movements and the more general aspects of line, rhythm and structure.

The most admired work of Hoddinott's middle period was The Sun, the Great Luminary of the Universe, which was first performed at the Swansea Music Festival in 1970 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. The work takes its title from an apocalyptic passage in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, each section corresponding to a sentence in Joyce's prose. The structure is again cumulative, the tensions marked by contrasts of explosive sound followed by what the composer called "massive silences". Thematic ideas are taken from Bach's Es Ist Genug and the famous "Dies irae" motif is heard in shadowy outline at the climax, with a coda bringing the whole to a quiet close. It is a nocturnal piece, reflecting the composer's lifelong habit of writing during the hours of darkness.

Similar features are to be heard in Hoddinott's symphonies, though not at the expense of linear construction, which continued to hold a central place in his musical thinking. Long melodies, often supported by a repetitive oscillation of two adjacent harmonies, reminiscent of both Sibelius and Berg, lend the scores a powerful lyricism and a fugal quality.

The work is complex, but the complexity is never arbitrary, for it is born of an ability, or compulsion, "to see the world from varying angles, to explore the interaction of separate forces, to reshape material in the light of other events". Among the composer's favourite techniques up to about 1970 was that of the palindrome, even the double palindrome, in which a sequence of notes is stated and then restated in reverse order. It is to be heard at its most effective in his Oboe Concerto (1955) and Piano Concerto (1960), where it is used with a 12-note line centred on a key note.

The same technical virtuosity is demonstrated in his concertos. A violinist by training, Hoddinott composed directly on to an orchestral score, without the intermediate use of a piano outline, but with an acute awareness of instrumental colour as a creative stimulus. The Piano Concerto No 2, written in 1960, is scored for an orchestra of double woodwind, brass, percussion and strings. The Concerto for Horn and Orchestra was written in 1969, by which time Hoddinott had become increasingly interested in the colouristic potential of the percussion section.

As head of the Music Department at Cardiff, one of the largest in the United Kingdom, Alun Hoddinott played a leading role in introducing audiences to the work of modern composers. From 1976 the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music, of which he was founder and artistic director, commissioned and performed new works by Britten, Tippett, Walton, Messiaen, Maxwell-Davies and many others – more than 200 in all. The festival has done much to awaken public interest in modern art music in Wales, a country in which the amateur and folk traditions have for long reigned supreme.

There is nothing folkloric in Hoddinott's music, and most critics have perceived in it a Mediterranean light rather than anything specifically Welsh, but he did use Welsh material in some of his works, often drawn from the visual arts and literature. The neo-impressionistic Landscapes (1975), for example, was derived from "Eryri", a poem about Snowdonia by T.H. Parry-Williams, while Roman Dream, Ancestor Worship and An Apple Tree and a Pig were inspired by poems by his friend, Emyr Humphreys. Between 1950 and 1976 Hoddinott wrote incidental music for radio plays and films, including works by Dannie Abse, Lorca, Saunders Lewis, Christopher Fry, Anouilh, Browning and Gwyn Thomas.

Although firmly rooted in Wales, Hoddinott travelled widely, especially to southern Europe and to the United States. In 1989, his 60th year, his long association with the London Symphony Orchestra bore magnificent fruit in Noctis Equi (Opus 132), a poem for cello and orchestra, inspired by the haunting line in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, "O lente, lente currite, noctis equi." This work, which was first conducted at the Barbican by Rostropovich, is generally thought to be Hoddinott's finest composition.

Some critics, however, may prefer his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Horn Concerto, any of the Piano Sonatas, the choral symphony Sinfoni Fidei, or even the lighter but no less important Welsh Dances and the Quodlibet on Welsh Nursery Rhymes. It is difficult to choose from among a vast output of about 300 works, but at least the composer was well served by his recording companies, which included Argo, Decca, Lyrita, Nimbus and Oriana, so that his music is now available to a wide audience.

Among the works he wrote during the 1990s were A May Song (for the Wales Garden Festival, 1992), Gloria for Chorus and Organ (Tenby Festival, 1992), Wind Quartet (Gower Festival, 1993), Missa Sancti David (Fishguard Festival, 1994), Three Hymns for Mixed Chorus and Organ (North Wales Music Festival, 1994), Sonata No 6 for Violin and Piano (Lower Machen Festival, 1997) and Grongar Hill for baritone, string quartet and piano (Beaumaris Festival, 1998). If that is to mention only a few among many, at least it suggests the extent to which the work of Hoddinott, which baffled its first audiences in Wales, has now been accepted as a rich component in the musical life of the nation.

He was honoured at the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff in 2004 and wrote a minute-long fanfare for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005. Shortly before he was taken ill last year, he finished his last major work, Taliesin. Also in 2007, in acknowledgement of his long association with it, the BBC Welsh National Orchestra named its new home at the Millennium Centre Neuadd Hoddinott (Hoddinott Hall), and this will open next year. On the night before he died, the world premiere of his last string quartet was performed at the Wigmore Hall.

A genial and convivial man, though single-minded and sometimes ruthless in his commitment to his art, Alun Hoddinott was generous and hospitable towards other composers and music-makers. His wife, Rhiannon, a Welsh-speaker, was his translator, collaborator and amanuensis. At their homes in Lisvane, a leafy suburb of Cardiff, and later at their cottage in Three Crosses, on Gower, they entertained their many friends in lavish style, delighting in the company of other artists and wide-ranging, late-night talk accompanied by good wine and loud laughter.

Meic Stephens

Alun Hoddinott, composer: born Bargoed, Glamorganshire 11 August 1929; Lecturer, Cardiff College of Music and Drama 1951-59; Lecturer, University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (later University College, Cardiff) 1959-65, Reader 1965-67, Professor and Head of the Department of Music 1967-87 (Emeritus), Fellow 1983-2008; Artistic Director, Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music 1967-89, President 1990-2008; Governor, Welsh National Theatre 1968-74; CBE 1983; married 1953 Rhiannon Huws (one son); died Swansea 12 March 2008.

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