Obituary: Alan Ridout

Peter Miall
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:19

Alan Ridout could have succeeded in almost any walk of life. His outstanding intellectual ability coupled with enviable self-discipline would have ensured a rise to the height of any profession he chose, but from an early age there was no question in his mind but that his life should be devoted to music.

Before he knew that such a thing as composing existed he heard music in his head, and by the age of 12 had written over 100 works. His mother was a vital force in his musical education (and in his life) and it was she who, in the face of fierce opposition from his father, heeded the advice of musical friends and arranged for him to have piano lessons when he was nine years old. By the age of 12 he had reached Grade Eight in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music examination which he passed with distinction, and at 15 he was allowed to leave Haberdashers' Aske's School, then in Hampstead, and study music full-time at the Guildhall School of Music. In his autobiography, A Composer's Life (1995), he refers to this as the happiest day of his life, for he had known from early childhood that all he wanted to do was write music.

The Guildhall syllabus opened up a new world to the young musician. However, he was disappointed with the composition lessons and in desperation sent a set of variations for oboe and string orchestra to Benjamin Britten with an appeal for help. The reply was encouraging, and taking the advice "At 15 one can learn something from everyone" to heart Ridout spent nearly two years at the Guildhall. (Many years later he was to write a piece for Peter Pears in which Gerald Moore accompanied him.)

In 1951 he was offered a place at the Royal College of Music. Here he studied piano with Thornton Lofthouse and composition with Gordon Jacob, a teacher for whom he had tremendous respect, and Herbert Howells, whose music meant much to Ridout in later life.

Before leaving the college he took extramural lessons in composition from Peter Racine Tricker and while teaching near Tunbridge Wells, through a chance conversation with his barber, he met Sir Michael Tippett, under whom he also studied. In 1958 a Netherlands Government Scholarship gave him the opportunity to study with the composer Henk Badings, who introduced him to the electronic techniques of composing as well as a wide variety of contemporary European music. He claimed that, out of all his teachers, he had learned most from Badings.

When he left the Royal College at the age of 20 the problem of making a living and leaving time for composition was solved by his taking up the post of Director of Music at a preparatory school in Kent; teaching was to form an important part of Alan Ridout's career for the next 35 years.

By 1964 he was Professor of Theory and Composition at the Royal College of Music and teaching at Cambridge, Birmingham and London Universities. He became friends with Howard Ferguson, the composer, pianist, and scholar, through whom he met Ursula Vaughan Williams. Friendships such as these, which lasted for the rest of Ridout's life, were important to him on both intellectual and social levels.

In the 1960s he broadcast two substantial series on musical education for the BBC, but did not enjoy the experience and found that with the teaching that he was already committed to he had little more than a few hours a week left for composing.

In 1964 Alan Wicks, then organist and master of the Choristers at Canterbury Cathedral, commissioned Ridout to write a piece for the cathedral choir. Out of this commission came a collaboration, founded on mutual admiration, that blossomed into a period of intense creativity centred around the cathedral choir, choral society and the organ. At the suggestion of the Rev David Marriott, then headmaster of the choir school, Ridout was asked to give composition lessons to the choristers. In the early 1970s, after the closure of the choir school (to which he was vehemently opposed), Ridout joined the music staff at the King's School, Canterbury, where he had amongst his colleagues Edred Wright, Col Paul Neville and Barry Rose. His genius for inspiring and nurturing talent will never be forgotten by those who were lucky enough to be his students.

Ridout was an immensely prolific composer and a complete list of his works soon to be published will run to nearly a hundred pages. Commissions were many and varied. For David Willcocks and the Cambridge University Music Society, a wind symphony (The Adoration of the Magi); for the BBC, an opera based on the Icarus legend; for Kent Opera The Pardoner's Tale and a children's opera, Angelo; and, in 1965, the music for the Royal Maundy Service at Canterbury.

Ridout enjoyed collaborating with individual instrumentalists and his associations with Paul Davis and James Bowman were especially fruitful. He met Bowman in 1970 and his extraordinary voice inspired many important works including a setting for countertenor solo, chorus and wind of Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Ridout's fluency lead to a vast number of concertinos for solo instruments with piano or string accompaniment often written especially for students or friends. He wrote for performance and his works gave as much joy to those who performed them as to those who listened; it is not insignificant that he is familiar as a composer to many amateur musicians throughout the country.

Joy and humour pervaded so much that he wrote and it is fitting that his last major work, commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and performed at Hereford in 1994 and again at York Minster only a few months ago, should have been A Canticle of Joy, a deeply moving consummation of his life's work.

Alan Ridout's effervescent and spontaneous humour was irresistible and he was unceasingly kind and generous to his friends and to other composers and artists. He was like the best parts of each member of one's family rolled into one; having the wisdom and authority of a father, the love and encouragement of a mother and the closeness of a brother. He was observant of life's problems but never intrusive; his help, advice and support know no bounds. His understanding of human nature gave him the insight to know when he was most needed and the clarity and soundness of his advice grew out of a life of intense observation which began in his earliest childhood.

His passions in life spread beyond music to art, architecture, food, and, in later life, travel and in all of these his taste was totally individual and often unconventional, being guided by a profound knowledge of his subject and a confident instinct that was invariably right and always refreshing. (Except perhaps in food, where his tastes erred towards the bizarre. He found Mars Bars irresistible and would consume quantities of them throughout a day. I was with him in France recently and before catching my boat we looked for a restaurant for lunch. Surrounded by the best that Brittany could offer he chose a Chinese establishment and we ate food that could have been found in any high street in England. Perhaps he was homesick.)

He opened people's eyes to aspects of their chosen subject that they had passed over and often drew one's attention to something that had suffered at the hands of the popularists. His great sadness at the death of Leonard Bernstein stemmed from an admiration for a musical polymath whose career had encompassed every aspect, resulting in his dismissal by some as being no more than a showman. Ridout had no time for pomposity or snobbishness in any walk of life.

He had a profound but original faith and was deeply religious; his conversion to Catholicism in 1994 seemed a logical progression for him. Whilst staying with his publisher, June Emerson, in Ampleforth, he felt a magnetism towards the Roman Catholic Community at Ampleforth Abbey and it was there that he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being made an oblate of the order of St Benedict soon afterwards.

After a serious heart attack in 1990 when he was told that he could not expect to live for more than two years he decided to move to France, something he had always wanted to do. He found France and the daily courtesy and consideration of the French conducive to the life he wanted to live. He settled in Vitre, a town he had known for many years, and recently moved to Caen.

Peter Miall

Alan Ridout, composer: born West Wickham, Kent 9 December 1934; died Caen, France 19 March 1996.

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