Obituary: Helen Glatz

Kevin Thompson
Wednesday 10 July 1996 00:02 BST

Helen Glatz's catalogue of composition is extensive and ranges over solo pieces, chamber music and brass ensemble to incidental music for Dartington College of the Arts' Barn Theatre, Shakespeare plays and puppet theatre.

Among her most distinguished works are A Brass Fanfare, written for a visit to Dartington of Jennie Lee, Minister for the Arts in 1967; an Elegy for Violin and Strings, first performed in the Great Hall, Dartington in 1993 to celebrate the centenary of its founder Leonard Elmhirst's birth; Two Hungarian Folksongs arranged for Flute and Guitar (1987), written for the former Deputy Principal and Director of Music at Dartington, Jack Dobbs, on his retirement; and some very successful incidental music for Romeo and Juliet, written in 1956. One of her last pieces is entitled Soccer for solo double bass and traces the flawless arc of a penalty shot.

Born Helen Hunter in 1908 in the border country, of Scottish ancestry, she grew up in an environment of intensive music-making, playing piano with her two sisters, piano duet with Margaret her elder sister. Together they would play through the entire Ring Cycle in piano duet version. Her formal music studies were with the music scholar and composer, Professor William (Gillies) Whittaker at Armstrong College, Durham University, and then composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams, orchestration with Dr Gordon Jacob and conducting with Sir Charles Groves at the Royal College of Music.

At the RCM in the 1930s she met Imogen Holst, Elizabeth Maconchy, Elisabeth Lutyens, Thea Musgrave and Benjamin Britten. He was known as Edward Britten at the time and some attribute the change in his second forename to the influence of the alliterative Helen Hunter. Under Vaughan Williams's tutelage and Gordon Jacob's guidance she orchestrated Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, "after" Ravel.

Helen Glatz became the first woman composer to be awarded the RCM Albert Medal for Composition, for outstanding contribution to composition, and a travelling scholarship to Hungary in the 1930s, ostensibly to study with Kodly, although she spent more of her time studying with the composer Sndor Vegh; he was a great influence on her, as was the rhythmic quality of Hungarian folk music. In Hungary she also met her future husband, Dr Wolf Glatz, a brilliant linguist.

She knew hard times in Hungary and for two years lived in cellars, away from the fighting on the streets, and spent almost another year trying to secure a passage out of the country for her husband.

Together they came to live in south Devon in 1949, where she took a post at St Timothy's School in Dawlish. She also accepted an invitation to join the staff of Dartington College of Arts in Totnes. There Glatz worked closely with Imogen Holst and later with Nigel Amherst on the preparatory course and with Sir William Glock at the Summer School.

Imogen Holst wrote of Helen Glatz, "She is a first-rate accompanist, a really superb sight-reader", but her instinctive gift for improvisation and her rhythmic acuity also made her a natural choice as a ballet rehearsal pianist for Marie Rambert.

With her innate rhythmic sense, it is not surprising that Glatz should be drawn towards percussion instruments and she had the good fortune to study with the most famous percussion player this century, James Blades, at Dartington. It was to her that Blades gave his precious side-drum, which she treasured. She took part in early performances of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast and was to add percussion to her already extensive list of teaching specialities.

She taught generations of college students; Rosamund Strode, who was Benjamin Britten's amanuensis after Imogen Holst, the jazz saxophonist Lindsay Cooper and the organist John Wellingham among many others. Helen Glatz received a Dartington 20-year service award in 1972 and an honorary fellowship of the college in 1995.

She could hear perfect rhythm in nature and in Shakespeare verse. "Rhythm has made my life", she said, and later recalled that, on her arrival in Hungary, a professor at the Liszt Academy in Budapest exclaimed: "You can't possibly be English, they have no sense of rhythm whatsoever".

Helen Sinclair Hunter, composer and teacher: born 13 March 1908; married Wolf Glatz (one son); died Totnes, Devon 15 June 1996.

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