The Man and his Music

John Douglas Louis Veale was born on 15 June 1922 at Shortlands, Bromley, Kent. He was the third child of Douglas Veale and Evelyn Annie Henderson – his sisters Margaret and Janet having preceded him. He was distantly related to the composer Cyril Rootham and possibly to Samuel Taylor Coleridge – although this has never been confirmed.

 
Early Musical development
Oxford and the War
California
1950s
Film Music
1960s and 1970s
Revival
The Later Years

 

Until 1930 his father was a very senior civil servant and worked closely with, among others, Neville Chamberlain at the Ministry of Health. The family moved to Oxford when his father was appointed Registrar of the University. This started John’s life-long association with Oxford. Daily life was not easy for the Veale children as John’s father exercised a strict and Spartan control over daily life. This even extended to the summer family holidays in Looe, Devon, where a house was hired for the summer and short breaks at Cadair Idris. Despite this John developed into a witty, patient and companionable brother.

One major influence in his life was his father’s successful battle to prevent the sale and possible development of Wytham Woods just to the west of Oxford. In recognition of this the family were given permission to visit the woods, which were not open to the public, at any time. This instilled in John a love of nature and the pastoral mode would later find expression in his music.

John had a typical middle class education attending the Dragon School in Oxford (1930-36), and Repton School, in Derbyshire (1936-40). He then went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1940-42), as his father had done before him, where he read history.

Back to top

Early Musical development
As a child John was responsive to music. By the age of five he was haunted by the Faery Song from Rutland Boughton’s The Immortal Hour. John lived ‘essentially in an unmusical family.’ His ‘father’s idea of music was that it began and ended in Gilbert and Sullivan….not only was he very fond of (the operettas) but he used to sing them out of tune in his bath every morning – and if nothing else is going to put you off Gilbert and Sullivan that would.’ But the experience helped to sensitise the young composer into being able to discriminate between music he did and did not like.

However his real awakening came while he was at the Dragon School. John was attracted to the wind instruments and for his twelfth birthday he was given a clarinet, which he taught himself to play from a printed clarinet-tutor. At Repton he had clarinet lessons and began to compose - ‘bad imitations of Haydn and Mozart’ he later confessed. He played in the school orchestra but also in a small jazz group. His hero at that time was Benny Goodman whom he found electrifying. His musical appreciation gradually developed with the discovery of Sibelius – he was overwhelmed by the seventh symphony - and Shostakovich, but it was the arrival of a new music master, John Gardner, in 1938, that was absolutely crucial in his development as a musician. ‘He not only took an interest in my music but he introduced me to other composers….I asked him if he could recommend something really modern to listen to and he said it so happened that there is a work by a British composer being performed on Thursday evening…. it was Walton’s first symphony and I was absolutely mesmerised. I could not think of anything for days afterwards….. there are moments like that in every artist’s past…moments of truth.’ John wrote to his mother requesting a copy of the full score immediately. He was also deeply affected by the works of Bartok, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Rawsthorne, Barber and Harris. Music was becoming increasingly important to him. Then, between Repton and Oxford, in the glorious summer of 1940, working as a farm labourer, the ‘notion of musical composition as the focus of my life finally crystallised in my mind.’

Back to top

Oxford and the War
The years 1940-42 changed his life. Whilst reading modern history for his degree – in which, despite ‘his considerable natural abilities…. his capacities were not fully engaged’ a tutor was later to remark – he began to have composition lessons with Egon Wellesz. It was during this period that he met the strikingly attractive Diana Taylor, an art student, who had been evacuated from London with the Slade School of Art and was designing sets for the Oxford Repertory Company. They married in August 1944.

John spent his war service from 1942-47 in the Education Corps where he met Eric Fenby and William Pleeth among other composers. Although he considered it as ‘five years wasted as far as music was concerned,’ mixing for the first time with different social classes opened his eyes to the political and social realities of the English class system and its effects upon society. His political outlook became increasingly radical. He joined the Labour Party - only resigning in 2003 over the Second Iraq War. He proved to be a good teacher and gained the respect of all ranks – especially the NCOs to whom he was affectionately known as ‘effing Mozart.’

During his war service John continued to have ‘unofficial’ lessons with Wellesz and also took lessons from Sir Thomas Armstrong in formal harmony and counterpoint. He also completed his first symphony and had his first work performed. John began sketching his first symphony in 1944 and it reflects the period when doodlebugs were falling on England. It was completed in 1947. His first performed work, however, was the Symphonic Study of 1944, which was performed by the Oxford Orchestral Society conducted by Sir Thomas Armstrong in 1946. The score had been shown to Sir Hugh Allen, professor of music at Oxford, who was impressed. John Veale, he wrote,’ has a decided gift in the direction of musical composition….He brings to his work definite originality of mind and a determination to achieve things in his own way of musical thought and of setting out. He certainly has something to say.’ Allen showed the score to William Walton who was encouraging and suggested that it be sent ‘to the BBC …for having it done.’ Though not his student, Walton continued to encourage him, which John found ‘very helpful.’ Walton probably saw in John what his tutor Wellesz had seen – ‘a gifted young composer……(whose) musical technique is extremely developed and his orchestration is mature.’

After demobilisation John returned to Oxford to read music and resumed his studies with Wellesz . John liked Wellesz but they were not musically in sympathy. ‘I took nothing from Wellesz except his very clear explanations of the techniques of Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg.’ He became more interested in the theatre and began to write incidental music for OUDS productions. As Wellesz commented, he had a ‘special aptitude’ for writing for the stage – a pointer to his future career in writing film music. These productions included Anthony Besch’s Loves Labours Lost (1947) with Ken Tynan – ‘a good character actor’ - and Lindsay Anderson, Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset (1947) and Neville Coghill’s Masque of Hope (1948). With this ability to write programme music John sent a copy of the music for Loves Labours Lost to Muir Mathieson then the doyen of British film music. Mathieson – ‘extremely efficient, very skilful but with no sense of irony or humour’ - obviously liked what he heard as John was asked to write some ‘utility’ music for the Crown Film Unit whose usual conductor was John Hollingsworth – assistant conductor to Sir Malcolm Sargent.

1948 also saw the first professional performance of any of John’s works. This was the Symphony No.1 performed in Birmingham by the CBSO conducted by George Weldon, who considered him a ‘composer of great promise.’ The work was dedicated to the painter Paul Nash who had lived near John in Oxford.

John was part of the intellectual and artistic ‘scene’ in post-war England. He had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances from composers e.g William Walton, Constant Lambert, Humphrey Searle, Elizabeth Lutyens, Alan Rawsthorne to writers e.g Kingsley Amis, John Wain, to poets e.g Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice to those in film and theatre e.g. Ken Tynan, Lindsay Anderson. He also contributed articles on music to various Oxford magazines such as Isis, Oxford Viewpoint and Cherwell with his characteristic blend of intellectual rigour and irony.

Back to top

California
In 1949 John was awarded an American Commonwealth Fellowship and went with his family, including his daughter Jane born in 1947, to study with Roger Sessions an ‘ultra-sophisticated and cerebral’ composer of the New England school of austerity. Sessions thought of him as ‘a gifted composer of great promise.’ Given the opportunity to extend the scholarship for a further year John chose to study with Roy Harris, whose attitude to music was diametrically different from that of Sessions. He was ‘the nearest I have come across to a genuine symphonic primitive….I mean a natural primitive, as distinct from the skilfully contrived primitivism of Orff,’ he was later to write. They formed a deep friendship and continued to correspond for many years. Harris considered him ‘a young man of genuine talent and vigorous intellect.’ He also participated in university teaching lecturing on contemporary British music ‘in a manner which was both entertaining and instructive.’

In America John completed two works. Panorama (1949) was finished on a hillside overlooking San Francisco Bay, which gave a ‘vast, magnificent and profoundly romantic view.’ In 1951 he sent the manuscript to be considered for inclusion in the Festival of Britain Concert. Unfortunately, however, he sent it by surface mail and it arrived too late. The other work was a String Quartet (1950) which was played by an amateur quartet at Berkeley. The composer, Hubert Foss, considered it ‘the most considerable in achievement and the most important idea of all your works that I have so far read.’

Back to top

1950s
1951 was a year of triumph and tragedy. John returned to Oxford and obtained a two-year Senior Scholarship at Corpus. In June, Sir Adrian Boult conducted Panorama at the Cheltenham Festival, which, according to the Worcester Evening News and Times, was received with an ovation. It proved so popular that it was repeated later in the week – replacing a work by no less a composer than Elgar. Although the manuscript had arrived too late for the Festival of Britain concert it had so impressed David Willcocks, a member of the adjudicating committee, that he had shown it to Boult who agreed to perform it at Cheltenham. Four years later it was heard at the Proms.

Then in September John’s daughter Jane died. She had suffered from asthma from birth and this had affected her heart and lungs. John felt this deeply and in her memory composed the Elegy for flute, harp and strings, which was performed by the Boyd Neel Orchestra the following year.

With an increasing reputation John became a full-time composer and enjoyed considerable success over the next few years. In 1952 Sir John Barbirolli with the Halle Orchestra performed a revised first symphony at the Cheltenham Festival. ‘One of the reasons that led me to choose your work,’ wrote Barbirolli, ‘is that you seem to be a young man who still seems to believe that music needs some recognisable thematic material as a basis…..it was a great pleasure to me to put forward the work of a young man with so much talent and real musicality.’

Around this time John and Diana moved into 16, Rawlinson Road in North Oxford – a road that included many Oxford academics including Alan Bullock. It was a large Victorian house full of Diana’s and other modern paintings. John needed absolute quiet and had a double door fitted to his workroom. He also adapted a room above the garage – a ‘Brab’ as he called it - which suited his need for creative isolation. John and Diana were very sociable and entertained fellow musicians, artists and academics – and often had friends staying overnight and at Christmas.

A Clarinet Concerto followed in 1953 – when John’s daughter Sarah was born a few days before his 31st birthday. The work is a monothematic piece with an introspective poetry and a nostalgic tenderness. The first performance was given by the celebrated clarinettist Sidney Fell with the LSO conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1954. The Times reported that John’s music ‘is resilient and quite prepared to enjoy the good things of the art, such as orchestration.’ There was also a second performance of his String Quartet by the Amati String Quartet. The Oxford Magazine commentated that it was pleasant to the ear and full of melodic invention.

The concert overture, Metropolis, followed in 1955 - the year his son Jacob was born. Sir Charles Groves conducted the first performance with the LSO at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957. The Guardian wrote that the ‘orchestra appeared to relish the sophisticated evocation of the varying moods of a large city with the imaginative use of the orchestra and syncopated rhythms.’

That year, 1955, John decided to write a choral work. He felt that it should be a well-known secular work and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan seemed ideal being ‘dramatic, emotionally incandescent’ and containing many ‘aural allusions.’ In transferring the poem to a different medium he felt it was essential to have the words and music complement each other while clinging ‘fairly closely to the spoken rhythm of the words.’ He decided to treat it as an impressionistic fantasy ‘leaving the symbolism to take care of itself.’ The work, for chorus, baritone and orchestra was first performed by John Carel Case with the BBCSO and Chorus under Rudolph Schwartz in 1959.

Back to top

Film Music
It was by coincidence that John returned to writing film music. John Hollingsworth, who had conducted his Crown Film Unit music, was at the first performance of his clarinet concerto in 1954. At that time Muir Mathieson had been approached by John Bryan, the producer of The Purple Plain which starred Gregory Peck, to find ‘a composer other than the usual ones’ for his film. The day following the concerto Mathieson and Hollingsworth discussed the request and both felt that John could well write a film score. John accepted the challenge despite being very new to commercial filming. After the first day’s recording Bryan pronounced that the music had ‘class.’ The director, Robert Parrish, commented that ‘I don’t think the music could have been better.’ John quickly found the formula for writing film music: ‘all you need…. is a couple of tunes to imprint themselves on the minds of the audience and just play around with them.’

The success of The Purple Plain led to other film work. Mathieson recommended John for one of the episodes of the television documentary War in the Air – the final episode as it turned out – and again recommended him for The Spanish Gardner (1956) starring Dirk Bogarde and Portrait of Alison (1955) starring Robert Beatty. Unfortunately there were no further major film commissions but between 1957 and 1963 he wrote the music for six B movies – High Tide at Noon, The House in Marsh Road, No Road Back (with Sean Connery), Freedom to Die, Emergency and Clash by Night.

Back to top

1960s and 1970s
The two decades of the 60s and 70s were difficult and frustrating. Whilst the 1960s heralded the great explosion of British pop music, classical music took a different path. Those composers like John Veale who worked in the more romantic tonal tradition were overlooked for the increasingly, presumably exciting, avant-garde and atonal works of such composers as Stockhausen, Cage, Birtwhistle, and Berio. It was not that John was against contemporary or modern music. He had written in 1947 that concerts and BBC broadcasts were too full of popular composers – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc. – and neglected the ‘magnificent works of composers like Rubbra.’ What he did not like was the championing of the avant-garde music to the marginalisation of modern tonal works. Later, writing as a music critic he commented on the ‘implicit assumption’ that the merits of modern works ‘are in inverse ratio to their comprehensibility… (giving) way to respectful if uncomprehending awe.’ He speculated that modern music was at a dead end being more concerned with method than content…. so aridly unemotional as hardly to constitute an artistic experience at all.’

In 1964 John completed his Second Symphony, which has yet to be performed by a professional orchestra. It did however receive two ‘play-through’ performances in 1968 by the amateur London Repertoire Orchestra under Ruth Gipps. Although the circumstances were far from perfect it was considered by one reviewer as ‘his best work to date…intricately and ingeniously constructed.’ Another wrote that it ‘sounds like Veale’s finest work….. impressive and attractive ..(and) it even has tunes you can remember and whistle!’ The only other work from this period is The Song of Radha for soprano and orchestra. This is a love song written especially for him by David Pocock, a fluent speaker in Hindustani, in the ancient Indian style as he could not find anything that fitted the eroticism of love in European poetry. It is ‘uninhibitedly erotic but emphatically not obscene.’ His intentions were comparable to those of D. H. Lawrence whose Lady Chatterly’s Lover had recently been published in the unexpurgated edition and declared, in the famous 1960 trial, to be no longer obscene. This work has never been performed.

By the mid-60s John had to look to other work to help support the family – Diana worked as an art teacher at the Oxford College of Further Education. He could not rely on royalties from his film music as these fluctuated unpredictably. Also production companies not only demanded the scores to keep but often destroyed them. He had naively returned his copies of the scores to both The Purple Plain and The Spanish Gardner when requested and they are now lost. With this interest in films and in his professional capacity as a composer it seemed natural to seek work in these fields. He became a film critic and film correspondent for the Oxford Mail from 1965. He felt that his role was to write something readable which would stimulate interest’. He later became a music critic for the paper. However as he was only paid on a piece-work basis he sought further employment and became a part-time copy editor for the Oxford University Press in 1968. Two of his most prestigious projects there were a new edition of the complete works of Jeremy Bentham and Karl Popper’s Objective Knowledge.

1968 was another significant moment in his life. His marriage to Diana was at an end – they would divorce in 1972 – and he moved to a newly-built house in the small village of Woodeaton, which provided him with the quiet that he always liked, an open view of the Oxfordshire countryside and plenty of opportunities to pursue his interests of astronomy, bird-watching and walking. He took great pleasure in imitating the cuckoo – a skill he passed on to his children – and also the tawny owl but was saddened as he recorded the cuckoo’s gradual demise. He also entered into a new and long-lasting relationship with Janet Turner, a social worker - although they never lived together.

However, more significant was the start of ‘twelve bleak years of creative sterility’ when for a variety of reasons ‘not only did I write no music during that time but I practically never listened to music.’ Instead, apart from side-swipes at the musical establishment and a long correspondence with the BBC over broadcasting his work, he took on the establishment in other ways: He became a community activist. He fought a long and successful battle with the BBC and the Air Ministry over the flashing lights on the Beckley Transmitter mast, he campaigned over the use of the Quarry in Woodeaton and also against the new and extremely noisy methods of bird-scaring adopted by local farmers.

Back to top

Revival
After 12 years when the muse had seemingly deserted him John started to compose again. In 1980 he had participated with staff at the Oxford Mail in their industrial dispute and found himself dismissed. However this strangely became the stimulus he needed. ‘I hadn’t decided consciously that I was going to start again. But I had a holiday from the OUP …..and I just sat down one morning and thought, with some manuscript papers in front of me, and suddenly the whole thing was like that last chock going when a ship is going to be launched.’ He began to revise The Song of Radha and then, in 1981, started on a Violin Concerto. A first draft was seen by the internationally-known violinist Manoug Parikian who made a few suggestions and the work was completed in the spring of 1984. ‘My only conscious purpose was to write as good a piece as I could and one in which the virtuosity would not eclipse the music or vice versa.’ This work is probably the most personal and autobiographical of all his works. When it was well under way it suddenly occurred to him that the main theme of the first movement was by way of being a fully-fledged metamorphosis of a little jingle, of unknown origin, that he used to sing as a very small child.

At that time John was contacted by the music historian Lewis Foreman who was tracing British composers who ‘did not survive the Glock era.’ A friendship developed and Lewis began to champion his work which led to the broadcasting of the Violin Concerto in June, 1986 played by Erich Gruenberg with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the first broadcast of any of John’s works since Kubla Khan in 1959. Sir Thomas Armstrong called it ‘very beautiful music…a fine work’ and the composer John Gardner admired the ‘ease and mastery with which the piece evolves…the bit that spellbinds me is the close of the slow movement.’ John received a large number of congratulatory letters from the public describing his music as stunning, sheer magic, splendidly dramatic, deeply thoughtful, reminiscent of the late Beethoven quartets. The concerto was re-broadcast in December but then forgotten by the BBC and the music establishment for 15 years.

With his interest reborn John approached the various music societies in Oxford with a view to public performance of his works. The Oxford Symphony Orchestra responded with a performance of Panorama in 1981. A ‘personal, warm and exhilarating’ work wrote the reviewer. The following year, after much correspondence, the Oxford Harmonic Society and the Oxford Symphony Orchestra gave the second performance of Kubla Khan. ‘The intrinsic qualities of the music,’ wrote the Oxford Mail critic, ‘are such that its previous non-appearance in Oxford is astonishing.’ It was received by a ‘warmly enthusiastic audience.’ The Oxford Times commented that it was ‘ecstatic, saturated with the imagery of Coleridge’s poetry and technically sure.’

Whilst John continued in his battle with the BBC to have his work performed he now flowered as a composer. 1986 saw the completion of the Demos Variations dedicated to his children Sarah and Jacob. The work is ‘a reflection on human nature but stating no special implicit claim to truth, penetrating insight or even profundity…..The over-all purpose is celebratory, with optimism having the edge on pessimism and idealism being tempered with realism.’ It was first performed in 1993 by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Adrian Leaper. Then followed the music for A Gift for Sarah –a film co-written by his nephew Robert Hickson -in 1988 and Apocalypse for chorus and orchestra in 1989 – which has never been performed. This work, about the destruction of the human race through nuclear catastrophe, has a text mainly taken from the Book of Revelations and from the poetic works of Coleridge, Sassoon, Stafford and Porter. Ironically, as John finished Apocalypse his first granddaughter, Megan, was born. She was followed by Hannah, Eleanor and finally Esther in 1994. He was very proud of his granddaughters – three of whom play musical instruments - and sent them ironic letters of ‘moral guidance’ with their birthday cards. Family gatherings were often held at Waterperry Gardens a few miles from his home which became increasingly important to him as his mobility declined.

In 1989, John was approached by a teacher and writer on music, David Wright, who had heard tape recordings of his music and wanted to write an article for the British Music Society Journal. This also blossomed into a firm friendship and, like Lewis, David has been promoting John’s music ever since.

Also in 1989, John began a very fruitful correspondence with the music teacher Max Keogh who helped run a small FM radio station in Australia that played mainly classical music. Like Lewis Foreman he had been researching lesser known British composers, which had led him to John. He found it incomprehensible that the violin concerto had not been recorded or brought into the classical repertoire. With his many contacts in Australia he began to promote John’s music. This resulted in the atmospheric Sydney Street Scenes (1994), which is a setting of three poems by the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor and broadcast in 1995. He also helped towards the commercial recording of John’s Clarinet Concerto played by Paul Dean in 1999 with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The recording was received more warmly than it had been in 1959. ‘Utterly delightful…(a) pastoral enchantment and a summer’s morning sense of wonder… (with) an explosive Waltonian joie de vivre’ (British Music Society News); the ‘music dances and sparkles’ (Classical Reviews); ‘instantly and endearingly fresh’ (David Wright). Late in 1999 John learned from the BBC that it had broadcast the recording of the concerto – but had not thought it appropriate to inform him.

Back to top

The Later Years
Interest in John’s music began to grow. In 1993, John met Andrew Zreczycki, the conductor and founder of the New Chamber Orchestra in Oxford, who found John’s ‘enthusiasm and love of music most inspiring.’ He commissioned a work, which resulted in Triune (three in one) for oboe/cor anglais and orchestra, which was performed in St. John’s, Smith Square, in 1994, and began to include John’s music in the orchestra’s repertoire because it was ‘so approachable.’ John felt that Andrew had the best understanding of his music of any conductor. ‘he seems to know exactly what I’m after….the chemistry came out right between us.’ A work for two guitars, Encounter, which developed themes originally composed for A Gift for Sarah, followed in 1994 and then a further two works in 2000. These were Impromptu for solo recorder in memory of the singer Tracey Chadwell, who had died tragically of cancer at a young age. As she had hoped to give the first performance of The Song of Radha, John used two of the main themes in that work as the basis of the dedication. The other work was Triptych - ‘intended to be fun to play and fun to listen to’ - for recorder and guitar. He subsequently orchestrated it for guitar and string quartet.

From the mid-1990s, John was involved in preparing for the recording of his Violin Concerto. The record company, Chandos, had expressed interest in recording the concerto following the broadcast in 1986 but were not in a position to proceed. A number of violinists had also expressed an interest including Tasmin Little, whom John had met in 1994. On hearing a tape of Erich Gruenberg’s performance she was won over to this ‘very beautiful work’ but it took a further six years before the record company, Chandos, could arrange the recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox.. Unfortunately, when the recording date, November 2000, was finally agreed, Tasmin’s pregnancy made it impossible for her to participate. However, her place was taken by the superb Russian violinist Lydia Mordkovitch. Chandos also made another change. John’s concerto was to have been coupled with the Delius concerto – a composer championed by Tasmin Little – but it was now to be coupled with the Britten concerto.

The recording was well received and the BBC played it in June 2001. Edward Greenfield wondered how ‘any composer, as skilful as this, with plenty to say and much passion to express, be so completely pushed to one side.’ The work was ‘surgingly lyrical’ with a ‘dazzling’ performance by Mordkovitch. Paul Conway in The British Music Society News called it ‘a concerto on the grand scale distinguished by its tender intimacy’ and compared it to Alban Berg’s concerto for its ‘intensity and emotional impact.’ Andrew Zreczycki ‘considered it a great work after the style of the big Russian romantics.’ John received many letters from the public congratulating him and continued to receive them as the CD was marketed across the world. Strangely, Classic FM has rejected requests to play it on the grounds that it was ‘not accessible.’

The BBC did mark John’s 80th birthday in 2002 playing his Symphony, No.1, Metropolis and Panorama – but as John pointed out they were all works dating back 50 years or more. The following year he completed his third symphony, which the BBC recorded early in 2006 but did not broadcast until after his death along with other pieces that were slipped into a series of afternoon programmes.

In his last few years John had been increasingly troubled by his prostate cancer, growing deafness and macular degeneration. Eventually he had to leave his beloved Oxford and returned to Bromley to a nursing home to be close to his family. Ironically, for a life-long atheist, the home was run by a Catholic organisation who regarded him as a feisty individual with considerable presence. He died on 16th November 2006.

John Veale did not leave a large opus. He worked slowly and revised often. He wrote melodic, lyrical music in a romantic idiom which was pushed aside in the avant-garde revolution of the mid-20th century but which is now enjoying a revival. He thought deeply about his art and was scrupulous both in his musical compositions and in his writing. He refused to compromise about his music and throughout his life remained true to himself.

 

Sir John Barbirolli (1952)
you seem to be a young man who still seems to believe that music needs some recognisable thematic material as a basis

 

 

    © 2008, John Veale Memorial site. All Rights Reserved.
site by: singernet