1 December 1937 – 21 November 2021

Gordon Crosse was born in Bury, Lancashire, where his father worked for the Midland Bank, on 1st December 1937. Though plagued by illness for much of his life (see Crosse’s own notes) his father was a talented amateur pianist, organist and cellist, as well as an ingenious amateur inventor and engineer.

The family moved to Cheadle Hulme when his father was transferred to the Bank’s Cheadle Branch, and Gordon attended Cheadle Hulme School, whose other musical alumni have included the composer Peter Hope and the announcer and Strictly contestant Katie Derham, as well as the broadcaster Nick Robinson – a distinguished roll call indeed! Crosse wrote A Cheshire Man for performance at the School for Peter Hope’s 90th birthday, but alas the pandemic forced cancellation of that concert, among many others.

Crosse gained a first class degree in Music from St. Edmund Hall Oxford, where his tutors included Wellesz, in 1961, and he then went to Rome on an Italian Government Scholarship, where he attended Petrassi’s classes at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. On his return he worked briefly for the WEA and researched early fifteenth century music. He was appointed Haywood Research Fellow at Birmingham University, a post he held from 1966 to 1969.

His colleagues and friends at Birmingham included both Peter Dickinson and David Munrow, and in memory of the latter he was later to write a beautiful elegy, Verses in Memoriam David Munrow, and subsequently A Wake Again. He was snapped up by the Oxford University Press as a house composer shortly after his Oxford degree, his first publication being Two Christmas Songs, to Latin texts, in two parts, for female voices, which were published by the Press in 1963. Other works from this early period included Three Inventions for flute and clarinet, a first (of two) violin concertos (Concerto da Camera), Villanelles for chamber ensemble, and Corpus Christi Carol for soprano, clarinet and string quartet

His Opus 1 was actually a first Elegy For orchestra (performed by the Halle in April 1962 at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall under Maurice Handford in an SPNM open rehearsal concert). Within a very short time, his works were being regularly commissioned and performed to great acclaim – works such as the oratorio Changes, Ariadne for oboe and small ensemble, and the orchestral song cycles For the Unfallen, and Memories of Night: Morning.

A strong literary bent became quickly evident in his music, the words of these last two cycles being by the poet Geoffrey Hill and the novelist Jean Rhys respectively. Gordon’s fellow Mancunian and great friend Alan Garner (he of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) wrote the text for two works for children, the mini-operas Potter Thompson and Holly from the Bongs. This friendship was later celebrated many years later by Gordon’s Chimney Piece, for recorder, clarinet and viola, performed in the enormous fireplace in part of Alan Garner’s medieval home, the Medicine House (re-erected by the author next to his original cottage, Toad Hall). It was written in fulfilment of a long-standing promise, for Alan’s eightieth birthday.

Gordon’s other principal literary collaborator was the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, with whom he wrote the popular children’s cantata Meet my Folks and the children’s cantata The Demon of Adachigahara. Hughes also provided the translated libretto for his opera The Story of Vasco.

Another literary connection was with the Royal Exchange Theatre Director Michael Elliott, who commissioned from him incidental music for productions at the theatre, notably Philoctetes by Sophocles (the beautiful Lullaby from which was later rearranged as Lullaby – TBP His Goodnight as a tribute to his fellow Mancunian composer Thomas Pitfield on his eightieth birthday). His last incidental music was for the Granada television production of King Lear, in which I had to play, in full costume, a gemshorn part.  I also lent my medieval harp for the recording. Being rather short sighted I pinned my enlarged music to the costume of the performer in front, but I need not have worried. Laurence Olivier (everyone referred to him, solicitously, as Sir), could not remember more than about two lines at a time, so Lear’s death scene was constructed of innumerable tiny snippets joined together. As a result the players were in vision for merely a second or two, much to my chagrin. The DVD is still available. 

One of the first operas performed at the newly formed Royal Northern College of Music was Gordon’s 1966 opera Purgatory, on a short play by Yeats (it was paired with Walton’s The Bear). The first Principal of the RNCM was John (later Sir John) Manduell, whom he had known well since Birmingham days, when Sir John was in charge of BBC radio 3 output there. They had travelled to Warsaw together to listen to music by Penderecki and other . Later operas were The Grace of Todd (for the English Opera group, Aldeburgh, 1969) and The Story of Vasco (Sadlers Wells, 1974, though started in 1968), but the latter was not a success. Some of the music was reworked for the orchestral Some Marches on a Ground (1970). Ballet also figures in Gordon’s output. Young Apollo, for The Royal Ballet, extended Britten’s short fanfare for piano and strings into a full-length ballet. Playground, (also for The Royal Ballet) was an arrangement of material from his children’s opera Potter Thompson, and Wildboy was arranged for orchestra for the American Ballet Theatre, with Baryshnikov in the title role.

The Aldeburgh music scene very much appealed to Gordon, as he had always greatly admired the music of Benjamin Britten. Gordon in fact met his wife Elizabeth Bunch in the porch of Orford Church during an Aldeburgh Festival. Her parents had retired to a cottage in nearby  Walberswick, and Gordon and Elizabeth bought a rambling house in Wenhaston, near Blythburgh. He and Elizabeth, who succumbed to cancer in 2011, had two sons, both of whom became distinguished in their respective businesses. Jo is a motor cycle engineer, specialising in BMS motor cycles. Gabriel is a highly respected events stager, for political conferences, music festivals and the like.

Almost certainly Britten’s own many works for children were an inspiration for Gordon’s own pieces for children, among which were Meet my Folks (premiered in 1964 at the Aldeburgh Festival), The Demon of Adachigahara for Shropshire schools, and Rats Away. A late work for children was A Chethams Suite for String Orchestra (2019), composed for the Junior Orchestra of Chetham’s School in Manchester.

He had always found it difficult to write to deadlines, and a slew of bad reviews, mostly unwarranted, resulted in “the silence”. In particular, the poor reception of The Story of Vasco, his Trumpet Concerto, written for and premiered at the Proms by Hakan Hardenberger, and a fiasco over Sea Psalms, with an uncompleted premiere and inaccurate parts, commissioned for Glasgow as City of Culture, were all setbacks, and eventually prompted a change of career. He became a computer programmer, writing programmes for Cadburys and others. He frequently told me that this work utilised the same brain cells as composition. But it certainly did not need the same imagination, and I regularly pestered him to get back to the music. 

Along with his composing, Gordon had several academic posts, at Essex University, Kings College Cambridge (where he was a Visiting Fellow), The University of California Santa Barbara (where he joined on the staff his fellow Brit Peter Racine Fricker), and the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Elizabeth died of cancer in 2011. He found solace in attending the Quaker Meeting House in Leiston. Through his connections there he met the poet Wendy Mulford, who became his companion in his later years. Together they purchased a house on the shores of Papa Westray, the northern-most the Orkney Islands, and this resulted in several works inspired by the local landscape and wildlife. For me he wrote the last of his concertante works for solo wind instruments (a project inspired by Nielsen’s unfulfilled ambition to write a concerto for all the instruments in the woodwind family), On the Shoreline. The piece, written in just a few days, is based on the cries of fulmars and sanderlings outside their window. The others, following on from his early success with Ariadne (now a standard piece for oboists) were Thel for flute, Wildboy for clarinet (later revised for Psappha as L.Enfant Sauvage), Gremlins for bassoon, and Ceili De for horn.

The silence was finally broken in 2008, when he had retired from computer programming. I persuaded him to write a work for the eightieth birthday of his old friend Sir John Manduell. This was a cycle of songs to words by another favourite author, Rudyard Kipling. The initial impetus was a setting of Gertrude’s Prayer, originally composed in 1988 for the first BP Peter Pears Singing Competition, which he now arranged for soprano, recorder, oboe, violin and cello, an ensemble used in the celebrations, and scored for also by Manduell himself, Edward Gregson, Philip Grange, Sally Beamish, Elis Pehkonen, David Beck and Anthony Gilbert. The other songs in the cycle (Three Kipling Songs) were L’Envoi and Four Feet (in which my recorder imitates a dog-whistle – Gordon and his sister Peggy were both great dog-lovers). The cycle was premiered in Bowness (two of the songs) and London (with the addition of L’Envoi) in 2008.

Then the flood gates opened. There followed in quick succession a Fantasia on “Ca’ the Yowes” for recorder, strings and harp, Brief Encounter for recorder, oboe d’amore and strings and a Trio (Rhyming with Everything) for oboe violin and cello. This last piece takes its title from a poem inCarol Ann Duffy’s collection of love poems “Rapture” and explores romantic passion. It quotes from a well-known song by Henry Carey, which was frequently sung by Gordon’s friend Peter Pears, whose rendition was much admired by Gordon. He wrote: “The Summer and Autumn of 2009 was the most exciting and productive period I have ever experienced.  I had returned to composing after a break of some 18 years and I found I couldn’t stop working.  The music was simpler than it was in 1990 but I think more communicative because more concentrated and focused.“

After that the flood became a torrent with a third Elegy: Ad Patrem, in memory of his adored father (see the appended note), The Barley Bird for a festival in nearby Beccles (conducted by another Suffolk resident Elgar Howarth), three more symphonies, three piano sonatas, five new string quartets (one for the 150th anniversary of the Meeting House in Leiston), a viola concerto (drawing material from the earlier trumpet concerto) and a host of shorter instrumental and choral pieces for friends and colleagues, mainly written just for pleasure. It is a treasure trove for future exploration. His stated aim was to strive for “a blend of elegance and passion that I always try to achieve in my own music, though I succeed but rarely.” Very frequently, others would say. His last piece was Déploration, in tribute to his late friend Peter Maxwell Davies. He told me, with his wry sense of humour, how sorry that he had not managed to get round to writing one for himself! 

In conclusion, I should mention how my own friendship with Gordon started. I had known of him through a clarinet playing schoolfriend who was studying nuclear physics at Oxford, Alec Hill, and who was one of the first members of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Alec knew both Gordon and the composer Bill Hopkins at Oxford, and had a manuscript copy of his duets for flute and clarinet, which we played through. A few years later, with my legal hat on, I was frequently instructed to prepare wills for staff and customers of the Midland Bank, and I was introduced to a certain Percy Crosse, who lived in Davenport, Stockport, not far from my old school. On enquiring if he was any relation to the composer, I was told that he was his father, and he in turn introduced me to Gordon. Percy, with his engineering skills, made me one of the first electronic metronomes, which I still have and use. It remains a treasured possession! And of course I treasure the many pieces that Gordon wrote for me. His late Three Twitchings for recorder and piano were dedicated to “John Turner, who helped raise me from the dead”. I am proud of that!

John Turner

Related content: Gordon Crosse: Ad Patrem