In Memoriam Giles Easterbrook 1949 – 2021

Andrew Burn, Chairman of the Bliss Trust, profiles and recalls his friend, BMS Vice-President, Giles Easterbrook, and three of the composers whose works he published – Stephen McNeff, Geoffrey Poole and Matthew Taylor – offer their tributes.

Music publisher, composer, arranger and editor, writer, trustee, concert promoter, agent, record producer, mentor to young composers and performers, Giles Easterbrook, played a vital role in British music for half-a-century. Strangely, for although I knew Giles for over four decades, I can’t pinpoint the actual occasion when we first met. I suspect it must have been through Novellos, at the time when I was working for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and our shared interest in British music, past and present initiated our friendship. The music of Sir Arthur Bliss would have been a common enthusiasm from the outset too. Bliss was among the senior composers whom he represented at Novello during his years as its Head of Promotion; others of the senior generation, all whom he knew personally, included Herbert Howells and Daniel Jones. What always impressed me about Giles is how he knew their works inside out, as he did the music of each generation of Novello composers, such as John McCabe, Peter Dickinson, Thea Musgrave, Nicola Lefanu, John Joubert and Kenneth Leighton, whose lectures at Oxford had inspired Giles to change direction, abandon studying Egyptology and Coptic, and instead follow a career in music, initially working for an artists’ agency.

Giles Easterbrook
Giles Easterbrook

Later, at Maecenas, Giles established an outstanding contemporary catalogue of composers including Judith Bingham, Stephen McNeff, Geoffrey Poole, Matthew Taylor, Kenneth Hesketh and Philip Grange. As at Novello, he would enthuse, cajole, and lobby orchestral managers and concert promoters to put on works by his composers whose best interests were always at the foremost of his mind. I vividly recall Giles ringing me up in great excitement about Bingham’s Chartres; there was a score and recording in the post and the RLPO simply ‘must do it’. Giles never failed to keep me abreast of her music which happily resulted a few years later after I’d moved to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the commissioning of her The Temple at Karnak.

Such advocacy was typical of him; he cared passionately about his composers because he believed in the quality of their music. His empathy was perhaps also due to him being a composer himself, one who, nevertheless, kept his light under a bushel, quietly mentioning to an artist if he could send them a piece to consider performing, which was how Ian Mitchell came to play and record Out of the Purple for clarinet and piano, the piece chosen by Giles’s widow, Jane, as the concluding music at his funeral. Fortunately, a CD of his music, ‘The Moon Underwater’, named after an eponymous work on the disc, provides a legacy of this strand of Giles’s activity. Appropriately the CD was issued on the Prima Facie label, the company which Giles, together with Stephen Plews, founded 25 years ago.

Professor Dickinson mentioned in his fine tribute, published in the BMS October Newsletter, Giles’s editing of Constant Lambert’s early works: other performing editions he made included works by Jones, Bliss and Holst. As a writer, Giles wrote scholarly introductions to scores, CD liner notes, contributed to the New Grove Dictionary and enjoyed the accolade of being nominated, no less than four times, for the ‘Best CD Liner Notes’ Grammy Awards. To exemplify his skill one quote will suffice; it’s a perceptive passage about Bliss the pianist: ‘Anyone who saw and heard Bliss play is likely to have been struck by an intimacy in his relationship with the piano, the intense absorption in his expression and the combination of depth, strength, colour and gentleness in the sound.’

Giles was far seeing in realising how a charitable trust could be a vehicle to keep alive a composer’s body of work after his death. He’d been impressed with what the Finzi Trust had been doing in in its advocacy of Gerald’s music, ensuring, for instance, that orchestral parts were fit for purpose and recording works new to the catalogue; hence he suggested to Lady Bliss that a similar body would help Arthur’s music to thrive in the future. She was persuaded, and Giles set about helping her recruit trustees which is how I also became a founding member of the Trust.

Later, Giles helped Jo Leighton form the Kenneth Leighton Trust. Among the projects he led at the Bliss Trust were the Hyperion recording of the complete songs, the USA travel scholarship for young/emerging composers, and his input into the publication of the full score of Miracle in the Gorbals, edited by Ben Earle, in preparation for the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s revival of the work. His encyclopaedic knowledge of Bliss’s music will be sorely missed by the trustees. 

For many years Giles was John Woolf’s right-hand man in the organisation of the Park Lane Group, where he nurtured and mentored dozens of young artists; among them the clarinettist Kate Romano who recalls the wise feedback he gave her when she first auditioned for the scheme and wasn’t successful. Giles explained with care and tact what additional experience she needed, and at the same time emphasising to her that she must apply the following year, which she did – and with success.’

As a person, Giles was undoubtedly a ‘character’ with an eccentric steak, by turns mercurial, loyal, enthusiastic, witty, trenchant, genuine. Woe betide though, anyone whom he felt was being disingenuous in their dealings with him or the Trust; they might be referred to in a sotto voce aside as ‘He who speaks with forked tongue’ or ‘He who sups with the devil hath need of a long spoon’ – such comments certainly livened up Bliss Trust meetings, indeed sometimes brought them to a standstill. Seldom without a pipe (his collection included two that were bequeathed by Bliss and McCabe respectively), he was notoriously averse to modern technology eschewing emails, and computers; yes, he would type, but a handwritten letter was far preferable to him. His exuberant, animated conversation would often veer away from the discussion in hand to his love of wine, fine ale, and expeditions on his ancient bicycle. 

Central to his very being was his deep High Anglican faith; at his funeral we were reminded that Giles prayed on his knees and on a Sunday would not think of partaking breakfast before Holy Communion. Volunteering was part and parcel of his creed, and it was through helping in his local Oxfam shop that he met his wife, whom he would refer to with such tender gentleness as ‘my Jane’. Allied to this was a streak of great kindness, another natural concomitant of his Christian belief, which I can attest to. During her teens my daughter suffered two periods of severe illness and Giles asked me if I’d like him to add her to those he prayed for; thereafter, he never failed to ask after her whenever we met or during phone calls. It was a typical gesture of his friendship. 

It has been the tradition of the Bliss Trust, established by Lady Bliss herself, that after our meetings trustees enjoy some social time together with a light lunch and most certainly a glass of wine. Giles was always the heart and soul of these and was quickly opening the wine bottles and giving us his opinion of what was on offer. Gradually trustees would make their farewells and on many occasions Giles and I would be the last, lingering (doubtless over a final glass), discussing new pieces we’d heard and generally putting the British music scene as we saw it to rights. It was with a profound sense of sadness and regret following the Trust meeting last September that it came home to me that these occasions would be no more. However, I’m eternally grateful that our paths crossed: without doubt my life has been enriched by having Giles as a colleague and friend. 

Andrew Burn

Only now, with his passing, do I fully appreciate why Giles was such an exceptional supporter of composers such as myself.  Leaving aside, for a moment, such facets as his exceptional memory, fine musical discrimination, phenomenal industry and accuracy, and a personality radiating gentlemanly charm and generosity of spirit, Giles was himself a musician of no mean accomplishment. Just how original and gifted is very clear to me now, revisiting his CD The Moon Underwater (PFCD002). 

Eloquent, deeply felt, expertly judged works like In Passing, or Out of the Purple, and most impressively the wind-orchestral sonata The Moon Underwater itself, stand up robustly as fine, and distinctly original, contributions to our art. If only he’d had a brilliant advocate – such as Giles Easterbrook –  fighting his corner, the way he did on our behalf at Maecenas!  We have lost a treasure: but we shall remain eternally grateful for Giles’s life, his uniquely engaging character, and his wholly committed contribution to our art.

Geoffrey Poole

In the responses to the passing of Giles Easterbrook – for instance the fine obituary in The Daily Telegraph – we are faced with the fact that everything that it said is true. Yes, Giles was an ‘eccentric’ and one of the last of a particular non-corporate approach to music publishing and promotion.  Yes, he was an underrated (actually, largely undiscovered) composer, and yes he was a lover of fine wines and real ale.  

However, he could also be bloody infuriating, something which I say now, not disrespectfully, but in the same way as I said it to him and which he jovially acknowledged. ‘Two tea bags and leave them in please’, he said to the person serving us at the South Bank Centre cafe as I berated him for being so difficult to pin down due to no mobile phone and no email.  ‘Ah, but how much nicer it is to now be meeting in person, and I have brought back your scores at the same time and finished the CD liner notes!’ 

The scores were a bit tea stained (another cliche) and the notes were superb.  No one could write a note like Giles and he was able to capture the spirit and enthuse about music in a way that made you want to hear it immediately.  ‘God that sounds like a fantastic piece, did I write that?’, I asked him.  ‘Yes it absolutely is, do listen’, he said with all the energy and commitment of an Old Testament prophet.  

Giles never sat on the fence as far as I was aware; his enthusiasms were persuasive and powerful and his dislikes usually unprintable.  Despite the annoyances of no electronic communications, untidy paperwork and a halo of pipe tobacco smoke, Giles’s energy broke through at every point.  Like so many others, I was grateful for his support and enthusiasm. If he liked you, he liked you.

There was no bureaucratic ‘we’ll have to wait and see’ or ‘I’ll have to look at the budget’, and he imbued his beliefs with commitment so that young composers and young musicians (and not so young ones) felt like this was someone who believed in them.  Giles was partly theatre – he loved the role of the avuncular music publisher – but I’m sure he knew that and wanted us to enjoy it as much as he did.  There are few like him, he’s a hard act to follow and we will miss him.

Stephen McNeff

What a magnificent man Giles was, undoubtedly one of life’s originals, totally genuine, utterly unselfconscious, open, honest and compassionate. He really was the dream publisher; I seldom realised quite how fortunate I was when he was at the helm of Maecenas. Neither did I predict that when Maecenas closed that there would never be that same close association between composer and publisher. With Giles, we were dealing with that rare thing in the publishing world: a real musician, whose knowledge of repertoire, depth of experience, sensitivity to the individual’s needs and ability to solve potentially intractable problems was second to none. It occasionally struck me that the Maecenas composers were like a family to him, something that has now vanished.

With the loss of such a special person, it is tempting to consider what the human race would be like if it was comprised only of Gileses. It would be a better planet blessed with great intelligence, rejoicing in creativity, and honouring the proper, core human values: honesty, decency, altruism, integrity, good humour, as well as relishing fine ale and pipe tobacco. And of course, there would be Faith. There might be arguments, disagreements and difficulties, but there would be no stupidity, no selfishness, no greed, no spin, no branding, no buzz words, no self-advancement, no gimmickry, no duplicitousness. And there would be no wars.

Giles was, as Bob Simpson would have said ‘a necessary man’. There are so few of them left now. God rest his soul.

Matthew Taylor