Following on from John Turner’s comprehensive tribute to his long-standing friend Gordon Crosse, Andrew Burn recalls how Crosse influenced and guided him at a crucial point during his teens.
Gordon Crosse was a huge influence on me when I was in my mid-teens growing up in Birmingham and wanting to pursue a career in some, as then undefined, aspect of music. We met when he was working for the Workers Education Association at a series of evening extra-mural lectures he was giving on British music from Elgar to Tippett, with a final session devoted to his own generation of composers such as Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle.
As an eager teenager, I invariably had questions to ask him at the end of the sessions. We discovered that we lived quite close to each other and he, kindly, would often give me a lift home. As I was composing music like mad then, to have the opportunity to meet a professional composer, who was rapidly establishing himself as a significant figure among his generation, was an eye-opener; I learnt so much from his knowledge and insight.
He taught me how to think critically about pieces of music: I remember enthusing about Sibelius’s Second Symphony, then him saying words to the effect ‘but does the finale work?’, then explaining why he thought it didn’t. Similarly, when I was raving on and on about how utterly brilliant Peter Grimes was, I recall him saying ‘but doesn’t Ellen Orford’s aria in Act III hold up the drama?’ That hadn’t crossed my mind.
He also generously looked at my attempts at composing and was helpful, but rigorous in his comments which was just what I needed (the composing bug dried up at uni!). He also could see that I needed wider perspectives and suggested that I should book up for a summer music school, recommending Orton Hall, near Peterborough, which for two successive years I attended, immersing myself in every opportunity it offered, for instance, singing Stravinsky’s Mass conducted by John Alldis, then the leading conductor of contemporary choral works.
These were halcyon experiences for me, which wouldn’t have happened without Gordon. Naturally, I became curious about his music, and started to seek out performances, and there were plenty in the Midlands at that time when his career was taking off – works such as the choral/orchestral Changes, the orchestral Sinfonia Concertante, later re-worked as his Symphony No.1, and the one-act opera Purgatory. I was also getting hold of the first recordings of works like Meet my Folks, his ‘Theme and Relations’, conceived for young people and adult forces, setting poetry by Ted Hughes, and the carol, Laetabundus. I found them terrific and was well and truly ‘hooked’ from the off.
Following on from the British music lectures, Gordon gave a series on medieval music which I also attended. I mentioned them to a new member of the English staff at the school I went to. He’d made rather an impression on us student musicians since he was a phenomenal recorder player specialising in Medieval and Renaissance music. He booked up too, which was how I found myself introducing David Munrow to Gordon; their friendship being quickly established. My final abiding memory of Gordon as an inspirational lecturer was when he’d become Heyward Research Fellow at Birmingham University, and gave a lecture, illustrated by musicians playing excerpts, on Berio’s Circles, which he memorably summed up as ‘the final vestiges of the Italian bel canto operatic tradition.’
Not long after Gordon left Birmingham and moved to Suffolk, I went to UEA to read music and hence was able to be at one of the premiere performances of his second one-act opera, The Grace of Todd at the Aldeburgh Festival and Some Marches on a Ground at the Norwich and Norfolk Festival. We met again when his 3 Act opera, The Story of Vasco, was staged by English National Opera, as I was working for the company at that time.
My enthusiasm for Gordon’s music continued over the years, and when I worked for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, I was able to persuade the programme planners to schedule three performances of the Cello Concerto. Gordon came to the first of the performances, introducing the work at a pre-concert talk. Inevitably, at this point in my life working in the north-west, I missed several important premieres, not least his monodrama Memories of Morning: Night in which he combined, in masterly fashion, his flair for drama and impassioned lyricism.
To mark Gordon’s 50th birthday in 1987, I wrote an article about him for the Musical Times and a couple of years later, the entry on him for the Second Edition of the New Grove Dictionary. By this time Gordon had effectively stopped composing, changing career to writing computer programmes. I sent him a copy of my draft Grove article in which I’d concluded that having said all he wished to say as a composer, he was pursuing a different career.
He rang me up and in the nicest possible way was insistent I change my final paragraph to explain that returning to composition remained a possibility. Around two decades later, and thanks to the badgering of the recorderist John Turner, and others, he did exactly that, leaving an autumnal harvest of compositions, many still unperformed. During those years of silence, we hardly communicated, but when the flood gates opened, I had such an upbeat letter from him, with a sense of a personal thrill that he was composing again.
During Gordon’s 80th birthday year we met several times: at a rehearsal of the Third Symphony by the BBC SO; at a celebratory concert John Turner organised in Manchester, and I had the pleasure and honour of interviewing Gordon about his music before a Park Lane Group concert. This gave me the welcome opportunity to thank him publicly for being such a help and inspiration at a crucial point in my adolescence. I will never forget his influence on me at that time.
Crosse’s nigh on two decades of silence as a composer, didn’t help keep his works in the public eye and although, as often happens when a composer dies, his or her music may fall into limbo, I believe in time Crosse’s music will re-emerge and continue to be performed into the future. In the meantime, there remains a healthy recorded legacy available to explore, including, to name but just a few works, Memories of Morning: Night, the Cello Concerto and Wavesongs for cello and piano, all on NMC recordings, the large-ensemble work Ariadne, Changes, the Second Violin Concerto, and Purgatory on Lyrita.
On various labels are the works Gordon composed for John Turner including Verses in Memoriam David Munrow (Cameo Classics). Hopefully, before long, works previously recorded, such as the utterly haunting Dreamsongs reflecting Crosse’s admiration, in a wholly individual manner, for Britten’s music, will be made available again. Listening to these works in recent weeks since Gordon’s death, has forcibly reminded me of their quality and strength: here is music with inspired invention that is too good, too engaging, not to survive.
Photographs courtesy of https://gordoncrosse.wordpress.com/gallery/