Find out more about the life & works of John Gardner

John Gardner was born in Manchester on 2nd March 1917 and died in Liss on 12th December 2011. As a result, he is often thought of as a “Manchester composer”, but his birth there was merely a fluke of family circumstances, and he was in fact brought up in Ilfracombe, North Devon. His father Alfred Linton Gardner was a local GP and amateur composer who was killed in action in the last months of the First World War. Gardner was educated at Eagle House, Wellington College and Exeter College, Oxford. An important figure in his early career was Hubert Foss of Oxford University Press, who published the Intermezzo for Organ in 1936 and introduced him to the composer Arthur Benjamin to whom Gardner dedicated his Rhapsody for Oboe and String Quartet (1935). This work had its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in February 1936. The String Quartet No.1 (1938) was broadcast from Paris by the Blech Quartet in 1939, and the anthem The Holy Son of God most High (1938) was also published by OUP.

Then came the War. Gardner completed two terms as music master at Repton School, where one of his pupils was the composer John Veale, then a sixth former. In 1940 he enlisted and working first as a Bandmaster and then as a Navigator with Transport Command. It was during the War that ideas for the Symphony No.1 began to form:-

“My first symphony assembled itself in my mind in stages during the last year or two of the War. The opening even goes back further to a short piano piece I wrote in 1939 or 1940. At that time I’d no idea that it could be the beginning of a symphony, though I was aware that it hardly constituted a complete piano piece.

Other elements in the score started variously as a mid-war setting of passages from Blake’s Book of Thel, a theme I conceived for a set of variations and, in the case of the main theme of the finale, a transformation of the opening of the finale of my first string quartet which had in fact gained two or three performances in Paris and England by the Blech Quartet in 1939 but with which I was deeply unsatisfied and which I eventually withdrew.

I do not believe it is exceptional for a big work to derive from several sources – there are many examples of such a process in the origin of many of Brahms’ best known pieces : the first piano concerto, for example, the German Requiem and the Violin Concerto. In my case it was, of course, due to the fact that I was serving in the R.A.F. around the World and could only conceive music in the scrappiest manner on odd pieces of paper in the most unsympathetic ambiances. Demobilisation, therefore, came as a blessed chance to write at length, which is what I did during the bitter Winter of 1946-7 on those evenings when I did not have to be in attendance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, were I earned my living as a repetiteur. In June 1947 I reached the end of the fair full score, put it aside and began to write an opera that never got performed.”

Gardner treated the end of the War as a new start, set aside his juvenile works and began again from Opus 1. John Barbirolli discovered the First Symphony (Op2) when he gave Gardner the opportunity of playing through his Nativity Opera. By Gardner’s own admission, this work is “unperformable”, but Barbirolli was sufficiently interested to ask to see other works. Gardner showed him the Symphony. Barbirolli asked for some re-working of the first movement and scheduled the work for the 1951 Cheltenham Fetsival where it caused a minor sensation. Here was a huge, powerful work, brilliantly scored and masterfully structured, by a composer of whom almost no-one had heard.

Many major commissions followed and Gardner was finally able to call himself “a composer”. He resigned the job at the Opera House and there followed a remarkable period of creativity. Cantiones Sacrae, Op11, Variations on a Waltz of Carl Nielsen, Op13 and the ballet Reflection, Op14, were all written in 1951 and 1952 and first performed during 1952. He re-wrote A Scots Overture, previously a military band piece, for the 1954 season of Promenade Concerts in 1954. In May 1957 Sadler’s Wells put on the opera The Moon and Sixpence, which they had commissioned, and two other major works were premiered that year: the Piano Concerto No.1 (by Cyril Preedy and Barbirolli at the Cheltenham Festival) and the Seven Songs, Op36 in Birmingham, a work which Gardner wrote as “light relief” whilst working on the other major works.

In 1956 he was invited by Thomas Armstrong to join the staff of the Royal Academy of Music, where he would teach for the best part of 30 years. In 1962 he took a part time job as Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, following Gustav Holst  and Herbert Howells, and was for a time also Director of Music at Morley College. These teaching posts led to the composition of some of his most enduring works, and together with the many holiday courses he worked on as a conductor (Canford, Dartington, ESSYM, Bernard Robinson’s Music Camp, etc., etc.) ensured that he was able to bring practical experience and knowledge to bear on his compositions.

He married Jane Abercrombie, the daughter of Nigel Abercrombie (Secretary General of the Arts Council 1963-1968) and the soprano Elizabeth Abercrombie, in 1955 and has three children, Christopher (1956), Lucy (1958) and Emily (1962). Since the War he has lived in South London – in Morden, New Malden and Ewell.

Gardner has composed prolifically throughout his life. Among the major works are two more symphonies, two more operas – The Visitors(1972) and Tobermory (1976), concertos for Organ, Trumpet, Flute, Oboe and Recorder and Bassoon, many cantatas, including The Ballad of the White Horse, Op40 (1959), Five Hymns in Popular Style, Op54 (1962), A Burns Sequence, Op213 (1993), as well as much choral, chamber, organ, brass and orchestral music. His best known work is the Christmas carol, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, which was written for St Paul’s, as was another popular carol setting The Holly and the Ivy. He was made a CBE in 1976.

His most recently completed work is a Bassoon Concerto, Op249, written in 2005 for Graham Salvage, the principal bassoonist of the Hallé Orchestra which was premiered at the 2007 Budleigh Salterton Festival, the year of Gardner’s 90th birthday. His music, apart from Tomorrow shall be my dancing day has been grossly unrepresented on commercial records, but in recent years a number of new recordings have been issued, including the 3rd Symphony, Oboe Concerto, Flute Concerto and Petite Suite for Recorder and Strings, which were joined in 2007 by the recording by Peter Donohoe, David Lloyd Jiones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra of the Piano Concerto, Symphony No.1 and the overture Midsmmer Ale. 

Recognition & Awards

Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music (Hon. RAM)

– 1959

Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society

– 1997

Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School

– 1962 – 1975

Director of the Performing Right Society (PRS)

1965 – 1992

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)

– 1976

Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music

– 1956 – 1986

Director of Music at Morley College

– 1952 – 1976