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HAMILTON, Iain Ellis

Iain HAMILTON (1922-2000)

June 2022

HAMILTON, Iain Ellis (b.Glasgow, 6 June 1922; d.London, 21 July 2000)

In highlighting anniversaries of composers and artists, MOMH’s Exhibition of the Month has almost always celebrated those born before 1900. Now, however, in 2022, some of those born in the twentieth century are already part of music history. One such is Iain Hamilton, born 100 years ago. As a young woodwind student under Frederick Thurston in the early ’50s and yet to enter the Royal College of Music, ‘modern music’ to me meant Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and possibly Bela Bartok, although I hadn’t yet heard any of his – Bartok’s – music. Had I seen the name Webern, I should certainly have put it down as a misprint.

So it was that, after a lesson at his studio flat, Thurston showed me the manuscript of Hamilton’s ‘Three Nocturnes for Clarinet and Piano’, published in 1951. “This is what they’re writing for me,” he said, “heaven knows what they’ll be writing for you.” Long before personally exploring serial techniques, this Scottish composer was, to most of us, breaking new ground in British music. We reprint below Hamilton’s obituary from The Guardian, written by his pupil, the late Hugh Wood.

Colin Bradbury

We would like to thank Jessica L. Wood PhD, MSLS, Assistant Curator, Music and Recorded Sound, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and her team; and Dee McMillen for her help in viewing and choosing the images below from the archive.

Early Memories

Notes on individual works by Beethoven

The Guardian, 3 August 2000

Composer with operatic subjects ranging from Jonson to Shaffer

For 50 years, Iain Hamilton, who has died aged 78, was a leading figure in both English and Scottish musical life, though his deepest attachment remained with his native Scotland; he also spent 20 years working in the US.

A prolific composer of music that underwent several significant changes of style, he was also a busy lecturer, teacher and administrator.

Hamilton was born in Glasgow, but his family moved to London when he was seven, and he went to Mill Hill school. Following his father, he became an engineer, before winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music from 1947-51. He studied composition with William Alwyn and piano with Harold Craxton, while also taking a BMus at London University. His Op. 1, a set of variations for string orchestra, dates from 1949.

Prizes, awards and recognition then came very quickly, including the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize for his Clarinet Concerto and the Koussevitsky Foundation Award for his Second Symphony.

A steady flow of works continued throughout the early 1950s – a Violin Concerto, a Bartholomew Fair overture, and a set of Symphonic Variations. Chamber music included a Viola Sonata, a Piano Sonata and a Piano Trio commissioned by the Dartington Summer School of Music, and first performed there in August 1956, with the late Sir William Glock at the piano. A group of vocal works included The Fray of Suport for chorus, a barbaric tour de force well worth revival.

A vocal-orchestral piece, The Bermudas, set three texts ending with Marvell’s poem; its tranced evocation of marine distance calls for further revival.

Until his last years, Hamilton was always very aware of the public role and responsibilities of the composer. In 1958, he was chairman of the Composers’ Guild, which much later on (1975) was to present him with the Ralph Vaughan Williams Award as composer of the year. He was also chairman of the music section of the ICA (1958-60), a member of the BBC’s Music Advisory Panel, and did much work for the Society for the Promotion of New Music.

From 1952-58 he taught at Morley College, London, and from 1956-60 at London University. As a lecturer, his animated style and rapid rate of delivery exactly displayed the mercurial aspect of his character. As a private teacher, he was conscientious and encouraging, patient and wise, always eager to instil professional standards of behaviour in his pupils.

By the late 1950s, an even younger generation of composers had been captivated by the new sounds and ideas coming out of Darmstadt and Donaueschingen, Cologne and Paris. Hamilton, too, began to study Webern: the result was immediate and radical. With the Sonata for Chamber Orchestra and the Cello Sonata (both 1958) and the Nocturnal for 11 solo voices, Hamilton suddenly aligned himself with the continental avant-garde of the day. A major collision with a disconcerted public came when the Sinfonia for Two Orchestras was performed at the 1959 Edinburgh Festival. The rest of his compositional career was to be a gradual retreat from this extreme position.

In 1961, Hamilton went to live in New York and thence commuted regularly to North Carolina, where he was professor of music 1962-78. In 1962, he was resident composer at Tanglewood: he also acted as visiting composer to the University of Alabama and various other institutions. Visits to the West Indies in the mid-1960s added a Caribbean flavour to his musical interests.

From childhood, Hamilton had been enthralled by the theatre, and in his fifties turned to writing operas, usually adapting his own libretto from a pre-existing literary source. The best known of his operas is The Royal Hunt of the Sun (after Peter Shaffer, 1967-69), produced at the London Coliseum in 1977. The Cataline Conspiracy (after Ben Jonson, 1972-73) awoke interest because of its apparent relevance to contemporary events, as the governments of Edward Heath and Richard Nixon came to a close. Anna Karenina was performed by English National Opera in 1978, and later had a revival. A number of other operas await performance.

On his return to England in 1981, Hamilton continued to write as prolifically as before, in a style increasingly euphonious and romantic in character, inhabiting an altogether more ingratiating sound world than earlier in his career – as in the full late-romantic panoply of a work like the vocal-orchestral Prometheus (1986). But the tides of interest and of fashion had turned, and his music, old or new, was now to be heard only rarely. The BBC offered only a token celebration of his 70th birthday in 1992.

In his personal life, a process of withdrawal from even those who had been intimate friends made him an increasingly isolated figure, saddening all those who remember his quirky high spirits and vitality, sharp intelligence, keen sense of the ridiculous, and his integrity, wisdom and generosity as adviser, teacher and friend.

© The Guardian, 2000.