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In memoriam: Iain Hamilton

In memoriam: Iain Hamilton

Iain Hamilton belonged to a generation of British composers, including Peter Racine Fricker, Malcolm Arnold and Robert Simpson, born most inauspiciously in the early 1920s. Maturing in their fourth rather than third decade on account of the Second World War, they found themselves, in the 1950s, confronted with the rising tide of serial thought when they themselves had barely mastered the prewar modernism of Bartok and Hindemith. Some, Arnold and Simpson for example, proved impervious to its influence, either through natural limitations or strength of character. Both Fricker and Hamilton were more amenable to twelve-note thinking, in Fricker’s case as an aspect of his severe contrapuntal discourse. For the more eclectic Hamilton, it had more the aspect of another style to be mastered, like the popular seam he had mined in the Light overture, 1912, op 38, or the honest romantic rapture of his op.1 Variations for strings. Not that he was unprepared to be radical in his affinities. The aggressive serialism of his 1959 Sinfonia for two orchestras, written for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, shocked a conservative Edinburgh Festival audience. But there was, perhaps, a sense of changing garments in his stylistic shifts, and maybe the later return to downright tonality presaged in his opera The Catiline conspiracy (1974) for Scottish Opera, and the later opera Anna Karenina (1978) and two symphonies dating from the early 1990s, was symptomatic of this.

Facility is often the reverse side of the coin of eclecticism. An assiduous worker, whose early musical studies had been alongside those of a full-time career in engineering, Hamilton was gifted with a productive muse. A student at the Royal Academy of Music from 1947 to 1951, he left the institution in the same year that his Clarinet Concerto was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize, and in the 1950s he won several other prizes. Moreover, his music was regularly performed, not only during his time teaching at Morley College and London University during this period, but also during the next two decades, when he lived in New York and taught at Duke University, North Carolina. By the time he received his first Proms commission, Cantos for orchestra (1965), the festival had already featured his work five times; and when he turned to the theatre,

with The royal hunt of the sun, composed between 1967 and 1969, he was no less successful at securing performances. The opera was premiered, and revived, by English National Opera, and a commission for Anna Karenina followed as a result of their continued enthusiasm.

Eclipsed by rival works of greater originality, specifically those of Birtwistle, Hamilton’s operas failed in the longer term to hold the stage, despite the quantity of fine music they undoubtedly contain. Paradoxically, the composer’s return to London in 1981 did not signal a continued interest in the United Kingdom, and thereafter he suffered unreasonable neglect, though his orchestral Commedia was heard at the 1993 Proms. Though isolated from the mainstream of musical life, he continued to compose, if sparingly, and a number of late works, including the Bulgarian invocation: evocation for orchestra, and London: a kaleidoscope for piano and orchestra, have yet to receive a fair hearing.

Iain Hamilton: born Glasgow, 6 June 1922; died London, 21 July 2000.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Autumn 2000

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