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In memoriam: John Addison

In memoriam: John Addison

John Addison

While for many composers the need to write for the cinema may involve a painful compromise of conscience with grander ambitions to succeed in abstract concert-hall works, it was John Addison’s good fortune to have taken to the medium naturally, and for nearly forty years to have achieved in it unqualified success through a sequence of films that include some of the finest products of the British film industry.

Born in 1920, Addison was an exact contemporary of Fricker, and of the same generation as a group of composers, including Searle, Hamilton and Milner, whose artistic homeland lay in the uncertain ground between the successful neoclassicism of Britten and the serial strategies of Goehr, Davies and Birtwistle. For Addison, however, the nature of his creative bent seems to have held little matter for hesitation. Coming from a military family he may well have found the prospect of a career in the arts a refreshing alternative to that of service life, and though he joined his father’s regiment during the Second World War, music, for Addison, may have seemed less of a subject for doubt than others might have deemed it. At the same time, his own remarkable gifts as a natural performer and composer ensured that when his interrupted studies at the Royal College of Music were resumed in 1946, with Gordon Jacob for composition, he shone immediately in his chosen profession.

Having won the coveted Sullivan award, in 1950 he returned to the College as Professor of Composition, a post he held for seven years. During this period, his woodwind sextet was chosen for the 1951 ISCM Festival. But an even more notable triumph was his Sadler’s Wells ballet Carte blanche, a `light-hearted divertissement, where anything goes’, as one critic described it, which brought him substantial success and subsequent esteem in the form of performances of ‘lollipops’ from the score, taken up by the likes of Beecham, Szell and Stokowski.

Meanwhile, in 1950, Addison had written his first official soundtrack, for Seven days to noon, at the request of wartime colleague Roy Boulting of the Boulting Brothers partnership, although Addison had already contributed music to Fame is the spur (1947) and The guinea pig (1948). Other Boultings’ films with music by Addison soon followed, including Privates progress (1956) and Lucky Jim (1957). At the same time, his friend Tony Richardson brought him into the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, as resident composer for new productions that included Osborne’s The entertainer and Luther, and works by Brecht, Ionesco and John Arden.

Often composing three or four film scores a year at the height of his career, Addison was very much a practical composer, with an engaging gift for attractive melody and memorable instrumentation that was often intended to dramatise key plot elements of narrative or feeling. Yet for all his carefree talents, which matched by all accounts an attractive and easygoing character, his importance in British films of the period should not be overlooked. His well-earned sobriquet `the composer for the Angry Young Men’ was achieved by noted scores written for late– 50s and 60s classics including Look back in anger, A taste of honey and Olivier’s screen remake of The entertainer. But the success of Tom Jones, which won Addison an Oscar at the 1963 Academy Awards, was also testimony to a versatile talent that encompassed the varying musical styles demanded by the soundtracks for Hitchcock’s Torn curtain, The charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Sleuth (1973) and A bridge too far (1977).

Having moved to America, Addison scored hits with the 21-hour mini-series Centennial (1978), and the catchy titlemusic for the long-running series Murder she wrote (1984-96). In 1998, the Halle Orchestra premiered Addison’s Bassoon Concertino, which may well prove as durable and popular as his Trumpet Concerto, a lively work that has tested the skills of a generation of young players. Addison was a uniquely gifted composer, and the full flowering of his gifts may have been constrained only by the limits imposed by the turbulent British film industry.

John Mervyn Addison: born Cobham, Surrey, 16 March 1920; died 7 December 1998.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Spring 1999

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