Published: April 2008
Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008) The Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott died on March 12th in hospital in Swansea at the age of 78 after an illness of several months. Born in Bargoed, Glamorgan in August 1929, his death brought to an end the extraordinarily prolific life of one of the most gifted British composers of the twentieth century, certainly the most significant composer Wales has ever produced.

His opus numbers amount to 200, but even then, within them, there are many individual numbers which include more than one composition ­ for example, his Op. 72 comprises no fewer than five separate orchestral works (all relatively short pieces, written at various times for youth orchestras) – and there are many more additional works which bear no opus number.

On looking through Stewart Craggs’s latest edition of his Source Book on the composer, published last October by Ashgate, a listing including pieces written up to 2005, it appears Hoddinott’s total output reaches around 300 separate compositions. That Hoddinott was a prolific composer there can be no doubt; and as with many such composers there are occasions wherein his creativity burns at a lower level than on others. Hoddinott knew this himself, but was occasionally too dismissive of some of his own music: ‘I don’t think that’s a very hot piece’, he said to me after I told him of my admiration for his Second Piano Concerto; in response, I pointed out to him the qualities I heard in it which he, as its composer, had either overlooked or forgotten. He seemed unaware that he had produced a rare, understated and reflective concerto, unique in British piano concertos, a work which received a very fine recording by Martin Jones, originally issued by Decca and recently reissued on Lyrita.

Mention of his recordings leads one to make the point that he was, over the years, one of the most recorded composers of his generation – certainly regarding numbers of works on disc. In 1994, Hoddinott’s output had reached Op. 140, and commercially issued recordings of his music up to then numbered around 75 separate works, several recorded more than once. Since then, of course, his discography, along with his output, continued to grow. If few contemporary composers have been as fortunate as he was in getting their music onto disc, the result is that we, as listeners, have had a remarkable opportunity to study his output at our own pace.

Among the best of his recorded works are several of very high quality: in particular, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the First Violin Sonata (one of the greatest ever written by a British composer), the First, Second, Sixth and Eighth Piano Sonatas and the Second Cello Concerto, Noctis Equi, written for and recorded by Rostropovich on Erato, which has recently been reissued in a Warner Classics commemorative Rostropovich box. Hoddinott¹s First Cello Concerto, Nocturnes and Cadenzas, is also available on Lyrita, played by Moray Welsh.

There are other excellent issues on CD, including Martin Jones’s outstanding Nimbus set of the first ten (of 13) Piano Sonatas, but among the more recent fine works of Hoddinott which one would like to see recorded are the Second and Third Cello Sonatas, the Second Violin Concerto (Mistral), Dragon Fire – a concerto for percussion and orchestra, and the stunning Euphonium Concerto. There is his lighter music: the Investiture Dances – which recently received its third commercial recording – plus the four sets of Welsh Dances and the Quodlibet on Welsh Nursery Tunes – these are all brilliant orchestral works. Perhaps one would most like to see a revival of one of his six operas. He wrote much chamber music: five string quartets, six violin sonatas and three cello sonatas among other works – clearly, here was a man of enormous energy, and, in the 1960s a fluent and perceptive writer on music as well, often for The Western Mail, The Listener and Musical Times. Hoddinott was not only a prolific composer but an administrator as well. He founded in 1967 – with John Ogdon – the Cardiff International Festival of 20th-Century Music and ran it for 20 years, during which time he was also Professor of Music at University College, Cardiff, building the department into the largest of any British university.

On being asked at the time of his fiftieth birthday why he chose music, he replied, ‘You don¹t choose music; it chooses you.’ Few composers have made such a powerful contribution to the music of their native land as did Alun Hoddinott. His Welshness – perhaps more properly deriving from his Celtic ethnicity, demonstrable throughout his mature life as a composer – can be found in many of his works, exemplified in their titles and his use in his lighter music of Welsh folk-tunes. Although his music certainly reached a wide audience, with almost 100 works commercially recorded, Wales remained his home throughout his life. He was a big man in every sense of the word, but at heart a kind, generous and gentle one, also.

As a musician, he was enormously accomplished: speaking of his Violin Concerto No. 1, written in 1961 for Manoug Parikian, the composer said he designed the solo part so that, in an emergency, he could play it himself, and apparently did so at rehearsals with the violinist. As a young man, Hoddinott played both the violin and – especially – the viola publicly, and he gave several early performances of Malcolm Arnold’s Viola Sonata; his practical experience in music-making was of inestimable value in his compositional life. His piano playing, also, was more than passable, although he said his hands at the keyboard were ‘like pig’s feet’. Hoddinott was a more than competent conductor of his own and other composers’ music – he gave a particularly impressive performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony in Cardiff in the early 1980s – and successfully conducted the premières of several of his own major works. In his vocal music – including oratorios and the magnificent (unnumbered) choral symphony Sinfonia Fidei – he never neglected the global perception of the Welsh singing voice and his contributions are as significant as they are numerous, ranging from the Ninth Symphony for soprano – Dame Gwyneth Jones – and orchestra to simple unaccompanied folk-song arrangements. Hoddinott also composed music for feature films, including Sword of Sherwood Forest and the Walt Disney production The Horsemasters, and saw the distinction of having an orchestral work enter the UK pop album charts in the same month as Rostropovich¹s recording of Noctis Equi was released. A rich life, indeed.

  • This article was written for International Record Review and published in the April 2008 issue and is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • International Record Review

 

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