2015 marks the centenary of Humphrey Searle CBE (26 August 1915 – 12 May 1982), a student of Anton Webern who, together with Elisabeth Lutyens, was one of the pioneers of twelve-tone music in Britain. A leading authority on the music of Franz Liszt, Searle also taught composition to the likes of Michael Finnissy and Wolfgang Rihm. Although his fastidious ear for instrumental colour shows Webern’s influence, the hyper-romantic rhetoric with which Searle handled his harmonies owes more to Berg and Schoenberg, as well as a streak of more traditional ‘Britishness’ which he never lost.
Searle’s third and most ambitious opera, Hamlet (1958), was premiered at the Hamburg Staatsoper and also received performances in Toronto and at London’s Royal Opera House. Other works include the elaborate symphonic essay Labyrinth (1971), the restrained and delicate Prelude for Piano on a Theme of Alan Rawsthorne (1965), and a setting of Edith Sitwell’s The Canticle of the Rose for a cappella double chorus (1965) which was described as ‘intensely beautiful’ by The Guardian after its UK premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival.
Searle studied, and later taught, at London’s Royal College of Music, where his centenary will be celebrated with performances of two chamber works: Five for solo guitar (1974) – originally written for Julian Bream and characterised by delicate harmonic colourings and a number of expressive improvisatory passages – and the light-hearted Cat Variations (1971), a set of eight reworkings of the ‘Cat Theme’ from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, commissioned by the BBC to accompany a radio broadcast of T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
The music of Humphrey Seale is also published by Schott Music
Full details of the Royal College of Music's performances can be found here
Searle's memoirs can be accessed online here: