THE PACIFIST COMPOSER

ROBERT GILCHRIST REVEALS A CARING MUSICIAN

Library of King’s College, London, where Geoffrey Bush taught

How often does one hear of a music teacher who hands out confectionery to keep his students alert? Undergraduates at Kings College, London, fondly remember Geoffrey Bush’s generosity with Mars bars as an accompaniment to their studies of modern music!

Bush spent five impressionable years as a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, from 1928 to 1933, an experience which left him with a first-hand knowledge of the English choral tradition. His dedication to composition led him to lessons with the composer John Ireland, with whom he remained a lifelong friend. A Nettleship Scholarship in composition at Balliol College, Oxford, was interrupted by the Second World War. Bush was a pacifist and later a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. These interests were reflected in his short opera, The equation from 1967. During World War II he cared for troubled evacuee children in Wales.

Bush’s career as an educator started as a lecturer with Oxford University between 1947 and 1952. He then moved to the extramural Department at King’s College, London, where he went on to become a visiting Professor. He composed across a wide variety of genres, including orchestral, chamber and keyboard works, choral works for accompanied and unaccompanied choirs, operas, and many songs. Many of his songs are settings of classical verse from poets such as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Shelley. Among the most popular titles from Geoffrey Bush’s catalogue are his Concerto for light orchestra and his two choral works A Christmas cantata and In praise of Mary. His music for theatre was witty and served to embellish and illuminate the written word, as shown in the scintillating one-act opera, Lord Arthur Saville’s crime. When not composing or teaching music, he was a voracious reader of detective novels!

Bush was not averse to the adoption of other idioms; in his First Symphony, he included a blues-style slow movement, as a tribute to his friend and fellow composer Constant Lambert. His insights into Elizabethan polyphony and 19th-century harmony infuse his many transcriptions and Stravinskian arrangements, while his music’s chromaticism, within a broadly tonal idiom, his love of counterpoint and his delicate, colourful orchestration betray the influences of Prokofiev.

For the centenary of Geoffrey Bush’s birth on 23 March, you can hear a selection of his music in Sunday Special at 3pm on 22 March.

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