Edward Harper

Composer, pianist and lecturer

Born: 17 March, 1941, in Taunton, Somerset.

Died: 12 April, 2009, aged 68.

LIKE Henri Duparc and Alexander Zemlinsky, Edward Harper was a composer who never attained grand-celebrity status but whose work, refined and fastidious, was widely recognised by musical professionals as of the highest quality. He was never affiliated to a school or movement, but pursued his own development quietly and conscientiously, moving from an early style that was influenced by serialism and aleatory procedures to a mature idiom, partly tonal, always clearly heard, perfectly focused and original.

Born in Taunton, Somerset, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was awarded a first in music. Afterwards he attended the Royal College of Music in London and studied with Franco Donatoni in Milan. In 1964, he joined the music staff of Edinburgh University, rising to the position of reader.

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Although he taught compositional studies – harmony, counterpoint, orchestration – he seldom attracted international students in the field of actual composition; a modest and private man, he did not aim to strut the international stage and his name was not widely known.

Nevertheless, some of his music has been heard across the globe. In 1975 he composed a chamber opera, Fanny Robin, for the Edinburgh students to perform alongside Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. With a libretto by the composer, based on Thomas Hardy's novel Far from the Madding Crowd, and quotations from folk songs, this was an evocation of the composer's native West Country. Its tragic story, told with warmth and affection, earned it performance by Scottish Opera, and as far away as New Zealand and the United States. His Seven Poems by ee cummings, premiered by the soprano Jane Manning in Glasgow in 1977, was afterwards performed in the London Proms.

Harper's First Symphony was commissioned by Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra and performed in 1979. Among other commissions have been the Chester Mass for chorus and orchestra, ordered by the City of Chester in 1979, and the striking Clarinet Concerto, written for the 1981 Llandaff Festival.

There have been other operas. Fanny Robin had a sequel, The Mellstock Quire, also written for amateur performance and based on Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree. One of Harper's most notable achievements was Hedda Gabler, a full-length opera commissioned by Scottish Opera and first performed in 1985. Subsequently Harper produced another opera, The Spire (1993), based on a novel of William Golding.

Harper was an academic as well as a practical composer, and he liked to refer to the musical past in his compositions. The First Symphony is a tribute to Elgar's First, and the Bartok Games, an orchestral piece of 1972, made reference to Lutoslawski's Venetian Games. The Intrada after Monteverdi, a reworking of the opening of Monteverdi's Orfeo, became widely popular and exists in two forms, for chamber ensemble and for orchestra.

He was also a fine pianist, displaying a remarkable interpretive talent in demanding works such as Copland's Piano Variations. He often conducted his own works, and was founder and director of the New Music Group of Scotland from 1973-90. The NMGS did much to introduce the Scottish public to progressive music, regularly performing at the Edinburgh Festival and providing a forum for Scotland's own younger composers.

In recent years Harper continued to work, though his activity was curtailed by illness. The Second Symphony had to be launched by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2006 without its first movement (though it has now been recorded complete, conducted by Garry Walker); it is a piece with a new-found contemporary commitment, telling the story of the tragic deaths of children in Israel and Palestine. Harper was at work on a third symphony, which presumably remains incomplete.

On one occasion, when I was organiser of postgraduate affairs for Edinburgh University's music faculty, it occurred to me that Harper might honour us by receiving a doctorate in music. This was a "higher degree", obtained not by examination but by the submission of distinguished work, and he would have been eminently suitable; his distinction would have placed a benchmark for the standing of the degree.

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When I proposed the idea to him, he took a couple of days to consider, but finally refused, saying his colleagues might resent his presumption of academic status. I was disappointed, but it was characteristic of the man: modest, principled, reticent.

He will be remembered for Fanny Robin, in particular, but also for his years of patient work with Edinburgh's students.

He is survived by his first wife, the violinist Penny Dickson, his third wife, the cellist Louise Paterson, and his children, Edward and Alice, whose mother, Harper's second wife, Dorothy, died some while ago.