Obituary: Ernest Tomlinson, MBE, composer and conductor

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Born: 19 September, 1924, in Lancashire. Died: 12 June, 2015, near Preston, aged 90

Ernest Tomlinson’s musical skills left him between the classically orientated Radio 3 and the lighter, melodic music of the (then) Light Programme. He was a noted composer and conductor and recognised as the doyen of easy-listening orchestral music. His compositions were never challenging but they had the attraction of being tuneful, memorable and a joy to listen to.

He did write two symphonies which did not gain a wide audience but Tomlinson’s musical abilities carefully merged the unfamiliar rhythms of jazz in a classical orchestra. In 1966, for example, he conducted his Symphony 65 in the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow – the first symphonic jazz music to be heard in the then Soviet Union.

But it was Tomlinson’s miniature Little Serenade and Suite of English Folk-Dances which brought him wide acclaim and popularity. He was also a prolific composer, providing music for brass bands and films.

Ernest Tomlinson came from a musical family and won a choral scholarship to Manchester Cathedral Choir School. Because of wartime bombing the school moved to Rawtenstall Grammar School, where he was head boy and showed a real talent for composing.

At 16 he won a scholarship to study composition at Manchester University, and organ, piano and clarinet at the Royal Manchester College of Music.

From 1944–46 Tomlinson served with a signals unit in the RAF. On being demobbed he worked as a copyist for a music publisher and from 1955 became a composer providing music for the BBC and founded his own orchestra and singers. He was the conductor of the Rossendale Male Voice Choir and in 1969 founded the Northern Concert Orchestra.

Tomlinson discovered in the 1970s that the BBC was disposing of its light music archive and he assembled and catalogued the scores. He administered the collection with much care from his own farm house and it is now the Library of Light Orchestral Music containing more than 35,000 orchestral scores and memorabilia.

The music library provided a safe refuge for the music of other composers; publishers found it expensive to catalogue and were frequently unable to provide the orchestral parts.

In the late 1960s Tomlinson often conducted the BBC Scottish Light Variety Orchestra in such programmes as Music While You Work. From the studios in Glasgow the orchestra played Tomlinson’s The Merry Go-Round Waltz and Iain Sutherland’s march Edinburgh Castle.

Tomlinson’s demanding Rhapsody and Rondo for horn and orchestra received its premiere at the Festival Hall, with Dennis Brain, for whom it had been written. Within weeks Brain was sadly killed in a car accident returning from a memorable Edinburgh Festival concert.

In 2011 Tomlinson was celebrated by Radio 3 in a series titled Light Fantastic. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under the renowned John Wilson, played his Birdcage Dance and Belly Dance from Aladdin.

In 2012 Radio 3 celebrated Tomlinson’s contribution to light music in some style. A whole evening was dedicated to his music – including his delightful Fantasia on Auld Lang Syne and the ever popular Suite of English Folk Dances.

Last year the radio journalist Paul Morley interviewed Tomlinson in his house for a Radio 4 series and praised Tomlinson’s foresight in “rescuing for the Light Music Society’s remarkable archive of thousands of pieces of light music”.

In the programme, John Wilson commented: “Light music is not about nostalgia but beautifully written miniatures of orchestral music.”

He championed melodic music all his life, from introducing Morning Music in the 1950s on the Light Programme to joining Bryan Kay on Radio 3 to several recording contracts, more recently with Naxos. Classic FM has reflected this growing popularity by often playing Tomlinson’s Dick’s Maggot, which many years ago had been used by Steve Race’s Invitation to Music on Radio 2.

Tomlinson was made an MBE in 2012 and won two Ivor Novello awards.

Throughout his life he was a keen sportsman, playing rugby for Saracens and cricket in Kent and Lancashire.

The soprano Catherine Bott spoke recently of her admiration for the composer. “Ernest will be warmly remembered as long as people enjoy listening to melodic music. He was among the very best of British light music composers, his exceptional skill was allied to a rare gift for melody.”

Tomlinson remained musically active into his 80s and he never lost a zest for melodic music. His Auld Lang Syne remains a gem – combining the well-known tune with subtle interwoven Scottish folk music and dances with Beethoven’s Choral Symphony.

One of his first compositions to make its mark was Passepied, which he had written in 1949 to impress his then sweetheart Jean Lancaster.

The first airing on the Light Programme was relayed when the two were on their honeymoon in the Lake District.

She predeceased him and he is survived by their four children.