Obituary: Robert ‘Bobby’ Crawford, gifted composer whose music had an intellectual intensity

Robert Crawford showed a gift for music early in life; his compositions shone with an intellectual intensity
Robert Crawford showed a gift for music early in life; his compositions shone with an intellectual intensity
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Born: 18 April, 1925, in Edinburgh. Died: 26 January, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 85

Robert Crawford was a fastidious musician whose music had a very personal intellectual intensity that marked out his work – especially the string quartets – as gems of construction and musicianship. There was a fluency and style about his compositions that made them immediately available to both the audience and the players. In his piano sonatas there was a clarity and economy that is typical of his clean-cut style.

Crawford had a long association with the Edinburgh Quartet who commissioned his Clarinet Quintet in 1993.

Mark Bailey, a member of the quartet for 27 years, remembers Crawford with special affection. He said: “Bobbie supported the Edinburgh Quartet unstintingly.

“He was present at all the recordings we recently made of his works for Delphian Records and was hugely encouraging. Bobbie attended the lunchtime concerts we gave at the Edinburgh University.

“We always loved playing his second string quartet which, I know, gave him much pleasure. He was a wonderful, warm and gentle man.”

Robert Caldwell Crawford was educated at Melville College in Edinburgh and, when evacuated, at Keswick Grammar School. He showed real musical talent, taking private lessons from Hans Gal in Edinburgh. During the war, he worked as a laboratory assistant as he had been rejected by the army on medical grounds. From 1945-49 he studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music.

His first composition, a string quartet, was performed in Berlin in 1949. It demonstrated Crawford’s subtle grasp of the instruments. Thea Musgrave enthusiastically praised the piece, saying: “This is real music.”

His second quartet was commissioned by Glasgow University in 1956 and was warmly welcomed by The Scotsman critic, Christopher Grier: “It is very subtly done. The overall impression is of an attractive astringency, and sometimes of real beauty.”

Crawford continued to compose, but also wrote on music as a freelance journalist before joining BBC Scotland in 1970 as a music producer – often presenting concerts by the Scottish National Orchestra. Crawford also supported and promoted Scottish music.

Throughout the Edinburgh Festival, Crawford was much in evidence in the control room of the Queen’s Hall or the Usher Hall. But one of his lesser known responsibilities – which he greatly enjoyed – was supervising Radio Scotland’s coverage of piping. Crawford produced programmes from piping competitions in the Highlands.

He did little composing throughout the 25 years he was with the BBC, but Martin Dalby, then the BBC head of music in Scotland, remembers that “Bobbie was a conscientious and hard-working colleague.

“He was always a joy to work with and became a real pal. As a composer, his quartets and piano sonatas are rightly highly praised.”

After he retired from the BBC, Crawford received a second commission from Glasgow University to write the octet, Ricercare. It was premiered by the Allander Ensemble in 1987.

Composition was a slow process for Crawford, who agonised over every detail of a work, and his next piece was for solo piano, commissioned by Peter Seivewright. Called A Saltire Sonata, it was premiered by the Saltire Society in Glasgow in 1992. That year the Scottish International Piano Competition also commissioned The Sonata Breve, which was used as a set piece during the competition.

Another supporter of his compositions was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Radio Three recorded Lunula when the orchestra premiered the work in Ayr Town Hall in 1998 under Thierry Fischer. It was a huge undertaking, but was well received. Crawford admitted: “It was a hell of a lot of work.”

He received a challenging commission in 1995 from the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust to write for brass instruments. The result was Hammered Brass, which was premiered by the Wallace Collection. It celebrated the manufacture of metals and Crawford said of the piece: “It linked, as in a chain, celebrating the age-old skills of craftsmen working with various metals, some of them to make instruments which could be blown or struck as in this work.” It proved to be a most successful piece.

Crawford remained a keen apiculturist and kept bees for many years. In 2005, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he composed a piano quintet which was commissioned by the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust and premiered by the Edinburgh Quartet in the Queen’s Hall

The musicologist Dr David Wright has long been an admirer of Crawford’s music. “He was a much respected man in Edinburgh music circles and a marvellous craftsman: a humble man who did not believe in self-publicity. But a musician whose work is underrated and underperformed.”

Crawford married Stephane Frankel in 1949. She died in 1974 and he married Alison Orr, daughter of the composer Robin Orr. She and a son and daughter by the first marriage survive him.