The death of the composer John McLeod last week leaves a yawning chasm, not just in the lives of those who knew and loved him, but in the dramatic landscape that is Scotland’s music. There can scarcely be a musician working in the field of serious music in Scotland whose musical life has not been touched in some way by his vast and multi-faceted body of work.
John McLeod was born in Aberdeen to working-class parents. He was brought up in a one-bedroom tenement with his little brother Ronnie, in a city during wartime with rationing and many terrifying nights spent in the bomb shelter. His father, a salesman, was also a big band leader, and frequently played nights at the Aberdeen Palais.
John completed his National Service as a musician in the Royal Air Force, based mainly in Germany. He played clarinet with the Band of the RAF Regiment, marching at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. The experience and discipline National Service afforded him led to him winning a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London, where he studied composition with the great Lennox Berkeley. He was later mentored by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, a giant of post-war European modernism.
It was while studying at the RAM that John met a young pianist by the name of Margaret Murray. John was captivated by Margaret’s beauty, talent and personality, and they soon became an item. They founded a small ensemble, with Margaret on piano and John on clarinet, which performed new and established works of mainly contemporary music, including early works by McLeod himself.
John and Margaret were married in 1961. Directly thereafter, they moved to Jamaica to teach music at the Kingston School of Music. When their daughter Elspeth was born in 1963, they decided it was not a safe place to bring up a child, so John accepted a position as music teacher at Trinity College, Glenalmond, in Perthshire, where their son Andrew was born. In 1970, seeking a more ambitious career opportunity, John and the family moved to Edinburgh where John worked as a freelance music teacher before accepting a position at Merchiston Castle School in 1975. The family lived on the grounds of the school in the south west of the city until 1992, when the McLeods moved to Redford Crescent in Edinburgh’s Colinton area. John named their new home Hill House, and John and Margaret would call it home for the rest of their lives.
A milestone year in the composer’s career was 1979, when he was awarded the Guinness Prize for his symphonic song cycle Lieder der Jugend (Songs of Youth). Premiered by the tenor Raimund Gilvan and the Scottish National Orchestra, the piece went on to enjoy numerous performances in the UK and Europe, and helped to cement McLeod’s reputation as a significant force in Scottish and European music.
It was also during the 1970s that John began a correspondence with the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, after dedicating his 1973 orchestral work The Shostakovich Connection to him. Shostakovich’s letter accepting the dedication, complete with Moscow postmark, remained a treasured possession of John’s for the rest of his life. This key artefact forms part of John’s personal archive, which will now find a new home at the National Library of Scotland.
From the 1970s onwards, McLeod became firmly established as a leading force in the contemporary music of Scotland and Europe. His orchestral, instrumental and vocal music was performed and recorded by leading orchestras including the Philharmonia, Hallé, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, as well as by major orchestras in Poland, Germany and the USA.
McLeod’s modernism was never a sterile, mathematical modernism but a visceral, pulsating, Nordic modernism, with echoes of composers such as Nørgård, Nielsen and Sibelius. Although McLeod could do “dark and brooding” with the best of them (we may think of works such as his orchestral landmark The Gokstad Ship), he could also be deliciously witty and funny. To witness a performance of Haflidi’s Pictures, with Murray McLachlan at the piano and John as narrator, was an unadorned delight, crammed full of parodies and witticisms, both lyrical and musical.
In addition to music for the concert hall, John was an accomplished film composer. Highlights of his work in this field included the score for Michael Radford’s 1983 film Another Time, Another Place, with Phyllis Logan and Gregor Fisher.
John was an excellent teacher and a supportive mentor. Kid gloves were never his style, however. A young composition student once asked for some career advice, to which McLeod responded: “Can you handle rejection? If the answer’s no, then give up now!” As a composer, he understood that rolling with the punches and absorbing setbacks is a qualification for the job.
The last ten years of John McLeod’s life saw a breathtaking flurry of high-profile commissions, recordings and performances, including the London première of The Sun Dances at the Proms, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Donald Runnicles. An album of orchestral works on the Delphian label with the RSNO and Dame Evelyn Glennie, and the commissioning by the SCO of the viola concerto Nordic Fire for Jane Atkins conducted by Joseph Swensen, give a flavour of the sheer creative power of the composer in his final decade.
Fittingly, it was in 2016 that John McLeod was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to music, an accolade which filled him with immense pride. In 2019 The University of Aberdeen awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his “brilliantly coloured orchestral and vocal music”, which has been commissioned, performed and recorded across the globe.
Although John McLeod will be mainly remembered for his bold orchestral statements and his jagged solo and chamber music, he also took music’s responsibility to the wider community very seriously. Songs from Above and Below was commissioned by Live Music Now Scotland in 2015 and is based on interviews with older people living in care homes in former mining communities in West Lothian.
Politically speaking, John McLeod was very much a “Union” man. A staunch defender of Scotland’s political union with its southern neighbour, he breathed a great sigh of relief when the result of the 2014 independence referendum was announced. However, this relief was matched only by his dismay at the UK electorate’s rejection of the European Union in 2016, the motivation for which he struggled to comprehend.
Both in the concert hall and in private, John was terrific company. As well as being generous and courteous to a fault, he was a wellspring of invaluable insights into the post-War history of European music generally, and of Scottish music in particular. That history came to life in vivid detail through John’s stories and anecdotes, recounted during long and memorable evenings at the Scottish Arts Club on Edinburgh’s Russell Square and Papilio restaurant in Bruntsfield.
John is survived by his brother Ronnie, daughter Elspeth and son Andy. He was grandfather to Joel, Alba, Klara and Bruno.
To say John McLeod will be missed hardly does justice to the magnitude of our nation’s loss. It is as heartbreaking as it is immeasurable.
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