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Anthony Payne

Anthony Payne was a critic, composer and arranger who took a series of fragmentary sketches by Edward Elgar and transformed them into a symphony
20 May 2021
Anthony Payne with his Penguin metronome CREDIT Eric Roberts
Anthony Payne with his Penguin metronome CREDIT Eric Roberts

This obituary was published in the Telegraph on  May 3rd 2021

Anthony Payne, who has died aged 84, was a critic, composer and arranger who took a series of fragmentary sketches by Edward Elgar and transformed them into a symphony; the result, which was heard at a televised Prom in 1998, was considered a masterpiece and within four years had received more than 150 performances.

The BBC had commissioned a Third Symphony from Elgar in 1932 and even announced its first performance. But when the composer died on February 23 1934, he left only a series of sketches, about three-quarters of which were published the following year in The Listener. Later they were included in W H Reed’s book Elgar as I Knew Him (1936), providing the basis for speculation about what might have been.

In 1995 Payne, who had long mused on the possibilities for these sketches, gave a radio talk about the putative symphony, illustrated by a few bars from the music. Afterwards, the composer’s estate, which previously had opposed any further work, commissioned him to prepare a performing edition.

Elgar's sketches were included in W H Reed’s book Elgar as I Knew Him (1936), providing the basis for speculation about what might have been

In an interview with Gramophone magazine Payne explained how his breakthrough came while putting the sketches away after his talk.

“In an absolute flash all sorts of things fell into place in my head,” he said. “I suddenly realised that about five pages of material, which in my photocopies were faint, seemingly unimportant, are development sketches. It’s from that moment that I thought I could complete the first movement. And then I thought, why not go on and do the finale?”

He went on to complete Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 6, which again only existed in sketches, for his 70th birthday Prom in 2006. He also orchestrated works by other British composers of the era, including Delius (two numbers from Seven Songs from the Norwegian) and Vaughan Williams (Four Last Songs and Three Nocturnes).

While Payne’s legacy is inevitably dominated by his realisation of the Elgarian fragments, he also had his own distinctive and hard-won compositional voice that was allied to the early 20th-century Romantic school of English music.

Payne was a distinguished composer in his won right, even though his legacy is dominated by his realisation of the Elgarian fragments

The Stones and Lonely Places (1979) is a dark and melancholy tone poem that conjures up the bleak coastline of western Britain and Ireland; A Day in the Life of a Mayfly (1981), his best-known work before the Elgarian journey, is a haunting reminder of the brevity of animal life; and Scenes from The Woodlanders (1999) evokes the world of Thomas Hardy.

Yet he was rarely a fashionable composer, his beautifully crafted music poised between conservative Englishness and modernism. “I was absolutely amazed,” he said when receiving the listeners’ award in the first Radio 3 British Composer Awards in 2003, “because I’m one of those composers who never win awards.”

As a result, his composition work was poorly remunerated. “People are shocked when I tell them I earn a lot less than £10,000 a year from composing [about £15,500 today], after 30 years in the business,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2005. “Still, you do it for love, don’t you?”

Anthony Edward Payne was born in London on August 2 1936, the son of Edward Payne and Muriel (née Stroud). He was educated at Dulwich College Prep School, before eaving at 11 for Dulwich College, where his interest in composition was manifest in several works of juvenilia. After National Service with the Royal Signals he read music at St Cuthbert’s Society, University of Durham, but by then he had “dried up as a composer”.

Initially he was both musicologist and critic, writing for the Telegraph, The Independent and Country Life. He also published books on Arnold Schoenberg, Frank Bridge and the Elgar symphony. What he called his first “real piece”, Phoenix Mass for choir and brass, did not appear until 1969 when he was 31.

‘I wanted to marry English late Romanticism with the European avant-garde of the 1960s,’ said Payne

It was written for a teacher friend’s school choir and demonstrated a distinctive voice: a piquant combination of refined modernism and lyrical amplitude that was distinctly English in tone.

“I wanted to marry English late Romanticism with the European avant-garde of the 1960s,” Payne explained to Ivan Hewett in The Daily Telegraph. “Everyone thought I was mad, to think of [Roberto] Gerhard, [Witold] Lutoslawski and [Ralph] Vaughan Williams all in the same piece. But they were the things I was passionate about, and I refused to believe one had to exclude the other.”

A Day in the Life of a Mayfly (1981)

After a year as visiting professor at Mills College, California, he taught composition at London College of Music from 1983 to 1985. He also spent a year at the Sydney Conservatorium. Later he was visiting professorial fellow in composition at the University of East Anglia. In 1994 he was appointed joint artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival with Judith Weir and Michael Berkeley.

Life post-Elgar was not altogether sweet. Payne tried to reassert his own identity, but his health and spirits cracked. “I suddenly felt as if a concrete refrigerator had dropped on me,” he explained. “It was appalling.”

Ultimately the fridge was lifted and the result was Visions and Journeys (2002), a one-movement orchestral essay inspired by regular holidays in the Isles of Scilly.

One of his last works, Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016), was written for the Proms at the time of his 80th birthday and is packed full of the natural imagery he loved so much: the sea in its angriest mood, the thunderous movement of horses’ hooves, the massing of clouds, and the landscape of the Somme as caught in a painting from 1916 by the Australian war artist Arthur Streeton.

Anthony Payne married the soprano Jane Manning in 1966, but it was 10 years before he wrote his first piece for her, The World’s Winter, which she sang with the Nash Ensemble at the 1976 Cheltenham Festival.

In 1988 they jointly founded Jane’s Minstrels, an ensemble dedicated to modern vocal music. They both received honorary doctorates from the University of Durham in 2007, the first couple to be honoured in this way. Jane Manning died on March 31; they had no children.

Anthony Payne, born August 2 1936, died April 30 2021

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