Sad news: Two famed composers died today

Sad news: Two famed composers died today


norman lebrecht

August 15, 2021

The English composer and Cambridge University teacher Hugh Wood died at home last night. He was 89.

A shy man with a subtle humour, his music reflects Beethoven and Schoenberg in its seriousness and purpose, but riffs off into jazz when the mood takes him. Frugal in output, he wrote one symphony, four concertos and 6 string quartets.

Although he was widely considered the country’s best composition teacher, Cambridge never gave him the title professor.

The death was also announced of R Murray Schafer, doyen of Canadian composers. He was 88 and had been incapacitated with Alzheimers Disease.

Schafer’s prolific output often reflected sounds of his native ecospace. He wrote more than a dozen string quartets.


  • J Barcelo says:

    I’ve never heard of either of these men, but that Hugh Wood symphony is terrific! I’ll honor his passing by buying the CD. Challenging music, angry almost. But very rewarding. Thanks for posting it.

    • Patricia Kleinman says:

      Murray Schafer was a highly creative musician and composer. I attended many of his workshops and he changed the way I listened to my environement. A pioneer of musical landscape research, he will be deeply missed.

  • 18mebrumaire says:

    Hugh Wood was also a very fine critic as can be seen in his many reviews for the TLS and other journals. His long essay ‘A Photograph of Brahms’ dating from 1999 is a masterly example of critical thinking expressed in a clear, classically controlled prose style.

  • John Borstlap says:

    He was also a fine pianist. I remember a lecture where he explained Beethoven sonatas, playing through them in an excellent and expressive manner, and getting more and more ‘into’ the music with enthusiasm. He was much more musical than Alexander Goehr who was the professor of the faculty, a brilliant intellect but very slight musical talent, definitely much less so than Wood’s.

  • V. Lind says:

    I remember when a friend and I, who subscribed to the symphony and also attended various interesting concerts around town, decided we ought to give new music a serious listen, both having been impressed by some pieces included in symphonic evenings.

    There was a short series of free concerts in some church that initially included new music among other rep, so one night we decided to go to an all-Schafer concert. It was free, and we figured we could leave at the interval if not enjoying it. But it was so fascinating and eminently listenable that we stayed right through and wished it had been longer.

    It’s still something I take in relatively small doses, but some of it is genuinely exciting and that evening, as well as others I have attended that included Schafer work, sit very well in aural memory.

    RIP to a highly valued Canadian composer.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Why do so many of these compositions sound like atmospheric segments from film?

    One would have to say that cinema has been a huge influence on modern composers.

    • V. Lind says:

      It would be astonishing if it had not been, being one of the pre-eminent art forms of the 20th century and something on which very few people do not have opinions and which even fewer have missed out altogether.

      Books were a strong influence on past composers. As was art, and nature, and other things. All of these are still influences; it is hardly surprising if another dominant form has joined the list.

      Even so, I do not concur with your initial contention. You must be hearing a very limited supply of new music.

  • Susan Bradley says:

    I am sad to hear of the passing of R Murray Schafer; his book The Tuning of the World was a revelation to me, when I was obliged to read it at music college. I wouldn’t have read it without that compulsion, now I own a copy and read for mental stimulation. Vale.

  • Nicholas Harris says:

    Terribly sad news. I had the privilege of studying privately with Hugh in London while still at the Royal College of Music. He was of that generation of composers for whom intellectual rigor and discipline, and above all else a deep reverence for the works of the great masters were paramount. My quest for a fuller musical education finally led me to Hugh, who provided me with a grounding in counterpoint that was simply unavailable to me at that time at the Royal College of Music.

    A well-read man of varied interests, as much a scholar as a musician, I will never forget my lessons with him at his house, and the role he played as a guiding hand to me in that unsure time of my musical development. I called him from time to time, but it had been a while since I last spoke to him. So sad that I was not able to get one last call in before he died.

  • squagmogleur says:

    Given his age, it was always likely that we would some day soon wake up to the news of Hugh Wood’s death. Even so, I’m very sorry to hear of his passing. It was only last month I think that he was seen at a performance of his chamber work, Ithaka, in London when he looked positively spry. My first contact with his music was in the mid-1960s as a young school boy: a BBC Radio broadcast from Glasgow of his “Scenes from Comus”. I was living in my parents’ home not far from Hugh’s birthplace in rural Lancashire and had been alerted to the broadcast by the local newspaper. The piece made a huge impression on me at the time . Listening to the piece again at the 2019 Proms under Andrew Davis, it sounded as new and fresh as ever. He was always reluctant to talk about his music believing that he had said everything he wanted to say in the music itself, making further comment redundant. Others were also reluctant to talk about his music and performances were also rare, although he was well served by the Proms. Each new piece, as it arrived, was very well received (e.g. the Cello concerto, Piano Concerto and Symphony) but repeat performances were lacking. His well known admiration for the music of Schoenberg gave rise to the erroneous idea that he was a card-carrying 12 note serialist. But he made it clear in one of his few essays on his music that he was less interested in serial technique than in the philosophy behind it : an ancient ideal of close composition with every note claiming a significance, as I think he put it. I hope his music doesn’t die with him. The chamber works and songs should survive but I hope someone, perhaps other than Andrew Davis, will beat the drum on behalf of the orchestral works. They deserve to be heard.

    • Simon Holt says:

      I went to a performance of Scenes from Comus at the Proms in the late 70s and I was incredibly moved by it. Wonderfully feisty, emotional, rich and colourful music. A sad day.

    • Rob Keeley says:

      One very important influence was his teacher Matyas Seiber, who taught his students how to build up a piece using a single cell: at least as important as the Schoenberg influence. Britten and Roberto Gerhard are there in the mix as well!

  • Jenny says:

    As someone who knew Hugh Wood well, I think all 65 works in his published catalogue is not at all “frugal”!
    His last major work was a Proms commission for chorus and orchestra – An Epithalamion, Or Mariage Song (2015).
    A wonderful man and composer.,2021%5D

  • Garry Humphreys says:

    I love Hugh Wood’s music, especially the Symphony and the Cello Concerto – and he was a fearless reviewer, not afraid to be honest about what he was reviewing. And my greatest debt to Murray Schafer is his book ‘British Composers in Interview’ (Faber), as indispensable now as when it was published in 1963. Grateful thanks to both and may they rest in peace.

  • Leonard Ratzlaff says:

    Schafer’s contributions cover many genres, but perhaps the most significant has been his output of choral music, stretching from his monumental Apocalypsis, scored for 12 choirs, double basses and percussion, to such miniature gems as Epitaph for Moonlight and Minnewanka. One of the most committed conductors of his choral music has been Vancouver Chamber Choir founder and emeritus conductor Jon Washburn, with 5 CD recordings of his music, a dozen commissions/premieres, and well over 400 pubic performances including music of Schafer.

  • Charles Hedges says:

    When Hugh Wood taught at Cambridge the Department of Music had only one Professor of Music. He was happy not to have such a title.