Obituary: David Fanshawe

Charlotte Smith20th Jul 2010
David Fanshawe, composer of the celebrated African Sanctus, has diedDavid Fanshawe, composer of the celebrated African Sanctus, has died

Born April 19, 1942; died July 5, 2010

David Fanshawe, who died suddenly of a stroke, was a national treasure. Physically tall but gently eccentric, he evolved an all-embracing view of music based on the juxtaposition and fusion of musics from all around the globe. African Sanctus remains his signature composition, one of the most performed British post-war works in any genre. Pioneering in its use of backing tracks integrated with live performers (effectively ‘sampling’, years before it became common practice in commercial pop music), African Sanctus—and the BBC Omnibus documentary recreating Fanshawe’s journey recording the taped samples, basically following the course of the Nile—also revolutionised the attitudes of generations of listeners to traditional African and Islamic musics and, in a wider sense, to world music as a whole. For its second recording in 1994 (others have followed), the composer added the Dona nobis pacem.

Fanshawe’s life-long love of what we now call world music started during his studies with John Lambert at the Royal College of Music (1965-9), or rather the holiday periods in which he hitch-hiked across Europe and Asia. An early first-fruit of these journeys was Salaams, for 11 voices, piano, percussion and cantor/muezzin (declaimed by the composer himself at its 1970 premiere, issued on a Philips LP and re-released on CD with African Sanctus). Over time, Fanshawe’s ethnomusicological researches embraced the cultures of the Pacific, preserving for posterity musical cultures that have since winked out of existence. Some of these were collected at some personal risk: whether from disease—he contracted tick typhus on one trip—or falling foul of tribal dictat: he and his first wife were strip-searched and imprisoned for 2 days in Tanzania for recording the king’s drums without permission; another casualty would eventually be his first marriage. The vast taped library is stored in The Fanshawe Collections, covering music from Africa, Arabia, South-East Asia (Thailand and Laos) and the Pacific (Tonga, Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia). Many of these unrivalled field recordings have been released on disc, some in conjunction with Fanshawe’s own works, most recently that of the song cycle Pacific Song: Chants from the Kingdom of Tonga (2007; on ARC), intended as the first panel of a major commission for Sydney Opera House, Pacific Odyssey. Sadly, Pacific Song is the only section Fanshawe was able to complete.
Despite the huge scale of some of his works, his catalogue of original compositions is relatively modest. He was initially inspired to compose by an early love interest; the resulting piece, Jill, won second prize in a composition competition and only lost the top award because of his lack of technique. This remained an issue for Fanshawe throughout his life but his subsequent studies remedied any technical deficiencies and enabled him to set down his music with increasing sureness of touch, whether in the moving Requiem for the Children of Aberfan for orchestra and tape (1968), the popular orchestral pieces Dover Castle and La Dame Etrange, his beautiful piece for cello and piano, The Awakening, written for Steven Isserlis (who recorded it with Fanshawe as accompanist), or his not inconsiderable output for television for film (over 30 scores), including Flambards, When the Boat Comes In and Tarka the Otter. Some of Fanshawe’s archival recordings have also appeared in films, most notably Seven Years in Tibet and Gangs of New York.

Fanshawe was born in Paignton in Devon. After leaving Stowe School in Buckinghamshire in 1959, he studied with the composer Guirne Creith while working in London at the Film Producers Guild (at which he learned the art of sound recording). Fanshawe was twice married, first in 1971, to Judith Croasdell Grant, with whom he had two children, Alexander and Rebecca. This marriage was dissolved in 1985 in which year he married Jane Bishop, with whom he had another daughter, Rachel. Both wives and all three children survive him.

Guy Rickards

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