Obituary: Geoffrey Burgon

Charlotte Smith22nd Sep 2010
Composer Geoffrey Burgon has died, aged 69Composer Geoffrey Burgon has died, aged 69

Geoffrey Burgon, who died on September 21 aged 69, will be remembered as a composer with his own distinctive musical personality who achieved success in many different fields.
 
I first met Geoff when we were students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the mid 60s. He was studying composition with Peter Wishart, who with his penchant for neo-classicism in general and Stravinsky in particular was to leave an indelible impression on Geoff and his music. Although Geoff would never follow somebody else’s style slavishly, economy of means and a generally “no nonsense” approach were to become hallmarks of his music. If some composers find writing music easy and others more difficult, Geoff definitely belonged to the latter category; he always needed to know that every note was exactly in place before anything left his studio.

As a young man, Geoff earned his keep playing the trumpet in various orchestras and chamber ensembles. He also loved modern jazz, particularly Miles Davis, and gigged around, but there was never any doubt that composition was his main love.

Success was not immediate. Although he had already worked on a few TV programmes, including Doctor Who, the real breakthrough came in 1979 with the beautiful Nunc Dimittis which formed the closing title sequence of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This entered the charts and won him his first Ivor Novello Award. Other TV and film commissions followed, including Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and, in 1981 Brideshead Revisited, one of the most notable TV scores ever composed. This involved an astonishing amount of work, but Geoff tackled it in his own methodical way, first producing short scores which he then orchestrated himself with painstaking attention to detail. The soundtrack album sold over 100,000 copies and won him his second Ivor Novello Award.

Then came The Chronicles of Narnia, also highly successful, followed by Longitude, in 2000 and The Forsyte Saga in 2002, the last two winning him BAFTA awards for Best Music.

If music for the screen brought Geoff his biggest rewards financially (and he never was one to look down on composing for the media) he might prefer us to be playing and listening to his concert music, which also achieved considerable success. His Requiem, 1976, was the first major work to attract attention and he wrote a number of ballet scores for the Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert, and London Contemporary Dance. A glance at his publisher’s website (Chester Music) reveals a large catalogue of works; there are concertos for the piano, percussion, viola, cello and there is much vocal and choral music, a lot of which has become standard fare for cathedral choirs.

Geoff married twice. With Janice he had a son, Matthew, and a daughter, Hannah. With his second wife, Jacqueline, he had a son, Daniel. He loved his corner of Gloucestershire, where he and Jacqueline created an environment among trees, fields and old stone walls, which would allow him to think quietly and produce his finely honed works. He was softly spoken yet sometimes talkative, always sensitive, and rather tall and increasingly elegant in a countrified way. He loved old cars. He would also complain at length about the vagaries of the music business. Above all, he was a lovely soul who you would look forward to meeting or chatting with on the telephone, and would never dream of offending. I, in common with his family, many friends, acquaintances and admirers, will miss him enormously.

Christopher Gunning

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