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John Gardner

John Linton Gardner, CBE (2 March 1917 – 12 December 2011) was an English composer of classical music.

John Gardner was born in Manchester, England and grew up in Ilfracombe, North Devon. His father Alfred Linton Gardner was a local physician and amateur composer who was killed in action in the First World War. His grandfather was John Twiname Gardner, also a G.P. and composer. His mother, Emily Muriel Pullein-Thompson, was the sister of Captain Harold J "Cappy" Pullein-Thompson, who was the father of the Pullein-Thompson sisters and their brother, the playwright Denis Cannan.

Gardner was educated at Eagle House School, Sandhurst, Wellington College and Exeter College, Oxford. An important figure in his early life was Hubert J. Foss of Oxford University Press, who published the Intermezzo for Organ in 1936 and introduced him to the composer Arthur Benjamin, to whom Gardner dedicated his Rhapsody for Oboe and String Quartet (1935). This work had its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in February 1936. The String Quartet No. 1 (1938) was broadcast from Paris by the Blech Quartet in 1939, and the anthem The Holy Son of God most High (1938) was also published by OUP. At Oxford Gardner was friendly with Theodor Adorno with whom he played piano duets.

After coming down from Oxford in 1939, he completed two terms as music master at Repton School, where one of his pupils was the composer John Veale, then a sixth former. In 1940 he enlisted and working first as a Bandmaster (Fighter Command) and then as a Navigator with Transport Command. It was during the War that ideas for the Symphony No.1 began to form.

Gardner regarded the end of the War as a new start, set aside his juvenile works (of which nearly 100 have survived in manuscript) and began again from Opus 1. He took a job as a repetiteur at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. John Barbirolli discovered the First Symphony (Op. 2) when Gardner was given the opportunity of playing through his Nativity Opera. According to Gardner this work is "unperformable", which fact was quickly grasped by Barbirolli; however, when Barbirolli asked to see other works, Gardner showed him the Symphony. The first movement needed some re-working because Barbirolli was not convinced it made sense in its original form. The work was scheduled for the 1951 Cheltenham Festival where it caused a minor sensation.

Many major commissions followed and Gardner was suddenly able to call himself "a composer". He resigned the job at the Opera House and there followed a remarkable period of creativity. Cantiones Sacrae, Op. 11, Variations on a Waltz of Carl Nielsen, Op. 13 and the ballet Reflection, Op. 14, were all written in 1951 and 1952 and first performed during 1952. He re-wrote A Scots Overture, previously a military band piece, for the 1954 season of Promenade Concerts in 1954. In May 1957 Sadler's Wells put on the opera The Moon and Sixpence, which they had commissioned, and two other major works were premiered that year, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (Cyril Preedy and Barbirolli at the Cheltenham Festival) and the Seven Songs, Op. 36 in Birmingham, a work which Gardner wrote as "light relief" while working on the other major works.

In 1956 he was invited by Thomas Armstrong to join the staff of the Royal Academy of Music, where he would teach for the best part of thirty years. A few years later he took a part-time job as Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School, following Gustav Holst and Herbert Howells, and was for a time Director of Music at Morley College. These teaching posts led to the composition of some of his most enduring works, and together with the many holiday courses he worked on as a conductor (Canford, Dartington, ESSYM, Bernard Robinson's Music Camp, etc.) ensured that he was able to bring practical experience and knowledge to bear on his compositions.

He married Jane Abercrombie, the daughter of Nigel Abercrombie (Secretary General of the Arts Council 1963–1968) and the soprano Elisabeth Abercrombie, in 1955 and they had three offspring - Christopher (1956), Lucy (1958) and Emily (1962). After the War he lived in South London – in Morden, New Malden and Ewell.


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