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Walter Leigh

Walter Leigh (22 June 1905 – 12 June 1942) was an English composer. Leigh is most famous for his Concertino for harpsichord and string orchestra, written in 1934. Other famous works include the overture Agincourt and The Frogs of Aristophanes for chorus and orchestra. He wrote music for documentary films and there is an unfinished sketch for a symphony.

Walter Leigh was born in Wimbledon. His first teacher was Harold Darke, with whom he worked from the age of eight until he was seventeen. He went to Christ's College, Cambridge, studying composition with Cyril Rootham and graduating in 1926. For two years thereafter, he studied composition under Paul Hindemith at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik.

In 1930, Leigh declined a teaching job and set about earning a living by accepting small commissions and becoming increasingly involved with the theatre. With V. C. Clinton-Baddeley he wrote a pantomime for the Festival Theatre at Cambridge, and two comic operas, the second of which, Jolly Roger, ran for six months at the Savoy Theatre in London, with a cast headed by George Robey. He composed an elaborate score for Basil Wright's documentary film The Song of Ceylon and the concert overture Agincourt, commissioned by the BBC in celebration of King George V's Silver Jubilee. The Harpsichord Concertino is one of a number of chamber works of the period: an elegant and concise work, more French than German in its spare-noted neo-classicism, the keyboard writing showing signs of Ravel's influence.

For the Cambridge production of The Frogs in 1936, Leigh produced another score precision-made for the occasion. The music for A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for open-air schools performance at Weimar in 1936; it is scored for flute, clarinet, trumpet, strings and harpsichord. Music for String Orchestra is a work written sympathetically for amateurs in four movements: Adagio - Vivo - Lento - Allegro. The only other major commission Leigh undertook before the outbreak of war was to produce the music for Farjeon's intimate revue, Nine Sharp (1938).

He was a composer who thrived on limitations and who needed the right external stimulus if he was to produce the best work that it was in him to do. He was a craftsman-composer of a sort commoner in the 18th century than the 20th century. Almost all his music was written for immediate use; like Haydn, he would not have dreamed of fulfilling a commission without ascertaining the probable capabilities of his performers; he could turn to any number of different idioms according to the needs of the occasion.

An obituary in The Times credits Leigh as being "the first British composer to undertake a complete study of the many problems relating to the sound-track in the production of films", and cites the score for The Song of Ceylon as "a classic example of the creative use of music and sound in relation to the visuals on the screen."

The majority of the orchestral and chamber works have been recorded on the Lyrita and Dutton Epoch labels. The piano music and some art songs were recorded on the Tremula label. The Harpsichord Concertino was recorded by Kathleen Long in 1946 using a piano.

In 1941, during the Second World War, he joined the British Army and served as a trooper with the Royal Armoured Corps, 4th Queen's Own Hussars. He was killed in action near Tobruk, Libya in 1942, just before his 37th birthday, leaving a widow, Marion, and three children, Julian, Veronica and Andrew, who had been sent to Canada to escape the London Blitz.


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