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BASIL RAMSEY extends his survey of composer neglect

Following from yesterday's remembrance of a little-known American composer, Ernst Bacon, I would dearly like to draw attention to one of the many English composers who now languish in some backwater, their gift to the musical world almost forgotten.

Anthony Milner is alive but not well, his desire to compose minimal, probably because it takes great surges of energy to think creatively, to sketch music, to shape it, to perfect it, to write a clear score, and then to bring it to the attention of performers. Milner has done this all his life, sometimes with success and sometimes - as with most composers - to no avail.

A Catholic, much of Milner's music has been for voice or voices. Looking back forty or so years, a work I vividly recall is The City of Desolation for chorus and orchestra. This has power and atmosphere without demanding the utmost of performers. It seems to me an ideal work for a robust choir so why the reluctance?

In his heyday, nothing Anthony Milner enjoyed more was a lecture tour across America, taking a variety of subjects from his own specialities, which certainly included the music of Michael Tippett. And he collaborated with Wilfrid Mellers for the four volumes of the much acclaimed 'Man and his Music' series, which told the story of musical experience in the West.

Some years ago I wrote the following about Milner for a dictionary of contemporary composers: 'Composers suffer the cavalier attitude of the public no less than other artistic creators, and frequently the disdain of professional colleagues. Milner's opus 1, the cantata Salutatio angelica, was an auspicious debut in 1950. The composer won respect immediately, and curiosity grew about how his music would develop. Salutatio angelica was not actually innovative: it was of English stock: it admitted the unshackling of tonality; and its rhythms were no more - or less - sprung than Purcell's. Significantly, the overall impression of a sharply creative talent was not diminished by the absence of startling innovatory features. What became increasingly clear in the light of Milner's subsequent music were the convictions that had been shaped and tried before opus 1 was written.

Milner knew at the outset of his journey what he wished to achieve - an entirely personal music entrenched in the great traditions, and therefore drawing together unrelated elements by the fusion of his creative drive and mastery of the requisite techniques........A composer such as Milner cannot compose music that stems from his deepest feelings without a precise plan of action in which his humanly acquired skills are tested to the utmost. Milner's music is invariably intense, emotive, and sometimes supremely beautiful.'

Looking back at that quotation, I read nothing subsequently revised in my estimation. Anthony Milner is now in danger of becoming an 'also ran', a fate suffered by too many highly gifted composers. For each it is a tragedy - for us too.

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, July 5th 1999

Visit Anthony Milner's webpage

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