Reginald Smith Brindle

For anyone in Britain growing into classical music in the 1960s and ’70s the name of Reginald Smith Brindle was a permanent presence on the contemporary scene. Fashions change in music as unforgivingly as in the other arts, and his music may have been heard less often in recent years. But his standing as teacher and writer endures. And in a more equitable world he would enjoy a reputation as one of Britain’s more eloquent modernist composers, with a concern for clarity and dramatic effect acquired from his early studies in Italy.

Smith Brindle was born in Lancashire. His father, Robert, bred horses and cattle, though he also had a good baritone voice and played the cornet, and his mother, Jane, was an amateur pianist. Reginald began to play the piano himself at six, when a schoolboy at Lostock Hall, but first realised the importance of music when he heard a teacher play the flute. He then took clarinet lessons, and played in the orchestra of Hutton Grammar School before moving on to the saxophone. He adopted the guitar after his brother had bought an instrument and found he wasn’t interested in it. That association was to be a particularly fruitful one: I doubt that any British composer has written as much, and as idiomatically, for the instrument.

Smith Brindle soon gave proof of his ability by winning a guitar prize in a Melody Maker competition but, like countless composers before him, ran into parental opposition to a career in music and so he took up architectural studies. Jazz gave him an outlet for his enthusiasms, and he played saxophone professionally. His Damascene revelation came in 1937, with an organ recital in Chester Cathedral, and within a year had produced his first composition, for organ.

The Second World War cut straight across his nascent career. His seven years in the army – six of them, 1940–46, as a captain in the Royal Engineers – were spent mainly in North Africa and Italy, initially isolated from music. But he took a correspondence course from the Army Education Corps and, in exchange for some cigarettes, managed to acquire a steel-strung guitar from an Italian prisoner of war. It unleashed a flood of music while he was still in uniform: in 1944–46 no fewer than thirteen works for solo guitar. One of those, the Fantasia Passacagalia of 1945, he arranged for strings and entered in the Rome Army Arts Festival the next year. It carried off first prize, obtaining him an invitation to Rome for the first performance. An invitation to an arts course then took him to Florence, where he played guitar in a couple of concerts and made the acquaintance of his future wife.

With demobilisation, Smith Brindle came back to Britain, his long service entitling him to a three-year rehabilitation grant which he deployed on a B. Mus. course at the University College of North Wales at Bangor, terminating his studies there when he gained an equivalent qualification as an external student at the University of London. An encounter with the 13-year-old Julian Bream led to Smith Brindle’s Nocturne, his first composition to be appear in print.

A fellowship from the University of Wales allowed him to return to Italy in 1949, to study at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome. But he found the composition lessons of the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti out of touch with the times, and took comfort in the avant-gardist aspirations of two fellow-students, Franco Donatoni and Georges Sicilanos. Other companions were drawn from the ranks of the Scuola Dodecaphonica in Florence, Alvaro Company, Bruno Bartolozzi and Sylvano Bussotti among them. Smith Brindle flirted with Webernian serialism in an organ piece and was surprised to find intellectual rigour could produce such ugly music. He consulted Company who put his finger on my error immediately, pointing out that it is not the system which creates beauty, indeed on its own it may only produce ugliness. Instead, beauty can only come from within ourselves, indeed what I had long looked for – the fount of inspiration and creativity –can be discovered nowhere but in our own minds. There may be many stimulants – other works of art, or other pieces of music – but the real source is only in ourselves. Later on, it seemed so obvious and simple, but at that time, to me it was still obscure.

Having learned that lesson, Smith Brindle was ready for his next major encounter, with Luigi Dallapiccola’s opera Il Prigioniero: while some parts were too dense and stressful for my liking, other passages seemed to be just the kind of sound I had long looked for – a mysterious, complex sound with an intangible, enigmatic harmony which I found intensely beautiful.

Deeply impressed, Smith Brindle arranged to study with Dallapiccola but was to find the music more instructive than the man who, despite his reputation as an excellent teacher, seemed to dislike fixed lessons. Instead, he would waiti until Smith Brindle had completed a work, and then focus on its detail: “from that moment any hope of him giving a constructive criticism of my work as a whole was lost”. With hindsight, Smith Brindle understood that Dallapiccola had been wrestling with creative problems of his own; even at the time, they became firm friends, which “meant I may have to stumble into a high-powered conversation at any moment”.

During his years in Florence – when he also worked as a journalist, translator and import-export manager – he studied organ with Francesco Germani and added to his now enormous number of works for guitar (by then totalling 38) with several scores of more ambitious dimensions: a Sinfonia in 1954, Variations on a Theme of Dallapiccola and an Epitaph for Alban Berg, both in 1955, and the Symphonic Variations of 1957.

In that year he saw an advertisement for a lectureship in music at his alma mater, University College of North Wales, applied and got the job. He was to stay for thirteen years, the last three as professor. Thereafter he was appointed professor of music at the University of Surrey at Guildford, retiring in 1983.

A watershed in his style had come in 1970 when he abandoned strict serialism and allowed himself a much wider stylistic range.

I justify this as such eclecticism was also typical of such great figures as Picasso and Stravinsky who had such varied “periods”. However, such variety in my case has tended to bewilder the public who cannot identify my works so easily, even though the compositional technique is fairly constant. I do not regret this, as it would be boring for me to keep on and on in only one style. I like change, and these are the consequences.

Smith Brindle enjoyed painting, too, his art following his music into high abstraction before embracing a less radical idiom.

Accompanying the compositions of his academic career came a series of highly influential books, required reading for the students of the day: Serial Composition (1966), Contemporary Percussion (1970), The New Music (1975) and Musical Composition (1986), all published by Oxford University Press.

Retirement hardly slowed him down: he finished his Second Symphony, Veni Creator, in 1989 and continued to add to his extensive catalogue of guitar and organ music.

Martin Anderson

Reginald Smith Brindle, composer, teacher and critic; born Bamber Bridge, Preston, 5 January 1917; m. 1947 Giulia Borsi, 1 s., 3 d.; died Caterham, 9 September 2003.