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Anthony Payne obituary

Barry Millington
·7-min read

The composer Anthony Payne, renowned for his masterly reconstruction of Elgar’s Third Symphony as well as his own highly original oeuvre, has died at the age of 84, just a month after the death of his wife, the singer Jane Manning. Though he was passionate about such late Romantic English composers as Vaughan Williams and Delius, Payne’s own more bracingly dissonant music was closer to that of the post-1950s modernists, while maintaining its own unique identity.

His earliest music, including an orchestral suite and a piano sonata, was written while a schoolboy at Dulwich college, south-east London, and more followed as he went on to study at Durham University. However, shortly after graduating in 1961, he suffered a nervous breakdown that caused him to abandon musical composition for four years.

The appropriately titled Phoenix Mass, begun in 1965 but not completed until 1972, provided a symbolic revivification of his compositional ambitions with a newly fashioned method of structural organisation. The form of each individual section of this liturgical mass setting was governed by a single interval – the Gloria by whole tones, the Sanctus by major thirds – with melodic lines generated out of accumulations of those intervals. With spiky, fanfare-like interspersions from three trumpets and three trombones, and shouted acclamations in the Gloria, the work vocalised a sense of liberation for the composer.

Shortly after this, Payne devised a system based on random number tables to determine musical elements such as pitches and phrase lengths, a technique that was to underpin his compositions for many years. The lengths of the seven continuous sections of the tone poem The Stones and Lonely Places Sing (1979), for example, are governed by the proportions 3 2 7 4 1 6 5. The first is 21 bars long (3 x 7), the second 14 bars (2 x 7), the third 49 and so on. Preferring this system to what he regarded as the straitjacket of total serialism as practised by Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and others, Payne found that it provided the anchor he needed to set his imagination free.

Another score that drew on the technique was Time’s Arrow, commissioned by the BBC for its 1990 Proms season and one of his finest achievements. A musical representation of the Big Bang, the work begins, after a few bars suggesting a void waiting to be filled, with a thrilling depiction of material exploding and speeding out into space. It spins towards the still centre of the work, before under a gravitational pull reversing back on itself, accelerating towards a replication of the initial momentum. With its confident handling of denser harmonies and a wider range of textures, generated by a full battery of brass and percussion, than in any previous work of his, Time’s Arrow marked a new stage in Payne’s compositional technique and a peak in his career.

Nonetheless, it was his “elaboration” of the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony that brought him to worldwide attention. Though long familiar with the sketches, he began sustained work on them only in 1993 with the invitation of a BBC producer to assemble them in some form for a workshop performance.

At this stage the Elgar family, who owned the copyright, was still withholding its permission for any kind of completion to be undertaken, but the day after returning home from recording a talk for the BBC about the sketches, the idea struck “with the force of a lightning bolt” that four pages of faintly outlined fragments previously discounted were in fact intended for the development section.

Over the following 10 years he wove together all the fragmentary sketches left by Elgar, where necessary allowing his own imagination to breathe life into these embryonic inspirations. The whole of the development section and coda of the finale were pure Payne; other parts pure Elgar or an admixture of the two.

Despite disquiet in some quarters as to the propriety of “tinkering” (Elgar’s own word) with the sketches – the composer placed a deathbed embargo on attempts to complete the work – the result was widely held to be as accomplished a realisation of Elgar’s intentions as could be contemplated in the absence of the composer. The first public performance came at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in February 1998 under Andrew Davis. It has subsequently been performed all over the world and recorded six times.

Born in London, Anthony was the son of Edward Payne, a civil servant, and Muriel (nee Stroud). At the age of 10 he heard a radio trailer that turned out to be the start of Brahms’ First Symphony: “It came from nowhere and I was absolutely translated; I thought I was floating upwards. And from that moment I was hooked like a fish.”

Before going to Durham he undertook national service with the Royal Signals, and once he had left he contributed to the Times as well as periodicals including Tempo, Musical Times and Music and Musicians. Even after establishing himself as a composer he continued to write for such outlets as the Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

He was also the author of two books: a slim volume on Schoenberg in the Oxford Studies of Composers (1968) and a more substantial study, Frank Bridge: Radical and Conservative (1984), locating the composer in the productive middle ground between the English pastoralists and the Second Viennese School. It was a dichotomy that informed Payne’s own inclinations, though his mature works were always more dissonant than those of Delius and Bax, for all his enthusiasm for them.

Indeed, an early score such as Paean for piano solo (1971), with its belligerently virtuosic clusters, was as challenging to the listener as to the player. The chamber cantata The World’s Winter (1976), with its disjointed, expressionistic word-setting, featuring cries, whispers and onomatopoeic effects, nevertheless betrayed Payne’s English roots, not least in his choice of text: Tennyson’s diptych Nothing Will Die and All Things Will Die. The cantata was written to mark the 10th anniversary of his marriage to Manning, with whom he founded, in 1988, and ran the ensemble Jane’s Minstrels, which performed works from Purcell and Elgar to Schoenberg and Maxwell Davies.

A more genial style was essayed in the colourfully scored A Day in the Life of a Mayfly (1981), its whirring sonorities imitating insects skimming the surface of a pond. The transformation involved in the life-cycle of the mayfly was a significant element in Payne’s conception and indeed the natural world was, and was to remain, a vital ingredient in his creative endeavour.

Further manifestations of that were seen in various works commissioned for the BBC Proms: the depiction of the golden light experienced on the western seaboard of the British Isles in The Stones and Lonely Places Sing, the pastoral allusions of The Spirit’s Harvest (1985), the ocean swell around the Isles of Scilly in Visions and Journeys (2002) and the mysterious horizons and other natural phenomena in Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016), a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra commissioned to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, for which Payne wrote his own Whitman-flavoured text.

Even the more abstract conceptions such as the Horn Trio (2006) or the Piano Quartet (2014) consciously reflected organic natural processes in their evolutionary unfolding.

Following the success of the Elgar project, Payne suffered a recurrence of his earlier depressive condition, describing it “as if a concrete refrigerator had dropped on me”. In person as in his art, a somewhat forbidding exterior (“I laugh but I don’t smile, so people often think I am a bit unfriendly,” he once told Time Out) masked the warmth and humanity that lay beneath. He and Manning, soulmates for over half a century, were staunch proponents of the new, and irreplaceable luminaries of the contemporary music scene.

He is survived by a nephew and two nieces.

• Anthony Edward Payne, composer, born 2 August 1936; died 30 April 2021