John Turner writes…
Gordon Crosse was born in Bury, Lancashire, where his father worked for the Midland Bank, on 1st
December 1937. Though plagued by illness for much of his life (see Crosse’s own notes, appended to
this article) his father was a talented amateur pianist, organist and cellist, as well as an ingenious
amateur inventor and engineer. The family moved to Cheadle Hulme when his father was transferred
to the Bank’s Cheadle Branch, and Gordon attended Cheadle Hulme School, whose other musical
alumni have included the composer Peter Hope and the announcer and Strictly contestant Katie
Derham, as well as the broadcaster Nick Robinson – a distinguished roll call indeed! Crosse wrote A
Cheshire Man for performance at the School for Peter Hope’s 90th-birthday, but alas the pandemic
forced cancellation of that concert, among many others.
Crosse gained a first class degree in Music from St. Edmund Hall Oxford, where his tutors included
Wellesz, in 1961, and he then went to Rome on an Italian Government Scholarship, where he attended
Petrassi’s classes at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. On his return he worked briefly for the WEA and
researched early fifteenth century music. He was appointed Haywood Research Fellow at
Birmingham University, a post he held from 1966 to 1969. His colleagues and friends at Birmingham
included both Peter Dickinson and David Munrow, and in memory of the latter he was later to write a
beautiful elegy, Verses in Memoriam David Munrow, and subsequently A Wake Again. He was
snapped up by the Oxford University Press as a house composer shortly after his Oxford degree, his
first publication being Two Christmas Songs, to Latin texts, in two parts, for female voices, which
were published by the Press in 1963. Other works from this early period included Three Inventions
for flute and clarinet, a first (of two) violin concertos (Concerto da Camera), Villanelles for chamber
ensemble, and Corpus Christi Carol for soprano, clarinet and string quartet.
His Opus 1 was actually a first Elegy For orchestra (performed by the Halle in April 1962 at
Manchester’s Free Trade Hall under Maurice Handford in an SPNM open rehearsal concert). Within a
very short time, his works were being regularly commissioned and performed to great acclaim – works
such as the oratorio Changes, Ariadne for oboe and small ensemble, and the orchestral song cycles
For the Unfallen, and Memories of Night: Morning. A strong literary bent became quickly evident
in his music, the words of these last two cycles being by the poet Geoffrey Hill and the novelist Jean
Rhys respectively. Gordon’s fellow Mancunian and great friend Alan Garner (he of The Weirdstone
of Brisingamen) wrote the text for two works for children, the mini-operas Potter Thompson and
Holly from the Bongs. This friendship was later celebrated many years later by Gordon’s Chimney
Piece, for recorder, clarinet and viola, performed in the enormous fireplace in part of Alan Garner’s
medieval home, the Medicine House (re-erected by the author next to his original cottage, Toad Hall).
It was written in fulfilment of a long-standing promise, for Alan’s eightieth birthday.
Gordon’s other principal literary collaborator was the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, with whom he wrote
the popular children’s cantata Meet my Folks and the children’s cantata The Demon of
Adachigahara. Hughes also provided the translated libretto for his opera The Story of Vasco.
Another literary connection was with the Royal Exchange Theatre Director Michael Elliott, who
commissioned from him incidental music for productions at the theatre, notably Philoctetes by
Sophocles (the beautiful Lullaby from which was later rearranged as Lullaby – TBP His Goodnight
as a tribute to his fellow Mancunian composer Thomas Pitfield on his eightieth birthday). His last
incidental music was for the Granada television production of King Lear, in which I had to play, in
full costume, a gemshorn part. I also lent my medieval harp for the recording. Being rather short
sighted I pinned my enlarged music to the costume of the performer in front, but I need not have
worried. Laurence Olivier (everyone referred to him, solicitously, as Sir), could not remember more
than about two lines at a time, so Lear’s death scene was constructed of innumerable tiny snippets
joined together. As a result the players were in vision for merely a second or two, much to my
chagrin. The DVD is still available.
One of the first operas performed at the newly formed Royal Northern College of Music was
Gordon’s 1966 opera Purgatory, on a short play by Yeats (it was paired with Walton’s The Bear).
The first Principal of the RNCM was John (later Sir John) Manduell, whom he had known well since
Birmingham days, when Sir John was in charge of BBC radio 3 output there. They had travelled to
Warsaw together to listen to music by Penderecki and other . Later operas were The Grace of Todd
(for the English Opera group, Aldeburgh, 1969) and The Story of Vasco (Sadlers Wells, 1974, though
started in 1968), but the latter was not a success. Some of the music was reworked for the orchestral
Some Marches on a Ground (1970). Ballet also figures in Gordon’s output. Young Apollo, for The
Royal Ballet, extended Britten’s short fanfare for piano and strings into a full-length ballet.
Playground, (also for The Royal Ballet) was an arrangement of material from his children’s opera
Potter Thompson, and Wildboy was arranged for orchestra for the American Ballet Theatre, with
Baryshnikov in the title role.
The Aldeburgh music scene very much appealed to Gordon, as he had always greatly admired the
music of Benjamin Britten. Gordon in fact met his wife Elizabeth Bunch in the porch of Orford
Church during an Aldeburgh Festival. Her parents had retired to a cottage in nearby Walberswick,
and Gordon and Elizabeth bought a rambling house in Wenhaston, near Blythburgh. He and
Elizabeth, who succumbed to cancer in 2011, had two sons, both of whom became distinguished in
their respective businesses. Jo is a motor cycle engineer, specialising in BMS motor cycles. Gabriel is
a highly respected events stager, for political conferences, music festivals and the like. Almost
certainly Britten’s own many works for children were an inspiration for Gordon’s own pieces for
children, among which were Meet my Folks (premiered in 1964 at the Aldeburgh Festival), The
Demon of Adachigahara for Shropshire schools, and Rats Away. A late work for children was A
Chethams Suite for String Orchestra (2019), composed for the Junior Orchestra of Chetham’s School
He had always found it difficult to write to deadlines, and a slew of bad reviews, mostly unwarranted,
resulted in “the silence”. In particular, the poor reception of The Story of Vasco, his Trumpet
Concerto, written for and premiered at the Proms by Hakan Hardenberger, and a fiasco over Sea
Psalms, with an uncompleted premiere and inaccurate parts, commissioned for Glasgow as City of
Culture, were all setbacks, and eventually prompted a change of career. He became a computer
programmer, writing programmes for Cadburys and others. He frequently told me that this work
utilised the same brain cells as composition. But it certainly did not need the same imagination, and I
regularly pestered him to get back to the music.
Along with his composing, Gordon had several academic posts, at Essex University, Kings College
Cambridge (where he was a Visiting Fellow), The University of California Santa Barbara (where he
joined on the staff his fellow Brit Peter Racine Fricker), and the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Elizabeth died of cancer in 2011. He found solace in attending the Quaker Meeting House in Leiston.
Through his connections there he met the poet Wendy Mulford, who became his companion in his
later years. Together they purchased a house on the shores of Papa Westray, the northern-most the
Orkney Islands, and this resulted in several works inspired by the local landscape and wildlife. For me
he wrote the last of his concertante works for solo wind instruments (a project inspired by Nielsen’s
unfulfilled ambition to write a concerto for all the instruments in the woodwind family), On the
Shoreline. The piece, written in just a few days, is based on the cries of fulmars and sanderlings
outside their window. The others, following on from his early success with Ariadne (now a standard
piece for oboists) were Thel for flute, Wildboy for clarinet (later revised for Psappha as L.Enfant
Sauvage), Gremlins for bassoon, and Ceili De for horn.
The silence was finally broken in 2008, when he had retired from computer programming. I persuaded
him to write a work for the eightieth birthday of his old friend Sir John Manduell. This was a cycle of
songs to words by another favourite author, Rudyard Kipling. The initial impetus was a setting of
Gertrude’s Prayer, originally composed in 1988 for the first BP Peter Pears Singing Competition, which he now arranged for soprano, recorder, oboe, violin and cello, an ensemble used in the
celebrations, and scored for also by Manduell himself, Edward Gregson, Philip Grange, Sally
Beamish, Elis Pehkonen, David Beck and Anthony Gilbert. The other songs in the cycle (Three
Kipling Songs) were L’Envoi and Four Feet (in which my recorder imitates a dog-whistle – Gordon
and his sister Peggy were both great dog-lovers). The cycle was premiered in Bowness (two of the
songs) and London (with the addition of L’Envoi) in 2008.
Then the flood gates opened. There followed in quick succession a Fantasia on “Ca’ the Yowes” for
recorder, strings and harp, Brief Encounter for recorder, oboe d’amore and strings and a Trio
(Rhyming with Everything) for oboe violin and cello. This last piece takes its title from a poem in
Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of love poems “Rapture” and explores romantic passion. It quotes from
a well-known song by Henry Carey, which was frequently sung by Gordon’s friend Peter Pears,
whose rendition was much admired by Gordon. He wrote: “The Summer and Autumn of 2009 was the
most exciting and productive period I have ever experienced. I had returned to composing after a
break of some 18 years and I found I couldn’t stop working. The music was simpler than it was in
1990 but I think more communicative because more concentrated and focused.“
After that the flood became a torrent with a third Elegy: Ad Patrem, in memory of his adored
father (see the appended note), The Barley Bird for a festival in nearby Beccles (conducted
by another Suffolk resident Elgar Howarth), three more symphonies, three piano sonatas, five
new string quartets (one for the 150 th anniversary of the Meeting House in Leiston), a viola
concerto (drawing material from the earlier trumpet concerto) and a host of shorter
instrumental and choral pieces for friends and colleagues, mainly written just for pleasure. It
is a treasure trove for future exploration. His stated aim was to strive for “a blend of elegance
and passion that I always try to achieve in my own music, though I succeed but rarely.” Very
frequently, others would say. His last piece was Déploration, in tribute to his late friend Peter
Maxwell Davies. He told me, with his wry sense of humour, how sorry that he had not
managed to get round to writing one for himself!
In conclusion, I should mention how my own friendship with Gordon started. I had known of
him through a clarinet playing schoolfriend who was studying nuclear physics at Oxford,
Alec Hill, and who was one of the first members of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra.
Alec knew both Gordon and the composer Bill Hopkins at Oxford, and had a manuscript
copy of his duets for flute and clarinet, which we played through. A few years later, with my
legal hat on, I was frequently instructed to prepare wills for staff and customers of the
Midland Bank, and I was introduced to a certain Percy Crosse, who lived in Davenport,
Stockport, not far from my old school. On enquiring if he was any relation to the composer, I
was told that he was his father, and he in turn introduced me to Gordon. Percy, with his
engineering skills, made me one of the first electronic metronomes, which I still have and
use. It remains a treasured possession! And of course I treasure the many pieces that Gordon
wrote for me. His late Three Twitchings for recorder and piano were dedicated to “John
Turner, who helped raise me from the dead”. I am proud of that!
Composer’s note on Ad Patrem (as yet unperformed)
My father, Percy Broughall Crosse. was born September 2 nd 1907 in Ambleside – then in the
county of Westmorland. He died in Sept 1987 and his life seems to me inspirational as a model of tragedies and frustrations borne and overcome by sweetness of character and
extraordinary determination. He was an exceptionally intelligent man who in the normal
course of events would have gone to university to study engineering – but his father died
when he was 16, his mother could not handle the financial difficulties and he had to start
work in the bank – the Midland at Bowness. Engineering became a hobby along with Music
at which he was very gifted. He played piano, organ and cello. I am quite ashamed that as a
professional musician I never began to achieve his high standards as a performer. The bank
moved him to Fleetwood in Lancashire where he met and married Marie Postlethwaite my
mother. He was then moved to Bury, Lancashire, where I was born in 1937. It was typical of
his character that the banking career that had been forced upon him was pursued with the full
energy and commitment he brought to everything and he seemed destined for a high position.
All such hopes were destroyed after 1939 – not just by the outbreak of war but by the
beginnings of a “Arthritic” disorder that was eventually known as Ankylosing Spondylitis but
was not diagnosed correctly for many years. He was drafted into the RAF despite this and
after working in Radar he was invalided out within the year. At this point he was moved to a
slightly less busy branch in Cheadle, Cheshire and we moved to the village of Cheadle
Hulme. While trying to return to work in the bank he suffered from medical mismanagement
including two years in hospital with hip plaster and undergoing traction. When I tell medical
friends of this they are horrified. By the end of the war he had locked hip joints and a rigid
spine and needed to walk with two sticks. He had also been forced to leave the bank and
needed an income for his enlarged family – my sister Peggy was born in 1944. His
engineering skills were called on and he did many small contracts manufacturing
demonstration and advertising items. His home workshop grew and the weight of lathes,
milling machines and drills threatened to drop through the attic floor. So we moved again –
to Stockport where his workshops could occupy the whole of the basement area. He got a
job with a local engineering firm – working from home as a Model Engineer and I recall in
particular his working scale model of a Baum Coal Washery Plant that took three years to
build. My modest contribution was the regular cutting to length of batches of rivets, and
helping to pick up from the floor the small items that he continually dropped and was unable
to bend and retrieve.
There was no end to his ingenuity in overcoming his disability – the word “Can’t”
didn’t seem to exist. Motor cars were modified, stairlifts built and he had the ability to repair
almost any household item – from a watch to a radio. Meanwhile he kept up his musical
interests – making a tower of cushions and small stools on top of the piano stool so he could
continue to play Chopin, and building amazing hi-fi systems with huge speakers in concrete
pipes to play his beloved Wagner records.
Mother died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1981 and dad’s retirement was pretty
lonely, though he remained amazingly cheerful and forward looking. He never stopped
making things (usually some electronics project or other) until glaucoma killed his eyesight.
Then with the realism and practicality he always showed he decided to sell our house and
moved into a home while he was still capable of organising things. Only in the last few
weeks when he suffered blood-poisoning and became hallucinatory did he lose the ability to
think clearly. His final days in hospital were typical – finding his bedside chair too uncomfortable he analysed the problem and proposed the solution. His last words to me were“I must do something about that”. The philosophy of his whole life. At every reverse or disaster he thought of the way ahead.
Perhaps only music can express my feelings about the man. He was the kindest and
most encouraging of fathers and I always felt I was composing specially for him. After his
death it was harder and harder to have any enthusiasm for writing. But now, over twenty
years later I finally feel up to it. The result is this third orchestral elegy – a single movement
like the previous two. Written for a small orchestra with single wind, few strings and very
little percussion. In this Elegy the Harp is prominent.
Ad Patrem – Elegy Number Three for Small Orchestra (2009)
I have built the piece around the places where he lived. Each place name providing a key.
Ambleside – A major/minor. Fleetwood F major/ minor. Bury B-flat and Cheadle Hulme C
major and B minor. Finally Stockport in E-flat. Father’s tastes were essentially simple, direct
and conservative so I have tried to keep my language tonal and direct as well. It is also rather
pictorial and includes references to several of Father’s favourite composers – notably the
fateful rhythm of Siegfried’s Funeral March which comes in every section, and pieces like
Chopin’s F minor Fantasy and Debussy’s First Arabesque both of which he used to play to
me when I was a child. Finally, I have based most of the material on a song I wrote recently;
a setting of “Fear No More The Heat O’ the Sun”.
First Ambleside – misty dawn, wisps of fog over Loughrigg, distant horns on the fell.
Father was an athletic and sporting young man and here I imagine him hastening to school
with a simple tune that acquires some “learned” counterpoints. Then the blow of fate and
Fleetwood – Seaside,,the remembered sound of the Isle of Man boats and their fog
horns. There is no Midland Bank now so the notes HSBC are used. The rhythm of Marie
Postlethwaite leads quickly to Wedding Bells.
Bury – Back amongst moorland hillsides but in Industrial Lancashire. So the “wisps
of fog” are now smog and haze. At the climax of this section the Funeral March rhythm
shatters distant recollections of the “Schoolhouse” tune of the first section.
We then move to Cheshire via the “Souling” song and in Cheadle Hulme Father
patiently re-invents himself with a fugal treatment of the Schoolhouse tune and my sister
The final Stockport section extends my Shakespeare Setting and for the third time the
“wisps” of fog reappear – this time to represent the mental fogs of Blood Poisoning. The end
is serene – as father was nearly all his life.
I first heard music by Gordon Crosse at a Prom in 1965. Then a lifetime later at a William Alwyn concert.
Like much of his music he was a most engaging and likeable man, a true composer whose gifts were shared widely through so many practical commissions. He is a loss to English music.