an extremely thoughtful, inventive, and (yes, one has to say it nowadays)
musical composer, whose music ought to be far more widely known”
Still is one of our less well-known composers; I hope it does not sound
too cynical to suggest that this may be because he writes good music."
Robert Still had reached maturity before he devoted the majority his time to composition. Many of his works, including four symphonies, were produced in the last two, fairly prolific, decades of his lifetime. His compositions were wide-ranging, including keyboard music, songs, chamber music, orchestral music and an opera. As in the history of many front line composers, he was overshadowed by more prominent contemporaries. He wrote mainly tonal music at a time when the major influences in the British music scene were declaring this out-of-fashion.
As well as having a good sense of humour and a sharp wit, he had a more serious side through his interest in psychoanalysis. His essay on Mahler, from a psychoanalytical standpoint, is still an important reference work. Other interests were racquet, squash, lawn tennis and real tennis, the latter at which he excelled and was an ‘Oxford Blue’.
If you can help with further information, please contact: Graham Musto by email
Pencil drawing by Hans Karl Adam 1915 - 2000
(artist, hotelier, tv chef and writer on cookery)
MUSICA ETONENSIS (2004) is a collection of choral pieces by Old Etonians and includes Robert Still's motet 'The Lord's Prayer'. Details can be viewed on. http://www.etoncollege.com/Recordings2.aspx
Lord's Prayer mp3 by kind permission of Eton College
CD JMSCD 8
Quintet for Three
Flutes, Violin and 'Cello (from RG 74)
J. Martin Stafford (Ismeron)
Price £10 including postage ( US$15/€13)
"An enterprising tribute
to an unjustly forgotten figure"- The Gramophone
by Elizabeth Still (1922-2007)
Robert Still was born in London on 10th June 1910. An Elizabethan ancestor was John Still, Master of St. John’s and Trinity College, Cambridge, later Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was the author of the Elizabethan farce “Gammer Gurton’s Needle.” His full length effigy is in Wells Cathedral.
Robert Still was originally destined to become a solicitor in the long established family firm in Lincoln’s Inn, one of whom was solicitor to King George III. Robert was encouraged by his musical father to learn the piano, was sent to Eton and went on to Trinity College, Oxford, from 1928 to 1932, originally to read History and French with a view to becoming a lawyer. He added music to his studies at Oxford and also at the Royal College of Music in London under C.H. Kitson, Basil Allchin and Gordon Jacob, ending up with the degrees of M.A. and B.Mus.. He was also an excellent real (royal) tennis, lawn tennis and squash player, playing for Oxford University. These games remained a great leisure interest throughout his life: he played real tennis for the MCC and lawn tennis at home and or local clubs.
He returned to Eton to teach music for some years. He had already started composing and became conductor of the Windsor Operatic Society, writing a light opera for them, which is now lost. Leaving Eton in 1938, he became conductor of the Ballets Trois Arts, a travelling ballet company, but was conscripted into the Army in 1940.
Robert refused a commission, became a Gunner in the Royal Artillery and was stationed in the Cotswold on searchlights – apparently “very cold and very boring”. He then became conductor, arranger and pianist of the travelling classical orchestra of the Royal Artillery. This involved going in an Army lorry from battery to battery, performing to the troops with whatever professional musicians were available. At various times the group included Cecil Aaronowicz, Manoug Parikian, Wilfred Dunwell and others who became well known later. In 1944 he was seconded to the Army Educational Corps with rank of Sergeant to entertain the troops waiting for the invasion of France in the south of England. This involved going from battery to another with a portable gramophone and box of classical records strapped to the back of an army motorbike, and lecturing in many venues to enthusiastic members of the armed forces. While in Folkestone, Kent, he met his future wife Elizabeth, a WAAF sergeant in the “Y” Service (Intelligence), who shared his passionate interest in music. They were married three months later.
Robert was demobbed in 1946 and the couple moved first to Hampshire and then to the village of Bucklebury in Berkshire. A small studio was built in the garden of the house, Bucklebury Lodge, so that Robert could work in peace, away from their growing family: the Stills’ four daughters were born between 1945 and 1954, of whom only Katherine, known as Poppy, became a professional musician. Her father wrote a number of compositions for her, including a sonatina for oboe and piano (1964). “A Summer Night” (poem by Matthew Arnold) for baritone, chorus and small orchestra, later to be recorded under the title “Elegie”, was written for the Newbury Choral Society.
Robert had originally seriously contemplated becoming a Freudian lay psychoanalyst, but decided that music was his overriding interest. Early in the 1950s he and his friend Adrian Stokes, the writer and painter, founded the Imago Society whose members included many well known psychoanalysts. The Society’s aim was to investigate the relevance of psychoanalytical theory to the fields of education, philosophy, politics, music, painting, literature etc. Several of the papers given at the regular meetings of the Society at the house of the widow of Ernest Jones, Freud’s friend and biographer, were published in various journals. Robert’s paper, “Gustav Mahler and Psychoanalysis” (1959) was published in the American Imago Society’s journal in 1960 as well as being broadcast by Radio 3.
Robert Still’s 3rd Symphony was submitted as a doctoral work to Oxford University in 1963 and as a result he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Music (D.Mus.) in that year.
Although he used dissonance to great effect in much of his music, it had remained predominantly tonal. His studies with Hans Keller at the Royal College of Music had not persuaded him to change direction towards the then fashionable and highly influential atonal type of compositional style, made almost mandatory by William Glock and Hans Keller at the BBC.
Many musicians, including composers, critics, conductors and performers, were friends and welcome visitors at Bucklebury Lodge. Among these were Sir Eugene Goossens, Edmund Rubbra, Deryck Cooke, Heather Harper and Myer Fredman. Local musician friends included John Russell (conductor of the Newbury Choral Society and Professor at RCM), Anthony Scott (composer) and Michael Thomas (an authority on old keyboard instruments and well-known harpsichordist).
Robert Still died suddenly of a heart attack on 13th January 1971. He was well liked by all his friends and his students, was rather self-effacing and sensitive, and supported equality of access in musical education by speaking out against elitist attitudes. He was very pleased to have been appointed a member of the Executive Committee of the Composers’ Guild shortly before his death. His professional friends believed that his modesty hindered his musical career and prevented wider acclaim.
“ I certainly owe a great deal to his encouragement and help as
a young conductor and will always be grateful for this.”
“ I found him a very congenial, approachable person, and not given
to ‘blowing his own trumpet.’”
“ Robert Still was a gifted composer and a very considerable musician.
His Third Symphony is an expertly written piece.”
“ Of contemporary English composers it is those who are now in
their fifties and sixties who have been most neglected by the gramophone
companies, and indeed by the concert promoters. And so one should be particularly
grateful for an attractive new record which brings together in excellent
performances by the Ambrosian Singers and the Jacques Orchestra conducted
by Myer Fredman, two works by Robert Still, ...... and the recent choral
suite ‘Inscape’ by Edmund Rubbra.”
“ I wouldn’t say that I ‘taught’ him - although
he, modest as he was, may have said so. No, for that he was too mature
- but I do hope that I was able to advise him. At the same time, I don’t
think I can tell you anything about his compositions which they can’t
tell you themselves - and that’s a compliment to him.
“ I enjoyed playing his music enormously, especially the songs,
& I was fascinated by the Jekyll -&- Hyde aspect of his musical
mind.- of for instance ‘When I am dead’.. and the ‘execution’
one, & then the wholly successful madrigal pastiche in ‘Beauty
I am, Sir, yours & c.” Robert Still , Bucklebury, Berkshire
To the Editor of The Times - “Sir, - If education really did what
it set out to do, and developed every individual to his maximum potential,
there would be less of a problem as between those who ‘have’
brains and those who ‘have not’
Yours faithfully”, Robert Still 9th October 1963
© Compositions other than those published, being the property of Universal Music Publishing Classical, are owned by Katherine Hyde. Unauthorised performance, copying and recording without prior permission is strictly prohibited. Motet 'The Lord's Prayer' © Eton College