Obituary: Lyell Cresswell, composer who always sought to strike a chord
Lyell Cresswell: composer; b October 13, 1944; from March 19, 2022
Born and educated in New Zealand, composer Lyell Cresswell has lived in Scotland for over half his life. But he does not consider himself a Scot: “I am a New Zealander living in Scotland. I feel at home in both places.
His music also did not sound like British music. “The orchestration has a clarity that has something to do with being in New Zealand, being quiet and closer to nature,” he said. He was a regular visitor to New Zealand and was loved and praised by his friends, family and musical communities in both countries.
Lyell Richard Cresswell was born in Wellington to a Salvation Army family. “My father played almost every instrument in the band. So I was raised in a marching band, captivated by the music, but awkward in uniform. His uncle Ray, his father’s brother, composed for these bands and provided an early example of a living composer. Lyell played trumpet, then euphonium and tuba.
Armed with an honors degree in composition from Victoria University, where his teachers included David Farquhar, Douglas Lilburn and Frederick Page, and a Commonwealth scholarship, he traveled to Toronto in 1969 for master’s studies. He briefly returned to New Zealand and worked as a postman in Dunedin before traveling to Aberdeen in 1972 with his new wife Catherine (née Mawson), a cellist, for doctoral studies in composition.
Wanting to find his own way as a composer, he avoided the fashionable centers of study and the great avant-garde composers of Central Europe and America. “Coming from the end of the world to New Zealand,” he said, “to the edge of Europe in Aberdeen, the transition was quite easy.” He found Scotland’s culture and landscape immediately appealing.
His older brother Max remembers him as “very determined” about music, and Lyell himself thought he had no choice in his chosen career. “My music studies at the universities of Wellington, Toronto, Aberdeen and Utrecht made me incapable of doing anything other than the life of a composer.”
This comment was made with Lyell’s legendary ironic flicker. No one mentions him without referring to his subversive humor, which ensured an evening in his company full of laughter and conviviality. He had an infectious chuckle and enjoyed sharing a glass of whiskey or wine. “As a teenager, he wrote, I signed the Salvation Army Articles of war, in which I declared that I would abstain from the use of all intoxicating liquors … and from all base or profane language. I must confess that I did not keep these promises.
Its spirit came from the same brilliant intellect that inspired its composition. “Humor,” he said, “comes from the tension between pity and mirth, sympathy and antipathy, rationality and irrationality, or phlegm and bile…every composer or artist must be able to express humor, as it provides the raw material for art.”
During his student years, he was more influenced by the Theater of the Absurd, Ionesco, Albee and Beckett, than by experimental composers like John Cage. His niece Miriam Meyerhoff, commenting on her love of contrepétéries and other puns, suggests that “her appreciation of the absurd was existentialist: her joy in the pun and the expressiveness of her music were intended to create a purpose for our journey across a large and indifferent universe”.
He spent a few years teaching and composing at the University of Glasgow, and a stint in administration at the Chapter Arts Center in Cardiff. From 1985 he worked in Edinburgh as a prolific freelance composer, earning a living largely from commissions.
In 1978, he won the prestigious Ian Whyte Award for his work Salm, written the previous year. It was a turning point in his career – Britain’s premier award for composers under 35. He had resided in the UK just long enough to qualify. Salm is a magnificent piece of orchestral writing, beginning with a decorated melismatic solo cello line, with an almost medieval flavor, and gradually gaining in complexity. Drawing on the traditional practice of chanting psalms by Gaelic-speaking congregations, Cresswell has created a thrilling texture of weaving melodies and dramatic climaxes with fierce percussion.
It was 1986 before New Zealand audiences heard Salme, but in 1983 the NZSO created its extrovert O! for orchestra, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Salvation Army in New Zealand. These powerfully expressive works find their origin in musical ideas, psalms and hymns.
He often found inspiration in the visual arts and literature. His piano work The art of black and white explores the links between painting and music in movements called Acquerello (watercolor), Mezzotinto and Chiaroscuro. His orchestral work, Ylur, is accompanied by pastel drawings on sandpaper by his Italian friend Maurizio Bottarelli; the music and the drawings offer perspectives on research to understand pain. He enjoyed collaborating with poets, especially his friends Ron Butlin in Scotland and Fiona Farrell, with whom he wrote the Christchurch Earthquake-inspired song cycle for the NZSO, The clock stops, in 2013.
Cresswell’s music has been performed widely in New Zealand, Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, including at the Warsaw Autumn and the BBC Proms. He has received numerous awards and honours, including a Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award (2001), an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the University of Victoria (2002) and the first Elgar Fellowship in 2002. In 2006-07 he was been Creative New Zealand/New Zealand School of Music Composer in Residence, and he and Catherine lived in Wellington at the Lilburn Residence that year. In 2016 he received an Arts Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.
He had a knack for lifelong, faithful friendship with many friends from his student days. One of his first close Scottish friends was composer Edward Harper, who presented Cresswell’s first Scottish performance with his New Music Group in the 1970s. Cresswell said Harper’s early support was one of the reasons for which he remained. Decades later, with Harper suffering from terminal cancer, Cresswell wrote the inner movements of his 1st Piano Concerto and completed the work after his friend’s death in 2009, dedicating it to Harper. The first of the seven movements is a Funeral paradebut he described the final Presto as “a bit of a romp”, knowing that Harper would have gotten the joke.
New Zealand pianist Stephen de Pledge, for whom the concerto was commissioned and who has performed and recorded it many times, considers it to be New Zealand’s greatest piano concerto. “The piano is like a gigantic sounding board, from which emerge resonances and extensions throughout the orchestra. And man, that’s hard!” Cresswell was no pianist but wrote fearlessly and idiomatically for the instrument. He won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award in 2011 for this concerto.
Possessing a great work ethic and commitment to completing projects, he kept busy until the end of his life. His 3rd Piano Concerto was sent to de Pledge late last year, and he was relieved to learn in his final days that a performance date had been set. He also wrote a typically idiosyncratic memoir, the fascinating content of which is arranged in an original and composerly way, and handed it over to friends in New Zealand for publication. He passed away peacefully at his home in Edinburgh, from liver cancer complicated by Covid-19, holding Catherine’s hand, surrounded by beloved works of art and with good friends nearby.
When he received his laureate award in 2016, he said, “When I write music, I write my autobiography. If I had to use words, I would tell a lot of lies, but when I’m writing music, it’s impossible for me to lie. I give my vision of the world and I hope that from time to time it will resonate with others. That’s all I ask.
Sources: Max Cresswell, Miriam Meyerhoff, Stephen de Pledge, RNZ.