Born near Edinburgh. Studied privately with Hans Gal and then with Benjamin Frankel at the Guildhall School of Music. His works include two quartets (1949, 19567), still regularly performed today. Between 1970 and 1985 he was a music producer with BBC Scotland, and a number of commissions followed his retirement including an octet for the University of Glasgow and a Sonata for the Scottish International Piano Competition. His most recent work was his Symphonic Study: Lunula, commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Spring 1998.
Robert Crawford was born near Edinburgh in 1925 and was given violin lessons from the age of five. He started composing while still at school aged about fifteen. He then studied privately with Hans Gal before going to London in 1945, where he studied composition with Benjamin Frankel, taking the viola as his second study at the Guildhall School of Music. There he was awarded the Wainwright Memorial Scholarship and won the Prize of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
Returning to Edinburgh in 1949 he wrote the String Quartet No.1 which was performed at the 1951 ISCM Festival at Frankfurt-a-M, as well as winning the prize offered by the Scottish Arts Council for a chamber work, during the Festival of Britain. This work is still in the repertoire of the Edinburgh Quartet, along with the String Quartet No.2 which was the McEwen Commission from the University of Glasgow in 1956.
Referring to the Quartet No.1 when it was first published by Augener, Ivor Keys wrote in Music and Letters, October 1954: Robert Crawford’s Quartet is a work of remarkable technique both in its construction and in its writing for the instruments, where the composer leaves us in no doubt that he knows his business… Conrad Wilson, referring to the same work in the Scotsman of 16th November 1988 wrote: Most of Scotland’s leading composers have produced at least one string quartet, and the Edinburgh Quartet is presenting a selection of these works, some of them new to the modern Scottish repertoire, but one of them, yesterday’s, arguably its fountainhead. This was Robert Crawford’s Quartet, Op. 4, the first of his two works in the form, written in 1951. Nearly 40 years later, its four taut interlinked movements, filled with anxious Nordic undercurrents, still grip the attention in a performance alert to their harmonic tensions and ambiguities…
In 1956 he wrote his String Quartet No.2 when commissioned by the University of Glasgow under the terms of the McEwen Bequest. After the first two performances at the McEwen concert in May 1957, Christopher Grier wrote in the Scotsman of 9th May: ‘The passing discordancy, very often deriving f rom a highly disciplined linear texture rather than from chordal frontal assaults, is handled with such elegance and even wit that its wounding sting is drawn, it is very subtly done. The overall impression is of an attractive astringency, and sometimes of real beauty.’
Reviewing the same work at a more recent performance, David Johnson wrote in the Glasgow Herald in 1983: ‘Crawford’s piece is one of the finest quartets of the second half of the twentieth century, and I don’t mean merely among those composed in Scotland. Its intellectual intensity is personal to Crawford. Not a note is out of place … it is high time Crawford gave us a few more masterpieces. They are a rare commodity.’
Crawford was a Music Producer with the BBC in Glasgow from 1970 to 1985, producing a wide range of programmes from chamber music for Radio Three to Brass Bands and Piping programmes on Radio Scotland. This did not allow him any time for composition, but was valuable experience in widening his musical horizons. After he retired from the BBC in 1985 he was given his second McEwen Commission by the University of Glasgow in 1986 and he wrote the Octet Ricercare for the same group of instruments as Schubert’s Octet . It was given its first performance at the McEwen Concert in May 1987 along with a performance of the Schubert by the Allander Ensemble.
Ian Robertson wrote in the Times Educational Supplement on 22nd May 1987: ‘To give up composition entirely is far easier than to return to it after such a long interval. Mr Crawford’s former virtue of high craft and musical integrity are thoroughly intact on the evidence of this concise but substantial new work. All in all, a courageous return and a worthy achievement made this unusual premiere especially significant.’
In 1991 two commissions came his way, both for solo piano. He had already started work on a Viola Concerto, and had not intended to write any piano music at that time, but he could hardly turn them down. Peter Seivewright commissioned A Saltire Sonata, a work which had been in the composer’s mind for nearly thirty years. No more than the opening bars had actually been written down at that time, in response to a suggestion from Isobel Dunlop to write a piece for her Saltire Society concerts. The premiere was given in Glasgow on 3rd March 1992.
The Sonata Breve was commissioned by the Scottish International Piano Competition, likewise with subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council, for use as a set piece during the Competition in September 1992 when it was played by eleven semi-finalists. It was also performed elsewhere by several of the competitors. As a result of the reception given to this work further commissions were forthcoming.
The Clarinet Quintet which was commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet was completed in early December 1992, and given its first performance on 23rd March 1993 at Hutcheson’s Hall, Glasgow, by the Edinburgh Quartet with Douglas Mitchell. The very short Sketch for a Ground which was written for a broadcast tribute to Hans Gal was extended as originally planned, and performed by John Turner and Peter Lawson at the Cheltenham International Festival of Music in July 1993, as Variations on a Ground for Treble Recorder and Piano
The Variations on an Original Theme for Two Pianos was commissioned by Jean and Jack Keaney and given its first performance by them in April 1994 in the Stevenson Hall at the RSAMD in Glasgow.
The Second String Quartet, his most frequently played work, was played at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 1995 at a BBC Invitation Concert, one of three concerts entitled Scottish PremiÃ¨res each of which included the first performance of a work commissioned by the BBC from a young Scottish composer, along with other pieces by established Scottish composers. It was played again by the splendid Yggdrasil Quartet of Aberdeen who had given a performance in Aberdeen in January.
Michael Tumelty wrote in the Herald of 28th August 1995: ‘…and Robert Crawford’s second Quartet, a masterly work of serene austerity and terse wit.’
In the Scotsman of the same day, Mary Miller wrote: ‘Robert Crawford’s Second Quartet, from 1956, is a superbly shapely work, … strong, aching melodic exchanges, … just the stuff for the Yggdrasil Quartet.’
Crawford completed the commission from ECAT (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust) for a piece for brass quintet and percussion in early August 1995. Hammered Brass was given its premiÃ¨re by the Wallace Collection on the 9th November 1995 and it was reviewed by Conrad Wilson for the Herald on 11th November 1995 (1), and for the Scotsman on 13th November 1995 by George Wilson (2) (no relation):
(1) ‘This fastidious Scottish composer’s latest piece, indeed, was a work of great subtlety, scrupulously weighted in tone and texture … in which every note mattered.’
(2) ‘The thrill of the evening was, however, the premiere of Robert Crawford’s Hammered Brass. Percussion and brass instruments sang and intermingled seamlessly. Crawford’s foot-sure sense of possibilities never seemed to restrain his imagination and we were eager for more.’
Early in 1997 Crawford accepted a commission from Radio Three for a short orchestral work for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The Symphonic Study: Lunula was completed in September of that year and given its first performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thierry Fischer at Ayr Town Hall on 26th March 1998, when it was recorded for later transmission on BBC Radio Three.
Michael Tumelty writing for the Herald: ‘… of Robert Crawford’s Symphonic Study: Lunula the BBC should commission something else orchestral from the immensely talented septuagenarian before he gets any older. …With its purposeful tread, purity of texture and myriad delights of detail … this first performance conducted by Thierry Fischer must not be allowed to be the last.’
In the Scotsman Kenneth Walton wrote: ‘there is an element of classicism in Crawford’s intelligently crafted Lunula which delights in controlled understatement … it is the artful work of a quiet man.’
The following artists have given performances of some of Crawford’s music:
Ilona Kabos, Ronald Stevenson, John Ogden, Miles Coverdale, Alexander Kelly, Bernard Sumner and Yoland Wrigley.
Piano Sonata No.2
Joyce Riddell, ilona Kabos, Alexander Kelly, Mary Firth, Wight Henderson, Peter Seivewright.
String Quartet No.1
Berlin String Quartet (ISCM Festival 1951), New Edinburgh String Quartet, Aeolian String Quartet, Martin String Quartet, Edinburgh Quartet
String Quartet No.2
Lyra Quartet, New Edinburgh Quartet, Edinburgh Quartet, Romanian Quartet, Yggdrasil Quartet of Aberdeen
Allander Ensemble, Hebrides Ensemble