|[This article is by Rachel Bowers, organist at St Michael’s, Butcombe, and a major contributor to the Wrington Cyber Reading Room, for which she runs sessions in the John Locke Room. Her interest in the composer is particularly interesting for members and patrons of Wrington Choral Society, which gave a première performance of some of his work, conducted by him, in 1953 – Ed]|
My interest in the composer Robin Milford began about two years ago. Whilst idly browsing the internet, I casually ran a search on the word ‘Butcombe’, and amongst the many references to beer and holiday accommodation, I saw a reference to The British Music Society. As a musician I was both interested and taken aback, as I did not know Butcombe had any significant musical connections. Reading further, I discovered that the English composer Robin Milford lived here from 1946-54, and was organist here during that time.
Having never previously heard of Robin Milford, I began to research further, and from a biography and some conversations with people who knew him I have been able to build up a picture of the man and his music.
Robin Milford was the son of Sir Humphrey Milford, a publisher, who set up the music department of the Oxford University Press. Robin grew up in Surrey, and was later educated at Rugby school, then the Royal College of Music. He was a pupil of Vaughan Williams and Holst, and was a lifelong friend of Gerald Finzi, and there is ample evidence of these influences in his music, which is mainly of this ‘English’ style.
Early in his career Robin Milford took over the direction of the Leith Hill choir, in Surrey, and a large proportion of his early compositions were for voice, both choral and solo. He wrote a number of cantatas, one of which, ‘The Passing Year’, had its first performance by Wrington Choral Society in the Memorial Hall in March 1953. He also wrote larger works, including an oratorio, a symphony, various overtures and incidental music for radio plays, as well as many chamber works, organ works and anthems. He also taught music in schools, and whilst living here taught at Badminton School in Bristol. A number of choral pieces for women’s voices date from this time, and were presumably written for the girls’ choir.
Robin Milford’s wife, Kirstie (Newsom), had family in Blagdon, and presumably this influenced their move to this area from Berkshire in 1946. It was also in part a change of scene, to aid recovery after the tragic death of their young son in 1941, which had badly affected Robin’s health, and his work. For most of his Butcombe years he remained in poor health and not able to work as much as he would have liked, although he continued to compose, and also worked as a music reviewer and critic for the BBC in Bristol. Whilst most of his major works were written in the pre-war years, I have found a few printed copies of works created here in Butcombe. Many more remain as unpublished manuscripts, and are now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
During his lifetime Milford was well known in the musical world, although his work was never widely performed. His music is now largely forgotten, most being out of print and not recorded. Milford is however still recognised among those interested in 20th Century English music, and his songs in particular are still performed and recorded promoted in the academic world. He is credited by some with re-introducing the recorder as a serious instrument into English music, after an absence of several hundred years.
If anyone has any information that could help in my research I would be very pleased to hear from you. I am building a collection of Milford’s published works, and would like to arrange for some of his work to be performed locally, to mark his centenary year in 2003.