Peter Wishart (1921–1984)

Peter WishartPeter Wishart read music at Birmingham University, and went on to finish his education in post-war Paris, studying privately with Nadia Boulanger. A fluent and versatile artist who wrote with equal success for the stage, concert hall and radio, he combined composition, conducting and accompanying with a distinguished academic career as lecturer at the Birmingham School of Music, and at the Guildhall School of Music, before his appointment in 1977 as Professor at Reading University.

Works for voices occupy an important place in Wishart’s output, his musical style, in which incisive rhythm and piquant harmony give force and direction to a highly personal lyricism, being well suited to the setting of words in a distinctively 20th-century idiom. In the three-act comedy The Clandestine Marriage, to a libretto by Dan Roberts after the play by Colman and Garrick, its potential for satire is to the fore. Its scope for the powerful expression of varied poetical moods and emotions is fully revealed in the composer’s non-dramatic vocal pieces such as the Twelve Songs for medium voice and piano, with poems by Anon, Cowper, Graves and Waddell, and To the Holy Spirit, for soprano and small instrumental ensemble.

Though opera and song were central to Wishart’s creative endeavours, he was no less committed to enriching other forms of vocal music. His chief contributions to the English choral repertoire include a festal Te Deum, to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II, and the choral symphony Then out of the Sweet, Warm Weather, notable for its setting of George Meredith’s ‘The Lark Ascending’. On a smaller scale, the Five Elegies, with words by Marvell, Nashe, Sidney, Spenser and the author of 2 Samuel, demonstrate the breadth and sensitivity of his reading, also reflected in the choice of early English and traditional Latin texts for the Easter cantata Meditations and Mysteries.

An impressive half-hour Concerto for Orchestra and a Concerto for Violin, Woodwind and Brass stand beside the two symphonies as the summit of Wishart’s achievement in the sphere of purely instrumental music. In a lighter vein, the Divisions for orchestra offer the composer’s personal homage to Edvard Grieg, while the Five Pieces for Strings feature an attractive Fanfare, Fuga and Pibroch.

An accomplished practical musician and writer on music, Peter Wishart contributed articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and with his wife the singer Maureen Lehane edited three volumes of realisations of Purcell songs. Other publications include an influential textbook on harmony and Messiah Ornamented, a fascinating study in vocal ornamentation, pertinent reading for any singer preparing solo numbers from Handel’s masterpiece.