Peter Tranchell

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Born: 14 July 1922

Died: 14 September 1993


For many years Peter Tranchell was a well-known fixture of the Cambridge University Music Faculty – from his appointment as an Assistant Lecturer in 1950 (becoming a full lecturer in 1953) to his retirement in 1989, lecturing to and supervising many generations of students preparing for the Music Tripos. For much of this career he was Precentor (Director of Studies and of Chapel Music) and Fellow of Gonville & Caius College from 1960. A prolific composer, for the time he was at Caius the bulk of his output was written for performance in the college, either for use in chapel services or as cantata-like ‘entertainments’ for May Week concerts.

Tranchell was born on 14th July 1922 in Cuddalore, India. His father Henry (‘H.G.’), an Lieutenant-Colonel formerly of the 2nd Queen Victoria’s Own Rajput Light Infantry, was at the time HM Consul to the French enclave of Pondicherry on the eastern coast of India. Peter spent most of the first four years of his life in India; in 1925 Peter’s brother James was born and his mother Violet brought both children to Eastbourne to be cared for by her father and unmarried sister Celia when she herself returned to India. Violet was the widow of Captain James Shaw, of the same regiment as H.G., and they had a son Micky, Peter’s half-brother. His parents remained together in India for the next ten years, though his mother returned to Eastbourne for occasional extended stays. Although there is scant evidence of a family music tradition beyond domestic piano playing by his mother, Peter showed a strong interest in music from an early age and asked for – and was given – a piano in 1927. He was soon picking out tunes and simple chords.

After his early education at a local pre-prep school, Peter went to the Dragon School (Oxford) in 1930 where he was involved as a pianist in a great deal of instrumental music, and made contact with a local organist who allowed him to play whenever he liked. However there was no significant choral or chapel tradition in the school, singing being confined to the annual Gilbert & Sullivan production – Peter was Pitti-Sing in The Mikado (1934) and a highly-acclaimed Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe (1935). He was never encouraged to learn another musical instrument, so he never had the experience of playing in an orchestra.

He gained a Classics scholarship to Clifton College (Bristol) in 1936 and had a successful musical, academic and ‘establishment’ career, being appointed Head of School in his final term (1941). Early in his time there (1938) his beloved brother James was killed in an accident on his bicycle in Oxford, a loss which Peter felt keenly for the rest of his life. The school had a thriving musical life under Douglas Fox, and Peter was one of several gifted organists and pianists among the pupils, (including David Willcocks, two years his senior). He did not however attempt an organ scholarship to Oxbridge, gaining instead an Exhibition in Classics at King’s College Cambridge. Under wartime regulations this permitted him one year of academic study at the university before he was required to enter the Army. At Cambridge he threw himself into the available musical activities but had no discernible relationship, formal or informal, with the chapel choir. One of his closest friends at this time was Wayland Hilton Young, at Trinity, and they often improvised two-piano duets.

After four years in the Army, serving with the Royal Signals in Malta and Greece, he returned to King’s in November 1946 and negotiated the transition back to academe alongside many other mature returnees, reading for the newly-established Music Tripos under Boris Ord, his Director of Studies at King’s. (When Peter proposed playing some of his beloved Sorabji piano works at a King’s music society concert he discovered that Ord had already ‘vetoed in advance any piece by Sorabji whatever’.) He rapidly became an essential member of the Footlights, writing many numbers for the ‘Smoker’ concerts and the annual revues, becoming their Musical Director (1947 & 1948), and he continued with serious composition – not just for the Music Tripos, where he was awarded a First in 1948. It was in this period that he composed a complete setting (140 pages), which he called ‘The Prodigal Son’, of Matins and Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer. It was an extraordinary enterprise on which he spent months of effort. He was at the time close to Jane Scott (married to Peter Scott, who was Wayland Young’s half-brother; she later emerged as the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard) and she was disapproving of the whole enterprise – her view was that he should concentrate on writing instrumental works or get started on his projected opera, to be based on one of Hardy’s novels, for which she was intending to write the libretto. Her house was a very convenient base for Peter to stay on visits to London, and she took great interest in his composing career and tried to promote his music to any of her musical friends who might be interested.

He was awarded the MusB in 1949 with reputedly the highest distinction ever given for his performance of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. Indeed, it was while practising this work in his digs in St Barnabas Road he heard through the wall someone in the next-door house playing it back to him. A competition to transpose it into different keys ensued; and it was not long before he encountered the other pianist at the bus stop: Raymond Leppard, in his first year at Trinity. A lifelong close friendship was born, quickly expanding into a triumvirate with the addition of Malcolm Burgess, who was not a musician but a very gifted designer. During the 1950s, when they all resided in Cambridge, they were inseparable. It was at the beginning of this period that Peter became notorious for wearing a dinner jacket to which he had sewn sequins; Raymond Leppard eventually cut it up and burned it…

Peter’s student career completed, he was appointed Deputy Director of Music at Eastbourne College (1949) where his eccentricities made a considerable impression on the boys. He wrote some pieces for the school to perform – incidental music for The Merchant of Venice, and City of God (described as ‘an extravaganza for chorus & orchestra’, based on the hymn tune Richmond) but was also starting serious work on his Hardy opera based on The Mayor of Casterbridge. An outline had been submitted in 1949 to the Arts Council competition for an opera to be performed as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, but it was rejected. Patrick Hadley, Professor of Music at Cambridge, was very supportive of the project and it’s possible he ‘arranged’ for Peter to be appointed an Assistant Lecturer in the faculty (he was certainly invited to apply) so he could work on it under Hadley’s wing and undistracted by schoolmastering.

The libretto was written in collaboration with Peter Bentley, who also produced the performance which was – just about – ready for the amateur production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in July 1951 as part of the Cambridge Festival. It was met with considerable, though not unanimous, acclaim – Eric Blom wrote very enthusiastically in The Observer and carried that over into the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary, which he edited. Peter submitted the score as his ‘thesis’ for a competitive Fellowship at King’s College Cambridge in 1952. The Electors’ voting records show he was a very strong candidate, despite a damning report from Benjamin Britten, until the last round when it seems his candidature was torpedoed in a rather shady fashion, most likely on the intervention of Noel Annan.

The Mayor of Casterbridge was revived in 1959, slightly revised, and conducted at the Arts Theatre by a young Guy Woolfenden, but despite considerable interest it has not been heard since and a revival would pose significant artistic and financial challenges.

Although disappointed not to gain the King’s fellowship, Tranchell continued to work very energetically: he was Director of Studies in Music at Fitzwilliam House from 1950, for which he wrote his second ‘concert entertainment’ Murder at the Towers in 1955 (the first had been Daisy Simpkins for Corpus Christi College in 1954). In collaboration with James Ferman, an American postgraduate student, he wrote the musical Zuleika (Arts Theatre 1954, sets by Malcolm Burgess). This attracted considerable commercial interest and a professional production started a provincial tour in 1956, culminating in a run at the Saville Theatre in 1957. Charles Mackerras re-orchestrated the music and conducted; Osbert Lancaster designed the costumes and sets. This production was plagued by problems and Peter had very little to do with it after some initial consultations and he had produced some new numbers in an increasingly fractious collaboration with Ferman.

Meanwhile during the 1950s he was writing criticism for the Cambridge Review; served as Secretary of the Music Faculty 1956-60 (for the first time, during which he conspired with Raymond Leppard to encourage Thurston Dart’s move to the professorship at London – they both loathed him and what he was trying to do to the Faculty); composing orchestral and instrumental music including incidental music for plays – notably the Cambridge Greek Play; 16 ballets for pantomimes produced at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, directed by Peter Bentley; the first of a series of talks for BBC Radio; and maintaining his lecturing and teaching. During this period he was renting a house in Halifax Road (nicknamed Scallywags’ Road) where he maintained his exceptional work rate while simultaneously entertaining an eclectic group of friends. Peter very much enjoyed two-piano improvisation with a suitably gifted collaborator and Raymond Leppard fitted the bill perfectly. Although he was no longer active in the club, he continued writing amusing songs in the Footlights tradition – some extremely risqué.

Towards the end of the decade Patrick Hadley, who was Precentor of Gonville & Caius as well as Professor, started to wind down his involvement in the college and Peter became more and more involved, becoming successively Director of Studies in Music from 1959, Director of College Music from 1960 when he was elected to a Fellowship, and Precentor from 1962 when Hadley finally retired from his fellowship and the professorship to his house on the Norfolk coast. As a consequence of his responsibility for music in the chapel, his composing became more and more focused on works for the choir to sing at services. However as a gesture towards his relationship with Fitzwilliam (he finally ceased to be their Director of Studies in 1967) he wrote the Fitzwilliam Mass in 1960 (privately expressing a very low opinion of the choir’s abilities – ‘a paralytic choir under a charlie of an organist’). However he records in later letters that it went down very well and had at least one repeat performance. It has recently been arranged by Geoffrey Webber for modern liturgical use, having its first outing at Hampstead Parish Church in May 2022.

Raymond Leppard said that Peter at last felt he had a home at Caius, and loved the college. As well as the music, he threw himself into college life as Domestic Bursar and Keeper of the College Courts and Gardens 1962-1966. He was inspired to write several more Concert Entertainments, now he had a ‘captive’ group of performers and a guaranteed place to perform: Aye, aye, Lucian! (1960), The Mating Season (1962) and The Robot Emperor (1965). There was also His First Mayweek (1963) produced in St Catharine’s College. Several of these were revived by other colleges and later revised by Peter for May Week concerts at Caius. In 1962 he wrote the five Thackeray Ditties for the Cambridge University Madrigal Society’s May Week Concert, which was conducted by Raymond Leppard (with the choir in punts on the Cam and the audience on the banks).

Peter’s last large-scale involvement with the national music scene was the commission to write a ballet for Covent Garden with Rudolf Nureyev, with choreography by Kenneth MacMillan. This had an impossibly short time-scale for its composition so Peter resorted to the time-honoured practice of composers re-using their own music. He drew on some of his Greek play music, a three-movement orchestral work Scherzetto written for CUMS at David Willcocks’s invitation in 1960, a movement from the piano duet Friendly Grotesques (1953), and incidental music from The Jew of Malta (1957). The performance received mixed reviews: Clive Barnes opined ‘inflated, ponderous music’, others found it dense and too filmic. This was yet another setback for Peter; and though Raymond Leppard remarked ‘Peter was amazingly stoical in disappointment’ this was enough. Hereafter he wrote for a more domestic audience, though his former pupil Peter Marchbank commissioned the Festive Overture (1966) and a Concerto Grosso (1972, revised 1977) for the Basingstoke orchestra he was conducting at the time.

When Peter took over the chapel choir in 1960 it was made up of Tenors and Basses; Altos joined in 1972 and after the college became co-residential in 1979 women joined as Sopranos and Altos from 1982. These changes in available forces necessitated transposition of existing works at the very least, and often extensive re-arrangement, so there are often two or three versions extant of many of the more popular works. Peter wrote pieces for the chapel’s liturgical needs, so there are settings of the canticles, some in faux-burden; versicles and responses, given titles reflecting the astrological sign under which they were written; and some substantial anthems, several written for the marriages of former choral exhibitioners. Two carols have become popular recently: 'If ye would hear the angels sing' and 'People, look East'.

An innovation developed in conjunction with Hugh Montefiore when he was Dean in the early 60s were the responsorial psalms. These, together with his straightforward and attractive hymn settings, are ideal as simple anthems. There is a considerable repertoire of men’s voices music, a legacy of the pre-1982 years.

After his retirement Peter lived and entertained in the family home in Hampshire, which he had inherited from his parents. The house and garden required a great deal of maintenance, and he also had a music room built. Regular visits to the opera in London continued, and he was a faithful supporter of Winchester Cathedral Choir and the Southern Cathedrals Festival.

Peter could at times be difficult and prickly with anyone, but more often he was friendly, generously hospitable and endlessly supportive – many of his former students have said how his advice was so often completely perspicacious in guiding them on the right path, and he was much loved.

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