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Michael Head

born: 28 January 1900
died: 24 August 1976
country: United Kingdom

Born in Eastbourne on 28 January 1900, Michael Dewar Head began studying music seriously from the age of twelve, learning to play the piano with Jean Adair, a pupil of Clara Schumann. His potential talent as a singer was also apparent and he studied singing with Fritz Marston. Having been rejected for military service in January 1918, Head was directed to work in a munitions factory; following this he undertook land work in Dorset. In 1919 his first song, The ships of Arcady, was published and he entered the Royal Academy of Music to study composition with Frederick Corder. Curiously, given its importance in his subsequent career, he did not study singing any further while there. At the Academy, Head became friends with a fellow composer, Alan Bush, who performed his Concerto for Piano and Strings there in 1922. The following year it was performed again by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, played by another friend, Maurice Cole, and conducted by Sir Dan Godfrey.

Head composed more songs during the 1920s, and in 1927 he was appointed professor of piano at the Academy, a post he held until his retirement. Two years later he sang to Sir George Henschel, who encouraged him to follow his own singular practice of performing both as singer and accompanist. Head embraced the proposal, giving his first recital in January 1930, and he continued to perform in this manner throughout the rest of his career with conspicuous success. In the next decade two other strands of work, adjudication and examining, commenced. By 1939 he had written some fifty songs, but during the war he sought the advice of Alan Bush, by now his brother-in-law, which led to Head’s studying with him. Also at this time Head played in many chamber concerts across the country under the auspices of CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), and he established himself as a broadcaster.

After the war Head’s adjudication and examination activities expanded with tours abroad, including to Canada, during which he also gave his most ambitious broadcast ‘The History of Song in Words and Music’ for CBC Transatlantic Canada. In 1952 he made his first recital tour to the USA and established a duo partnership with the oboist Evelyn Rothwell, for whom he composed his Elegiac Dance and Presto (both 1954). To this decade also belong a children’s opera, The Bachelor Mouse (1951), with a libretto by his sister Nancy, and incidental music for a series of radio plays by Pamela Hansford Johnson based on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Although song-writing remained his core compositional activity, his range broadened during the 1960s and 1970s: he composed a cantata Daphne and Apollo (1964), with a text by his sister, who also provided librettos for several satirical one-act light operas including After the Wedding (1970), first performed at the Royal Academy in 1972 under the baton of a student conductor—Simon Rattle. After retiring from the Academy in 1975 Head continued working for the Associated Board of the Royal Colleges of Music, and he was on a tour examining in South Africa when he died on 24 August 1976 in Cape Town.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 2012


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