Published: 06/10/2006 00:00 - Updated: 30/11/2011 12:13

World premiere for music of Black Isle genius

John Bevan Baker
John Bevan Baker

THE life of a gifted musician and composer who spent his most fruitful years in Fortrose, and who would have been 80 last May had he lived, is being celebrated with the recording of a world premiere CD of some of his works. Linn Records has released the disc of John Bevan Baker's Songs of Courtship, featuring Hebrides Ensemble and Consort of Voices and composed in 1988, six years before his death. Besides the title composition, a 13-part work for soprano, alto, tenor, bass and piano duet, this all-new recording features many of Bevan Baker's greatest works, including Duo, composed in 1981 and Spring, dating from 1983. Songs of Courtship is a set of poems written by the Chinese poet and song collector Mao Shih in the 7th Century BC and translated from ancient Chinese by Arthur Waley in 1946. Originally set to music for the Black Isle Singers, they are said to "vary greatly in metre and in their treatment of the enigmatic, oriental lyrics, some being light-footed, some more robust, but always rhythmically challenging". The CD booklet features an introduction by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Musick. John Stewart Bevan Baker was born in 1926, in Staines, Middlesex, to an English father, Bevan Braithwaite Baker, professor of mathematics at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and a Scottish mother, Margaret Stewart Barbour an Edinburgh professor's daughter. The youngest of five children John displayed a natural talent for art, music, English and mathematics. In 1949 he was chosen from college to become assistant to the organist of Westminster Abbey. However, the stifling atmosphere of the cathedral proved too oppressive for the young, free-spirited and imaginative John and after two years he left to develop his composing. After a spell conducting adult education lectures and freelance organ-playing in London he moved north in 1958 to Aberdeen to take the position of city carillonneur. This was musically and physically a demanding job, but John liked challenges and the bells rang out over the city all manner of tunes, from the classics and opera, to traditional Scottish melodies, all arranged by John for the 48-bell carillon of the city's St Nicholas Church, the largest carillon in Britain. In Aberdeen he met June Findlay, a research scientist with roots in Montrose. The belfry proved a romantic rendezvous, leading to marriage in 1960 in Aberdeen, a full time teaching post in Robert Gordon's College, home building and the births of five children in quick succession. Sarah, Peter and Kate were born in Aberdeen; Janet and Rachel in Inverness after the family moved to Fortrose, where John was principal teacher of music at Fortrose Academy. From 1975, to find more musical opportunities for a developing musical family, the Bevan Bakers spent some years in Glasgow. It was there that John first met William Conway, a gifted young cellist who later became his son-in-law and is now artistic director of Hebrides Ensemble. William encouraged John to compose, and some works were written especially for him. In 1982, John and June returned to Fortrose. John abandoned the ties of teaching to give his musical creativity the freedom it deserved. His last 12 years in the ancient burgh were full of music making, both in the community and with professional musicians. John loved the Black Isle, its forests and seashore, the history and archaeology of the area, and these were all reflected in his music. He fought to preserve the landscape, and in his own half-acre created a wonderful garden. John Bevan Baker died in 1994, aged only 68. His last work, an opera called The Seer, inspired by the legend of the mysterious Brahan Seer, received its premiere two years after his death.

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