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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Reginald Smith Brindle and composition


‘By the time I had finished [René Leibowitz’ Schoenberg et son école – Schoenberg and His School.] I assumed I knew all I needed to know about serialism, except for the most vital fact – that no system or technique can in itself produce musicality.’


I absolutely love this passage of theory and reality. How many composers have travelled this road to the eternal wonderland of twelve-tone serial solutions? I did. In her underwhelming book on Boulez, Joan Peyser did make the abstract link of complex musical notation as art; it looks quite magical. So was it the appearance of this music on paper that blinded Smith Brindle, because he obviously didn’t ‘hear’ his composition. He goes on to describe the Act of Revelation:


‘Having been seduced most by Webern’s intellectualisms, which have quite an appeal in that once a certain systematic pattern or plan is created, the rest of the music can follow almost automatically, I fell for such an ingenious concept, and wrote an extended piece for organ. When I tried it out on the organ in the Anglican church, the result was brutal in the extreme. Horrific.’


You can just imagine the young composer alone (hopefully) in the organ loft, stops pulled out, fingers at the ready and the sheer excitement of anticipation. And then the reality; a manic Phantom of the Opera, a cacophony of dissonance, gargoyles crashing to the floor and Beelzebub himself screaming ‘shut the f**k up’.


‘This puzzled me enormously, so I rang my friend Alvaro Company, who I thought may have some ideas. He put his finger on my error immediately, pointing out that it is not the system which creates beauty, indeed on its own it may only produce ugliness. Instead, beauty can only come from within ourselves…’

Indeed, it does Reginald, indeed it does.


Smith Brindle’s output of chamber and vocal music, seems low in output but high in quality. He is known, quite rightly for his works for solo guitar; his most famous being the Lorca inspired El Polifemo de Oro (1956). The work was recorded by the great Julian Bream in 1966. Other works about this time include a String Quartet, Wind Quintet and a Concerto for Five Instruments and Percussion (1960). His early vocal pieces show the influence of Luigi Dallapiccola both in word setting and instrumentation, culminating in his opera The Death of Antigone.

The late 1950s show the influence of science, science fiction, for example, in Cosmos (1959), Homage to HG Wells (1960) and Andromeda for solo flute (1966) and the percussion work Auriga (1967). His later works saw a resumption of composition for guitar – including five sonatas – and organ, many of the latter with evocative Latin titles. The zenith of this final phase was reached in his Second Symphony, Veni Creator (1989). He stopped composing in 1999.


As we have seen, he made an impression in the avant-garde days of the 1960s and 1970s with a series of books for Oxford University Press, most notably Serial Composition (1966).


Smith Brindle was a distinguished painter. He was also a highly regarded teacher and liked by his students.


Reginald Smith Brindle has contributed hugely to the world of musical composition, but he did it quietly and is now, a sadly neglected figure in the world of music and music composition. In this guitar recital by Federico Pendenza, Late Music celebrates the life, teaching and creativity of this remarkable man.


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