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Andrew Downes

Andrew Downes was born in Handsworth, Birmingham, in 1950, into a well-known Midlands family of musicians. He won a choral scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he specialised in composition, and in 1974 went on to study at the Royal College of Music with Herbert Howells, who wrote of him as ‘one of the most effective composers coming to me these days. I have very considerable hopes for him’. His emergence as a leading international composer was combined with a strong academic profile as an innovative and inspired educator: he created and was Head of the School of Composition and Creative Studies at the Birmingham School of Music (now Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) for 30 years, and following his retirement, devoted himself solely to composition. His output included an opera, six symphonies, numerous concerti and chamber works, song cycles, piano music and a large body of choral and sacred music. 

Downes’s music has been performed in many leading concert halls, cathedrals and festivals worldwide, and has been broadcast on BBC Radios 2, 3 and 4, BBC TV, Czech Radio, France Musique, Italian TV, Austrian Radio, Dutch Radio and Central Peking Radio. Over 20 CDs of his music have been issued on a range of labels, plus a DVD of his opera Far from the Madding Crowd. His numerous commissions included The Marshes of Glynn, for the Royal Opening of Birmingham’s Adrian Boult Hall in 1986; the Overture In the Cotswolds for the opening concert of the Three Choirs Festival; song cycles for Sarah Walker and John Mitchinson, both premièred on BBC Radio 3; anthems for the BBC Radio 4 Daily Service; and the overture Towards a New Age, premièred by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Downes’s Concerto for Four Horns and Orchestra was commissioned for and premièred by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the Dvorak Hall, Prague, in 2002, and recorded by Czech Radio the following year. His Sonata for Violin, Horn and Piano was premièred by the Brahms Trio Prague at the Suk Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, in 2008, and subsequently released internationally on the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Artesmon label. Downes’s Piano and Horn Concertos were premièred at Birmingham UK Town Hall in 2009 and 2012 respectively. Downes’s lyrical gift, with the inflections of the human voice ever discernible, places him squarely in the Late Romantic English tradition and renders him a worthy successor to Howells. So too does his contrapuntal ingenuity and textural athleticism, with the church music of the great Tudor masters frequently recalled. But the indigenous musics of other cultures, and jazz and rock music, are also treasured influences and reflect the depth of responsibility Downes felt as an educator to instruct and enthuse in a broad range of traditions, and not purely in western art music. The Violin Sonata, for instance, is based on Indian rāgas and incorporates striking rhythmic displacements and syncopations to brilliant effect.

Duncan Honeybourne

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