John Maxwell Geddes

Scottish Music Centre

John Maxwell Geddes (b. 1941) - Full biography

John Maxwell Geddes

John Maxwell Geddes was born in Glasgow in 1941 and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music under Gordon Cameron and Frank Spedding. He won the RSAM Prize in composition and a scholarship which enabled him to study with Niels Viggo Bentzon in Copenhagen.

There are several strands to Geddes' music - various genres attract him; his orchestral music, ensemble music, solo virtuoso pieces, arrangements of folk songs and transcriptions of Renaissance music are often informed by his interest in history, archaeology, astronomy and science fiction.

This has given rise to a wide variety of highly successful works, encompassing the surreal humour of Leo, Dreaming..., a quest for timelessness (in Lacuna and the Callanish pieces) and a subtle manipulation of historical accuracy and stylistic authenticity (Wolf of Badenoch, Dances at Threave, Ane Buke O Courtlie Ayres). But Geddes is essentially a composer in the symphonic tradition, and his most impressive work has been written for orchestral forces, although not necessarily in symphonic form or length. His early work revealed a rather tense, almost nervous undercurrent but he has subsequently grown more expansive, while his latest works foretell a growing suggestion of a near-mystical sense of serenity.

Works from the seventies include the Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1972), a Connoisseur Concerts commission for Evelyn Barbirolli and Iris Loveridge, and Rune for chorus and orchestra (1973), commissioned by the John Currie Singers. This period also saw the beginning of an on-going series of virtuoso solo pieces: Solos for Oboe or Cor (1974) and Apt for Viola (1976). It is also the time of the Symphony No.1 (1975) - a BBC commission premiered by Christopher Seaman and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The late Bryden Thomson, indefatigable champion of new music, did much to promote Geddes' music; he had conducted the Three Orchestral Pieces (1964) in Scandinavia in the 1960s, and Portrait of a City (1971) with both the BBC SSO and the BBC Northern. Thomson commissioned Lacuna (1977) for the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and conducted the premiere on Norwegian Radio, later performing the work with the SSO and SNO. The North American premiere followed. He commissioned Ombre (1984) for the BBC Philharmonic and gave the work public and broadcast performances in Manchester and Dublin. The Scottish premiere was later given by the BBC SSO (1988) and its Russian premiere in 1990 (Rostov Philharmonic).

Geddes was associate professor at Oregon State University (1979-80), where he received a research award for his Project Ludwig, a computer-based study of Xenakis. During this period he was guest lecturer at many American universities, including Berkeley, Stanford, Mills, Washington State, Santa Barbara, Oregon and Warner Pacific. Since 1985 he has been a regular visitor to the Meistersinger Konservatorium, Nuremberg, and in 1987 he received the Goethe Institute Award to study German language and culture in Berlin; after this course of study, he gave lectures for the British Council in Berlin and in the Hochschule in Freiburg and Stuttgart. In the same year he was guest of honour at the Warsaw Autumn Festival.

Many of his works have been performed in Russia, and in 1989 he lectured in the Institute for Music (Rachmaninoff Conservatoire) and in the Institute for the Perfection of Teachers' Knowledge, Rostov on Don. He was guest of honour at the Don Spring Festival 1989 and the Sholokov Spring Festival in 1990. In 1991, Leo, Dreaming... (1988) and Callanish IV (1978) were broadcast on Radio Moscow as was the Sonata for Cello and Piano, commissioned by the Silver-Fitzpatrick Duo and performed by Alla Vassilyeva and Alexei Smitov at the Prokofiev Centenary Festival and the St Petersburg Jubilee Festival 1991. Cappella Nova's Russian premiere of In Tempore Belli (1991) was given a standing ovation in Surb Ketch in May 1991. The period saw a flood of folk song settings; A Burns Collection (1990) for Irene Drummond and Ecossaise, Seven Scots Songs (1989), and Lasses, Love and Life (1991) for the late Susan Kessler and Roger Vignoles.

Perhaps best known of his orchestral works is Voyager (1985), a BBC commission for European Music Year, performed in the new SSO centre at its opening in December 1985. The conductor on that occasion was Jerzy Maksymiuk, who later sent the SSO and Voyager into heady orbit at the Xenakis Festival, at the London Proms, Warsaw Autumn Festival, Bialystock, on Polish Television and several performances in Germany. The BBC has broadcast this work many times. In 1989, Voyager received both its American premiere (Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra/Robertson) and its Russian premiere (Rostov Philharmonic/Kogan). Bryden Thomson felt that, together with Lacuna and Ombre, Voyager made a trilogy, and he had programmed them together for RSO performance. James Loughran took over the project, and the trilogy was performed in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee in April 1992. Bryden Thomson commissioned Symphony No.2 only months before his untimely death in 1991. The piece bears the superscription In memoriam Bryden Thomson. It was fitting that his many friends in the SSO gave the work its premiere in January 1993; further performances have taken place in Britain and abroad, to much critical acclaim.

In 1993 Geddes toured with the BBC SSO in Germany (Symphony No.2) and in Bavaria with Trio Ecosse (Trio, Dances of the Scottish Court). A commission from the Dumfries and Galloway Festival, Dances at Threave was premiered by the BBC SSO and has proved popular with many amateur orchestras. The following year saw the Oboe Concerto, commissioned by Paragon Ensemble. The oboist Jonathan Small has since performed the work in many British cities.

Other commissions for youth followed; Soundposts (for the Post Office), for the National Youth String Orchestra of Scotland, Bardsangs (Dumfries and Galloway Festival), Postlude (Hillhead Strings) and A Castle Suite (Castle Toward and Strathclyde Regional Council). In 1995 he completed Grande Etude d'Execution Transcendente, a virtuoso work for solo trumpet, commissioned by Nigel Boddice. Voyager continued to feature at concerts at home and abroad (Glasgow in 1996 and Winterthur, Switzerland in 1997). His film score Before Winter Winds (1996) was featured at the International Celtic Film Festival in Wales, the Edinburgh Film Festival and on BBC 2.

In 1994, Geddes completed a three year period as composer in residence in Dumfries. The following year he was in residence in Dunfermline, and at the Schwabach Festival, Bavaria. The complete Callanish cycle was performed in several German cities, together with Leo, Dreaming... In Schwabach, he conducted the German premiere of A Young Person's Guide to the Galaxy. In 1996 he was composer in residence at Christopher Newport University in Virginia; in 1997 in Musikkollegium Winterthur, Switzerland, and with Weltblech who performed Wolf of Badenoch in Hamburg and Berlin. Premieres in 1997 included Stars over Carnac for guitar and A Caledonian Pageant, written for Glasgow Chamber Orchestra.

During 1998 Geddes completed the Sinfonietta for three string orchestras and the Guitar Concerto. He conducted premieres of both works in 1999. The Third Symphony, completed in 1999, received Dutch, German and British premieres in Summer 2000 (NYOS / Sian Edwards). The work was recorded and broadcast by Radio Berlin and subsequently on Radio 3.

In 2000 Geddes completed another orchestral work, The Hill House... a celebration, and conducted the premiere with Helensburgh Orchestral Society in March 2001. Dances at Threave passed its hundredth performance and Geddes attended the International Youth Orchestra course in Bremen for the German premiere. The Belgian, Latvian and French premieres followed. The work was performed by the National Children's Orchestra of Scotland in Glasgow (April 2001) and the RSAMD Junior Orchestra (June 2001).

2002 saw the British and German premieres of Strathclyde Dances, and the London premiere of Trout Fishing Cancelled for the Golden Section. Two commissioned works for the golden jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen were premiered: Into the Age of Gold ( East Dumbartonshire Schools' Symphony Orchestra) and A Burns Quartet (Ayr Choral Society). He received the Lord Provost of Glasgow's commendation certificate for the Performing Arts (2001). In 2003 Mark O'Keefe performed several new virtuoso pieces for solo trumpet, including The Trouble with Tritons at the Edinburgh Festival and the Irish premiere in Galway. The BBC SSO performed Lacuna under Douglas Boyd, and the Bremen Philharmonic performed Voyager under Heiner Buhllmann. In March 2003 Geddes was created a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

2004 saw the premieres of several new virtuoso trumpet pieces (Mark O'Keeffe) including the Estonian premiere of Resident Villain; the Irish premieres (RIAM) of Resident Villain, Knight Errant and Grande Etude. There were several new works for Youth Orchestras, and the American and British premieres of a new version of Dances at Threave (concert band) - the original orchestral version of Dances at Threave passed its 200th known performance worldwide. But 2004 can be thought of as the Year of the Cat, with the Norwegian premiere of Leo, Dreaming... (John Kenny), the British premiere of Kitty Kaikai (settings of the cat haikus of George Bruce) in Marischal College, Aberdeen, and a Radio 3 commission Alley Cat, for trombone and orchestra premiered by the BBC SSO/Christopher Austin (with soloist Simon Johnson) in The MacRobert Centre, Stirling.

In 2005 there were many performances of the trumpet pieces; Cork Festival, Shannon Festival, St. Magnus festival, and premieres in Texas and New Zealand. The Hill House, and Dances of the Scottish Court received German premieres (Bremen and Nuremberg). Alley Cat received its Radio 3 premiere (BBC SSO) and the TV premiere followed in March 2006. In the same month, Geddes conducted the world premiere of Capriccietto (ACMS, Aberdeen). There was an hour long portrait on Bavarian Radio and the German premiere of In Tempore Belli (Dufay Singers, Nuremberg). The Oboe Concerto received further performances in Glasgow and Edinburgh (Stephane Rancourt and Paragon Ensemble conducted by Jason Lai.)

The major orchestral work of 2007 was a NYOS commission Gemini, given premieres by NYOS/Christof Muller in Holland, Berlin and the UK; and a commission from the McLellan Festival produced Confluens for violin and piano.

In 2007 Geddes became one of the few composers to be decorated with the prestigious Creative Scotland Award. This funded new music for a professional ensemble that incorporated ideas and material created by young people in practical workshops.

The New Vistas project produced a clutch of new works by pupils from different parts of Scotland, all performed by Paragon Ensemble. In addition, Geddes produced four new works for Paragon, and several structures for improvisation (2008). Three new songs were published for the National Youth Choir of Scotland in their Sing Bronze, Silver, Gold series. In 2009 Dances at Threave had performances in Wales, Ayrshire, Fife, Borders, Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 2010 the work received its Irish premiere (Dublin) and Czech premiere (Prague).

Callanish IV was performed in RNCM Manchester and Glasgow, and Coronach in Central Washington University (May 2010). Resident Villain in many Scottish Regions and premieres in Dublin and Prague. There were several works written for Paragon, including Android Dreams (2009) and The Quaker's Wife (2009) which had UK and German performances.

Continuing trips to Nuremberg in 2009 and 2010 saw various works performed: Three Bavarian Dances, commissioned by Stefan Grasse Trio received its German premiere in June 2010; there were ten performances, including Dresden, Leipzig, and various Bavarian venues. A Creative Scotland grant financed a new work for wind quintet (WAKA) which was premiered at two seventieth-birthday JMG/Paragon concerts in June 2011 in Helensburgh and Glasgow University. These included his other quintets – Quango (2005), From Davy Jones's Locker (2008) and another new commission A Scottish Folksong Suite (Paragon/RVW TRust 2011).

A commission from St Magnus International Festival for Fretwork was performed in St Magnus Cathedral. SCO, Pure Brass and others featured his music. The RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) featured two works at its PLUG Festival – Wolf of Badenoch (1976) and Solos for Oboe (1974).

Irlandaise for violin and cello (2010) was premiered at The Sage, Gateshead, and several Scottish venues as part of the Mendelssohn International Festival. Birthday celebrations continued with performances in London Guitar Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, further performances in UK, Germany and Poland. WAKA received its German premiere in The Meistersingerkonservatorium Nuremberg, and Bavarian Radio broadcast A Radio Portrait The composer JMG.

2012 saw several local performances by Glasgow Sinfonia, Glasgow Orchestral Society, Glasgow Schools Symphony Orchestra. The BBC SSO performed Ombre (1984) and a new commission (Ayr Arts Guild/Radio 3) An Ayshire Suite in December.

Further afield there were performances in London, Canterbury,Newport, several German cities and St Petersburg.

In 2013 Alan Neave performed Callanish V in Belfast and Adrian Mantu and Nicola Geddes gave the premiere of Irlandaise at the Galway Festival. The RSNO gave six performances of Postlude in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Perth  

Several new works  were completed in 2013: a fanfare for symphonic brass, commissioned by Glasgow Orchestral Society, Let Glasgow Flourish receives its premiere in March 2014; Elegyand Klagelied for Wolfgang Graetschel were premiered at the  Hochschulekonzert Nuremberg in November 2013; and in December 2013 the Prelude for Strings was completed. 

But above all, this disc is a wonderful portrait of John Maxwell Geddes, whose genius for characterisation, from solemnity to elemental bellowing to slurping drunkenness (via Handel's Messiah), through the nostalgia of music hall and the outrageous hi-jinks of Rank Bajin, is represented in six glorious compositions.
Herald