3 March 1886 – 15 December 1948
Reginald Owen Morris was a man much admired and respected by his contemporaries. Always referred to by his initials R.O., even by his friends,
he was one of the first British composers to volunteer at the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914.
Remembered primarily as a teacher, particularly of counterpoint, he was also a composer whose reluctance to promote his own music has led to his works rarely being performed since his death in 1948.
Born in York, he was educated at Harrow School, New College, Oxford and the Royal College of Music. After completing studies at the RCM, he joined the teaching staff at the college.
With the exception of a brief period 1926-28 when he was head of the department of theory at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, his association with the RCM continued for the rest of his career.
R.O. was well-connected. At Oxford, R.O. had become friends with George Butterworth. Although there is no record of R.O. undertaking any field work collecting folk music, R.O. published two collections of English folk songs arranged for choir 1929 and 1931, many pieces of which were those collected by his friend.
At Oxford, R.O. met Captain Francis Bevis Ellis (1883-1916), a conductor and concert promoter (and according to at least one biography also a composer) who used his considerable personal wealth for furthering British music in the early 20th century. Ellis was killed at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916.
R.O. also became acquainted with Hugh Allen, who had been the distinguished organist at New College, and retained a visiting professorship at the college. Both were members of the University Music Club, and their association continued when Allen became the head of the RCM upon the death of Sir Hubert Parry in 1918.
Other friends and associates included Geoffrey Toye, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the latter whom he became a brother-in-law after he married Emmeline ("Emmie") Fisher, the older sister of Vaughan Williams' first wife Adeline in February 1915. Emmie, born in 1868, was eighteen years older than her husband. She was a cousin of Virginia Woolf. One biographer of Vaughan Williams, Mary Bennett, describes Emmie as "more sprightly and unexpected than her sister". (Bennett, 20)
Anthony Murphy suggests Butterworth may have been the best man at the wedding. It seems that, like many of Vaughan Williams's friends, R.O. was involved with the London Symphony of 1914, and apparently regretted the composer's post-war revisions to the work.
World War I
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, George Butterworth's diary recalls receiving a letter from R.O. stating that he was planning to join "Kitchener's Army" as a private, alongside his New College friend R. C. Woodhead (also a musician). These were the hastily-recruited regiments of volunteers which began forming at the outbreak of the war, and became known as this as a result of the famous "Lord Kitchener Wants You" recruiting poster.
Butterworth dined with R.O. on August 29th where he told George of his plan to join up; it seems Morris had corresponded with a number of his New College friends to join together. The Central London Recruiting Depot at New Scotland Yard had advised him to join the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, which were recruiting in large numbers in London and that joining them would 'give a better chance for parties of friends to join en bloc'.
This group of Oxford chums sounds rather like a "Pal's Battalion", similar to the Denis Browne-Brooke-Asquith group who joined the Royal Navy Reserve together at the same time in 1914 in the hope of serving alongside each other.
The London Gazette of October 1914 notes Morris and Butterworth as having been commissioned as a 'temporary Second Lieutennant' on 13th October.
This promotion was not in time for the November 1914 edition of the Musical Times which still lists R.O. as a private alongside Toye and Butterworth. At some point, like Butterworth, he transferred from the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry to the Durham Light Infantry - whether this was before the promotion and whether they remained together in this posting is unclear.
R.O. married Emmie in February 1915, so it seems unlikely he had embarked for France at this point. Further research is required about the rest of his war career. Morris was asked by Butterworth's father to contribute a memoir of his friend to the Memorial Edition printed privately in 1918, which suggests something of a first-hand experience of serving in the trenches:
It will not tell them of the love which offers and men alike bore him, or of the splendid self-forgetfulness and contempt of death he showed on the battlefield. When he came home on leave, even those who knew him best were astonished at his magnificent serenity.
R.O. was asked by Butterworth's father to be an executor for George, alongside Vaughan Williams and Hugh Allen.
After the war, R.O. became famous as a professor of counterpoint and composition at the RCM. The list of names he taught is impressive; Gerald Finzi, Sir Michael Tippett, Howard Ferguson, Constant Lambert, Robin Milford, Ruth Gipps, Anthony Milner, Edmund Rubbra, Bernard Stevens and Jean Coulthard, and many others, most whom write effusively of his ability as a teacher.
He also published many textbooks on the subject, starting with his Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century of 1922.
Howard Ferguson found him "an immensely stimulating composition teacher. He instantly spotted the weak link in any chain of musical thought, but never imposed, or even suggested, an actual solution. His approach was slightly impersonal: cool rather than over-enthusiastic, yet never discouraging" (Ferguson, 14)
Recalling R.O. Morris in an interview for BBC Radio 3 in 1978, Ferguson recalls him as:
...extremely quiet and withdrawn. The most exciting thing he ever said to me (he had a rather bored, tired voice) was one day after I showed him something, after I'd been with him for some years 'Yes Howard, I like that' and this was such a terrific moment I felt the heavens had opened!
He had an extremely clear mind, one felt he was singularly unprejudiced. He seemed to allow his pupils to develop in whatever way they wanted to, and yet he retained a quite firm grasp on their formal side.
Another pupil A.E.F. Dickinson also noted a certain shyness in his manner: "A man of few words, and those said with something of an effort".
From the 1920s, possibly earlier, his residence was No 30 Glebe, Chelsea, just around the corner from Ralph and Adeleine Vaughan Williams in Cheyne Walk. R.O. is mentioned frequently in surviving correspondence by Vaughan Williams, as might be expected for a fellow composer and brother-in-law, and seems to have been a trusted advisor to him on musical matters ("R.O." is regularly cited as a second opinion in his correspondence).
For two years in 1926, the Morrises moved to the U.S. where R.O. was head of the department of theory at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Howard Ferguson notes in a letter to Gerald Finzi that Mrs Morris seems to have enjoyed the States more than her husband. While in Philadelphia they resided in Spruce Street. They moved back to England in 1928 where R.O. returned to his post as Professor of Counterpoint and Composition at the Royal College of Music.
RVW helped to organise a concert of R.O.'s works November I930 and named him as one of his musical executors (although R.O. predeceased him by almost a decade).
R.O.'s wife Emmie died in May 1941, aged 72; Vaughan Williams wrote to Gerald Finzi that "she had been ill for a long time & we expected it for some weeks...I think R.O. will live on here." [at the White Gates, Dorking].
Writing to Alice Sumsion in January 1942, R.O. wrote "Well, things go on quietly here. It is a new mode of life for me internally, but externally all goes on much as before." He appears to have lived at the White Gates for some years afterwards, although retaining his Chelsea house. By the time of a rehearsal of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 6 in April 1948, his address was 2 Addison Gardens, Hammersmith.
R.O. Morris died in December 1948, aged 62. Vaughan Williams wrote to the conductor Sydney P. Waddington that it was "A sudden heart attack and he was only ill a few minutes."
As a composer Morris was not prolific; his published compositions (listed below) mostly date between the early 1920s to the mid 1930s. A concert, entirely devoted to his music was conducted by Arthur Bliss and Sir Adrian Boult on 14th November I930, but after the age of 50 he appears to have completely abandoned composition, possibly at the time his wife fell ill.
After her death, he seems to have suppressed his works; Edmund Rubbra noted that "even to mention them was latterly the gravest of social indelicacies".
The reason for this is unclear, some reviewers note the works were considered by the composer as mere compositional exercises rather than for performance.
Gerald Finzi, writing in The Times (23 December 1948) after his death in 1948 recalled his teacher stating on the subject "There was...too much bad music already being written". Finzi goes on to say "There was nothing to be done against this innate scepticism, but to many it seemed tragic that his remarkable mind went so far and no farther in this direction, for he left work of memorable beauty, from the sixth Canzona for string quartet to Corinna's Maying."
Rubbra, writing after his death, reminded readers of the Musical Times that he had deeper creative gifts than his pupils were aware of; "These flowered and spent themselves in a few years, yet the works that resulted have a cultivated charm, a cleanliness of texture, a compactness of form". Dickenson likewise notes "Modesty deterred him from bringing his compositions to the public attention and re-attention; but there was more in his desk than is commonly known, and from the Fantasy Quartet onwards it showed high quality."
Finzi noted his enthusiams were often short-lived. He wrote "with his power of focusing upon the subject of the moment he mastered and enjoyed many things, and having done so his interest might then entirely cease. Thus his early days as a musical journalist have been forgotten, but both for judgement and prose style his work was amongst the finest of its time. In his day he had been a fine cricketer; he enjoyed golf and good wines, bridge, and even Corinthian bagatelle." So perhaps his cessation of composition was merely because he found himself not enjoying it any longer.
Amongst his works are a Symphony in D of 1934, first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult in a broadcast on 1st January 1934 as the first of a series of Six Concerts of British Music broadcast on the BBC National Programme. Adeleine Vaughan Williams wrote to a friend about the performance:
Morris’s Symph came through perfectly - It sounded very distinguished to me - The 1st movement just slightly like R’s [Vaughan Williams] ‘Pastoral’ in sound. The 2nd movement very delicate & curious, the last more rhythmic & perhaps the most attractive - I think the end of it all might have been more emotional - R liked it very much - but says the form is a bit too clear for the emotional content & that Adrian [Boult] didn’t put enough passion into it - & never really got inside it - but certainly it was marvellously clear to follow - good applause from [Queen's Hall] which was a good half full- which was remarkable considering the fog. Everyone who had a wireless must have listened in with pleasure - Morris is such a good broadcaster - his scoring so clear.
The reference to the Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony is interesting, given that work is widely regarded as a work about World War 1.
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote to a pupil Douglas Lilburn that "people do not entirely realise his quality as a composer, and of course he made no effort to make his work known - in fact he did his best to prevent it. I have been urging the BBC to give a programme of his work so that people may realise its unobtrusive beauty and the wonderful quality clarity of its texture".
His beautiful short hymn setting of Christina Rossetti's "Love Came Down at Christmas" (tune: Hermitage) is perhaps his only work to continue in regular performance, and has featured in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College on a number of occasions. It makes an ideal companion piece to Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter" (Cranham).
Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, is the unseen contribution he made to the diverse contrapuntal style of composers such as Finzi, Rubbra, Holst and Tippett.
Robert Weedon, March 2018
The musical manuscripts and papers of Reginald Owen Morris are held by the archive of New College, Oxford, including a number of works which have not been published or recorded. The image of R.O. Morris featured here is courtesy of the Royal Academy of Music.
Bennett, Mary, Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, O.M. special edition of RCM Magazine (London: 1959)
Dickinson, Alan Edgar Frederic, Obituary: Reginald Owen Morris, The Musical Times, Vol. 90, No. 1271 (Jan., 1949), 29
Ferguson, Howard, Music, Friends and Places (London: Thames Publishing, 1997)
Ferguson, Howard, Interviewed by Michael Oliver for Music Weekly, BBC Radio 3, TX 22 October 1978
Ferguson, Howard & Hurd, Michael, Letters of Gerald Finzi and Howard Ferguson (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2001)
Finzi, Gerald, 'Obituary: R.O. Morris', R.C.M. Magazine, 45 (1949), 54–6
Hughes, Meirion Hughes, Stradling, R. A., English Musical Renaissance, 1840-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)
Holden, Raymond, R.O. Morris (1886–1948), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Lloyd, Stephen, Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2014)
Lowe, Rachel Lowe, 'Structure and Stricture: R. O. Morris and Adult Education' in The Musical Times Vol. 101, No. 1403 (Jan., 1960), pp. 20-21
Mellers, Wilfred, ‘The Music of R.O. Morris’, MO , 64 (1940–41), 437–42
McVeigh, Diana, Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press 2005).
Murphy, Anthony, Banks of Green Willow: The Life and Times of George Butterworth (Great Malvern: Cappella Archive, 2012)
Rubbra Edmund, R. O. Morris: An Appreciation Music & Letters, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Apr., 1949), 107-108
Schaarwächter, Jürgen Two Centuries of British Symphonism: From the beginnings to 1945 (Hildesbeim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2015)
Vaughan Williams, Ursula, R.V.W.: a biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1964)
The London Gazette, 27 October 1914, Issue:28953, 8645
"Musicians in the Army" in The Musical Times, Vol. 55, No. 861 (Nov. 1, 1914), pp. 659-660
Letters by or mentioning R.O. Morris at the Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams website.
Compositions by R.O. Morris
Instrumental and chamber
Canzone Ricercate for string quartet or string orchestra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931
Concerto in G minor for Violin and Orchestra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930
Concerto Piccolo, for two violins and string orchestra. (possibly the Concertino in F mentioned by Rubbra). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930, full score published 1950
Fantasy for string quartet. London: Stainer & Bell, 1922.
Sinfonia in C Major (also known as A Little Symphony, Symphonia, Sinfonietta). Unpublished, 1928-9.
Symphony in D. Unpublished, 1934.
Toccata and Fugue for Orchestra, unpublished (mentioned in Finzi's obituary of Morris)
Suite for Violoncello and Orchestra in F major (also known as Partita Lidica). London : Oxford University Press, 1932.
Six English Folk-Songs (Seventeen come Sunday, Brisk young sailor, Brisk young sailor (2nd version), The lawyer,Tarry trousers, The cuckoo). SATB. London: Oxford University Press, 1929. Also published separately.
Five English Folk-Songs (Blow away the Morning Dew; Somerset. Cold blows the Wind; Somerset. High Germany. The Turtle-Dove; 1st version from Somerset, 2nd from Dorset. The Mare and the Foal; Warwickshire.) SSATB. London : Novello & Co, 1931. Also published separately.
Corinna's Maying. SATB (Robert Herrick). London : Oxford University Press, 1933. Also available with orchestral accompaniment.
Hunting Song. TTBB (Walter Scott) London: Oxford University Press,1932.
Love came down at Christmas (Christina Rossetti) Tune "Hermitage", published in Songs of Praise London: Oxford University Press, 1925.
See amid the winter's snow (Edward Caswall) Tune: "Winter's Snow", published in The Oxford Book of Carols. London: Oxford University Press, 1928.
Since thou, O fondest and truest. SATB (Robert Bridges). London: Oxford University Press,1932.
There is a Garden. TTBB (Thomas Campion). London : Oxford University Press 1930.
Publications by R.O. Morris
Lorna Doone (Richard Doddridge Blackmore), edited with introduction and notes by R. O. Morris (London: Oxford University Press, 1914)
‘A Memoir of George Butterworth’, George Butterworth, 1885–1916 (London and York, Private Printing, 1918), 5–14
‘Hubert Parry’ in Music and Letters, Vol 1 (1920), 94–103
‘Maurice Ravel’ in Music and Letters, Vol 2 (1921), 274–83
Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1922)
Foundations of Practical Harmony and Counterpoint (London: Oxford University Press, 1925)
Preparatory Exercises in Score-Reading written with Howard Ferguson (London: Oxford University Press, 1931)
Figured Harmony at the Keyboard (London: Oxford University Press, 1931)
‘An Introduction to Music’ in An Outline of Modern Knowledge, ed. W. Rose (New York: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 1003–54
The Structure of Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1935)
Introduction to Counterpoint (London: Oxford University Press, 1944)
Foundations of Practical Harmony and Counterpoint: The Oxford Harmony, Vol 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 1946)
Recordings of R.O. Morris
There are few recordings of Morris's music available.
Movements 1 and 6 from Canzone Ricercate are featured on British String Quartets - The Lindsays (ASV Digital, CD - DCA 879).
The King's Singers perform Morris's arrangement of 'Blow Away the Morning Dew' on their album My spirit sang all day (EMI, 7 49765 2).
Stephen Cleobury's arrangement of his 'Love Came Down at Christmas' was featured in Carols from King's (BBC Television) in 2015.
Martin Anderson of Toccata Classics appears to have commissioned a recording of the Symphony in D in 2004, but was reportedly dissatisfied with the quality of the performance and it was not issued.