Derek Bourgeois – A Prolific Genius

September 14th, 2017

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Derek Bourgeois, who died on September 6, was one the finest musicians to have come out of Cranleigh although he was already proficient when he arrived in the Summer of 1954.  The Director of Music, Jared Armstrong, who had only himself just joined the School, recalled the entrance exam.  “The diminutive 12-year-old makes his way to the piano. ’What are you going to play to us?’ ‘Beethoven’s C minor Sonata’. But where’s your music? ‘I haven’t ever had any – we have a record of the music at home and I’ve memorised it’. Warren Green (MCR 1950-1969) and I looked at one another and the music began – and not just the first movement!”

Less than a year later, under the guidance of Pat Dixon, Derek and Julian Dams were the first Cranleighans ever to be in the National Youth Orchestra.  Derek went on to Magdalene College Cambridge where he gained a double first and Mus.D and then returned to Cranleigh in 1965 where Andrew Corran (MCR 1968-1995) recalled “he became known known for original teaching and a zany sense of humour … his Verdi aria take off became a treasured memory, usually performed in an outrageous outfit and a falsetto voice that encompassed a top C.  To hear it was to collapse into helpless laughter, but also to recognise what an outstanding musician he was.”

He married Jean while at the School – she too was a key part of the music department and a top violinist – fittingly composed a work, Serenade, for the entrance of his bride at their wedding.  In 1965 he wrote the choral work Jabberwocky for the School’s centenary.  An enthusiastic golfer, he was key to the redesign of the golf course and the sport thrived under his direction.

In 1967 Cranleigh staged Carmen which attracted national attention.  Jean led the orchestra and she and Derek utilised their contacts so thoroughly that the musicians were almost all from the London Symphony and National Youth Orchestras.

In 1971 Derek moved to Bristol University where he lectured for 13 years, as well as composing although the bulk of his work came later in his life.  In 1984 he became director of music for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, a post he held until 1993. He founded the National Youth Chamber Orchestra in 1988, and in 1994 he was appointed director of music at St Paul’s girls’ school, west London where he remained until his retirement to Majorca in 2002.

At the start of his retirement he had written seven symphonies but thereafter they came “tumbling out”, partly to stop himself “going mad”.  In the next 13 years he composed another 109 more of them, plus more than 100 other orchestral, wind, brass and chamber works.  His 116 symphonies is, by some distance, a record for a British composer.

Jean died in 2006 and two years later Derek married Norma Torney and they settled in Dorset, after a spell in New York, where he continued his prolific output despite gruelling treatments for cancer.  He knew that his raison d’être was to give the world his music, and he was sad when his illness forced him to stop.  He called his 116th symphony The Unfinished which he said “represents a composer falling off the edge of a cliff”.

His final catalogue of his 391 works included 17 concertos – that for trombone (1988) probably the most played – a host of works for orchestras of various makeups, an opera and music for TV productions. The Guardian’s obituary noted: “He had the same knack for turning a memorable tune, a Waltonian sense of grandeur and a delight in infusing humour into his music whenever he could.”