Musical Authors: Edmund Crispin/Bruce Montgomery (2)
Although his film work got his music out to a huge audience, the numerous comedy scores in particular stand in stark contrast to Bruce Montgomery’s church music and concert works, with which he started out. These began to appear in the mid-1940s, at the same time his detective novels were appearing under the name Edward Crispin. Church music predominates, the culmination being the Oxford Requiem, commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir and first performed at the Sheldonian Theatre in July 1951 (also the scene of a crime in his novel The Moving Toyshop – and more personally for me, where the Oxford Bach Choir still holds its concerts today). He may have been motivated to compose the piece following the death of his close friend and teacher, the organist and composer Godfrey Sampson (1902-1949) – thought also to have been the inspiration behind the character Geoffrey Vintner, the organist and friend of Gervase Fen in The Case the Guilded Fly

An Oxford Requiem “is Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date,” wrote one critic, “and confirms the suspicion that he is a real composer with something of real significance to say.” Malcolm Arnold called the secular choral work Venus’ Praise of the following year “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard”, and that work, a setting of seven sixteenth and seventeenth century English poems, may well have been the peak of his musical achievement. It was first performed in April 1951 at London’s Wigmore Hall. Montgomery and his friend the composer Geoffrey Bush had hired the hall jointly, and Bush’s Summer Serenade was also performed. (The two also collaborated on a short detective story, “Who Killed Baker”, published in the Evening Standard in 1950).

Even less known are the operas, which include a children’s ballad opera, John Barleycorn, and two intriguing collaborations with his friend Kingsley Amis providing the texts. The first, Amberley Hall, was described by Montgomery as “a mildly scandalous burlesque set in England in the 18th century.” The second, To Move the Passions, was a ballad opera commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Both remained unfinished, and Amis complained that Montgomery was too busy “writing filthy film scores and stinking stories for the popular press.” Unfortunately, only the Concertino for String Orchestra, a substantial three movement piece despite the modest title, and the only purely instrumental work Montgomery ever had published, is generally available as a recording.

Montgomery returned to literature at the end of his life, with the final Crispin novel, Glimpses of the Moon. By now, the composer character, Broderick Thouless, is writing “difficult” film music and light concert works, rather than the other way round (as it was with Napier in Frequent Hearses). Such comic perversity is characteristic of Crispin. But even in the midst of the comedy, it’s possible to read between the lines of, in the words of Philip Lane, “a composer of talent who was perhaps sidetracked, and, not helped by increasing alcoholism, was unable to fulfill his full potential.”