Duncan Druce - personal memories from Richard Steinitz

Composer, musicologist and violinist Duncan Druce (KC 1957) died on 13 October 2015. Here are some personal memories from Richard Steinitz.

Duncan and I entered King’s together in 1957, part of a cohort that included such musical luminaries as Philip Ledger, Simon Preston and Robert Tear, of all of whose superior musical accomplishments I was somewhat in awe.  It was a congenial community however.  I recall joining others in Simon’s spacious sitting room (traditional perk of the Organ Scholar) to listen, enthralled, to Decca’s iconic first recording of Das Rheingold on his state-of-the-art stereo, and punting and playing croquet with Philip in the Fellows’ Garden.  During our third year, Duncan, Simon and I had adjacent rooms on the top of D staircase (now part of the Library) – my own window seat with its view over the Backs a distraction it was hard to resist.

Duncan seemed immune from such lassitude.  He arrived in Cambridge as a fine violinist and accomplished composer who had been taught by Herbert Howells and had already composed several string quartets.  We shared supervisions in Gonville & Caius with the Professor, Patrick Hadley – fractious and reeking of alcohol at 9 o’clock in the morning to allay the discomfort of his wooden leg.  I found them an ordeal and doubt whether either of us benefited much.  But Duncan and I became friends and in our third year, at his suggestion, we made lunch for each other on alternate days. 

After graduating with a double First, Duncan joined the BBC as a Music Producer.  These were the heady days of Sir William Glock’s regime as Controller of Music.  But although his closest Cambridge friend, the pianist Stephen Plaistow, was a fellow producer, I suspect that for someone of Duncan’s sensibilities working under such formidable BBC ideologues as Hans Keller may have seemed confining.  Meanwhile his performing career was burgeoning.  In 1965 he left the BBC to become the founding violinist in Harrison Birtwistle’s and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Pierrot Players, equally at ease doubling on the viola; then of its successor, The Fires of London with whom he toured throughout the UK and internationally.  I can visualise him now in Max’s most spectacular music theatre creation, Eight Songs for a Mad King – highly virtuosic for all the players, four of whom sit in cages representing the song birds with whom George III communed in his ‘madness’.  Duncan became adept at swapping his own violin inconspicuously for a cheap factory model whilst the audience’s attention was elsewhere, so that the King could stretch through the bars, seize the instrument, and smash it in an agonising gesture of self-annihilation that never ceases to shock, however well one knows the piece. 

Duncan combined playing with studying for an MA at Leeds University where he also did some teaching.  Somewhat earlier, I had become a Lecturer at Huddersfield School of Music, so was delighted when I learnt that he too had arrived in Yorkshire, was newly married and living in Leeds.  He had begun to play both the modern and baroque violin, as well as the viola d’amore; and, as the early music movement gathered momentum, he became one of its leading exponents, performing with most of the UK’s period instrumental ensembles.

Between 1978 and 1991 Duncan was Senior Lecturer at Bretton Hall near Wakefield.  The college had been founded to train specialist teachers of music, drama and dance in the years when UK education was far more rounded (arts, crafts, history, philosophy and civic values deemed as important as adding up grocery bills).  Alas, the role of specialist teachers has since declined, and the training college no longer exists, although its idyllic surroundings go from strength to strength as Yorkshire Sculpture Park, one of the finest anywhere in the world.  By then Duncan had joined me in what was now the Music Department of the thriving University of Huddersfield (formerly College of Technology and Polytechnic).  We both taught ‘free’ composition, part of the curriculum for all first-year students, from amongst whom would emerge several impressively successful professional composers.  He was an inspiring mentor and an agreeable colleague: thoughtful, wise, warmly supportive – contributing valuably to any debate about what marking criteria might be applied to compositions un-circumscribed by any requirements of form or style.

Duncan and Clare had bought houses – four in succession ¬– in the Holme Valley, to which I and my wife had also moved.  How strange that, having lived next door to each other in King’s we should become near neighbours in our advancing years.  Nan and I had even considered buying what later became their second house in the Holme Valley.  Put off by the many shrubs and trees in its garden, we opted instead for the former vicarage of a nearby village.  Battling with water-logged clay that turned as hard as concrete every summer, whilst admiring the delightful paths, bowers, and thriving vegetable patch in the garden they had acquired, I realised that we had underrated it.  Periodically we would invite each other as well as other friends to dinner, which might have occurred more frequently had not the vegan diet they had adopted challenged my culinary skills. 

Their house in Netherthong, with its mullioned windows and period features, had a barn-like wing that they turned into a music room with harpsichord, large enough to accommodate small music courses and concerts.  Duncan was admired not only for what he could impart intellectually and as an executant, but also as a composer and musicologist whose completion of Mozart’s Requiem had been premièred at the York Early Music Festival in 1984, and was performed at the BBC Proms in 1991 and subsequently recorded for EMI.  His own The Floor of Heaven for clarinet and piano I had included in the 1984 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival when I was its Artistic Director, followed by world premières of two BBC commissions in 1991.  The first was a String Quintet whose ‘refrains’ thematically referenced Mozart.  The second, We were like them that dream, was a response to the Romanian revolution of 1989, which Duncan conceived as a ‘tribute to the (non-violent) courage of the civilians and soldiers involved’.  Its text, and to a certain extent the music, drew variously on the reported words of witnesses, Transylvanian folk songs, aphorisms by Leonardo da Vinci and Ghandi, Hardy’s ‘The Going of the Battery – Wives’ Lament’, and Psalm 126 (‘When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion were we like unto them that dream’).  Such were the breadth and depth of Duncan’s empathies, which had already embraced a further MA focused on the music of southern India.

But it was his playing of seventeenth - and eighteenth-century repertoire that I came to value most.  Unless absent from Yorkshire I never missed one of the termly lunch-hour concerts he gave with Four’s Company, along with three colleagues, in the University’s atmospheric St Paul’s Hall.  Intelligently researched, beautifully played, always intriguing, they might feature Purcell and his European contemporaries, the Italian Baroque, or (most challengingly) the highly stylised yet unexpectedly volatile music of some of Lully’s lesser known French contemporaries.  They continued up to Duncan’s death, which came as a surprise to many and seemed much too soon.  I miss him for the sensitivity and eloquence of his playing, the warmth of his personality, and for our sixty years of friendship.

Richard Steinitz, OBE
Emeritus Professor, University of Huddersfield.  Composer, musicologist and writer. 
Founder of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and its Artistic Director from 1978 to 2001.

14 November 2016