REMEMBERING ANTHONY MILNER
British Composer, Catholic Knight

By Christopher Fulkerson

CF's Composition Desk


First I want to talk the usual praise, that everyone expects in this sort of situation, about Anthony Milner's fine qualities as a composer, a dedicated teacher (I took lessons with him at every opportunity when he was in California; this meant one or two lessons most years he was here); a very good public speaker, and all of that... the usual praise that so many people get when they are well remembered by their friends. Certainly Anthony deserves such praise. Then I want to talk about his tremendous personal courage, which really matters alot if you want to understand him.

Anthony was one of those conservative composers whom we Modernists can always at least praise as a "fine craftsman." He had one thing in common with J.S. Bach, and with many another conservative composer: he mistakenly believed he wrote at the limits of reasonable modernity. It is not the worst failing in the world for a composer. He was a friend and student of Michael Tippett, whom he thought really modern; this amazed me. I had to be conspicuously silent when Anthony seemed to call for praise of Benjamin Britten, a composer too conservative to regard well, and whose politics I loathe. Anthony ignored Britten's politics. It was not his most conservative trait; it was, I think, a form of musical patriotism.

Anthony's conservativism was of the sort that grew from that old "sound craftsmanship" thing, and some of his remarks about my compositions helped me more than those of any other of my teachers.

While an undergraduate, I worked for a couple of years on an operatic setting of the early Hugo von Hofmannsthal play "Der Kaiser und die Hexe." I am sure Anthony tried to raise questions about why I would want to write an opera in German; if he did, I was already inured to this issue, as I might for different reasons still be today (I have considered writing Shakespeare operas in English and German simultaneously, since the chances of an operatic production are probably greater in Germany than in the U.S.). But Anthony got me to thinking about what I was doing better than anybody else, partly because he really read the score. I remember that he pointed out that my settings of the baritone voice tended to lack any pitch support below them. In my own defense I may say that in the passage he ciriticsed I was working on a continuous sound texture that resembled Wagner's "Ride of the Walkyries," in which the melody is in the trombone part, at the lowest pitch level. But of course this is a dramatically specialized texture meant to suggest that there is in fact no bottom to the sound, that the Walkyries are mounted on flying horses, and the textures above the sound are the winds and the clouds. It will not do as a consistent texture for a human voice. Anthony presented the fact to me so plainly about the actual sounds I was composing that I could only learn from him; no defense based on stylistic differences would work. Of all others who have accepted the task of helping me improve my music, only Elliott Carter and Andrew Imbrie were this pertinent.

Anthony did write some very beautiful things, and I was pleased to facilitate the American Premiere of his cantata Salutatio Angelica, which was sung by the Pacific Singers the year before I joined that group. Like many conservative composers, he was at his best when writing for voices. I was underwhelmed however with his Third Symphony, something he was very proud of, with its setting of the beginning of the Gospel of John. I thought it tendentious and musically uninventive.

I decided that just a few words about my friend Anthony Milner are necessary since the WIKIPEDIA PAGE ABOUT HIM does not give any indication of those of his characteristics that make him a model for anyone who wants to attempt a career in Classical music, and may fail at it.

For it is his personal courage, that he manifested everywhere he went, that I want to praise. Make no mistake, Anthony Milner was a milquetoaste Brit in the classic sense. But this does not matter, for in the long run, his personal courage was the most impressive to me. Sometimes, when I get depressed about career doldrums, and I have reason to be depressed about career inactivity, I think of Anthony, because Anthony was born with a cleft pallet, extremely poor eyesight, and extremely poor hearing. He was personally frail and prone to minor illnesses. His eyesight was so bad he might have qualified as legally blind; certainly he could not drive due to it. On top of all this, while still in his forties he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

In spite of physical frailty, he traveled often and widely all over the world. In spite of a cleft pallet, he studied public speaking and became a frequent and quite dignified lecturer, touring America and Canada every year or two for decades, giving more public talks before audiences unknown to him than any other academic of whom I am aware. Despite poor hearing he became a composer. Despite his poor eyesight and poor hearing he stood in front of audiences and delivered his talks with very little sense to the hearer that he was a person who had any kind of disability. And he did all this, living with MS for thirty years.

Anthony Milner deserves to be better known. He was, beyond reasonable doubt, a quiet hero among composers.


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Anthony wrote a couple of letters of recommendation about me, one which can be read if you CLICK HERE.

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Posted 10/11/2010.

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