Alan Charlton was a composer, music author and educator renowned for his innate musicality and intellectual rigour. He was born in Perivale, London, in 1970. He studied the horn, piano and composition at the Junior Royal Academy of Music in London. He then read music at the University of Bristol and was awarded the first ever PhD in composition from that university. In addition to the horn and piano he also played the cello and enjoyed singing in many choirs. He taught composition at the University of Bristol, and then became the first Eileen Norris Fellow in composition at Bedford School, teaching among others pianist William Vann, singer and choral educator Paul Smith of Voces8 and future England cricket captain Alastair Cook. In 2011 Charlton met his wife in the London Shostakovich Orchestra, and in 2013 moved with her to Brussels where his daughter was born in 2014, and where he lived until his untimely death from neuroendocrine cancer in 2018, aged 47.
Charlton’s composition teachers included Raymond Warren, Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies, Robert Saxton, Adrian Beaumont and Judith Weir. His compositions have won many awards, been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and been heard in the UK, wider Europe and around the world: at venues including London’s Barbican, Purcell Room and St Martin-in-the-Fields, St George’s Bristol, Brussels Cathedral, as well as in India, Jordan, Tanzania and the USA.
Alan Charlton was also an accomplished and committed music writer and educator. An author of, and contributor to, ten books on music, including the bestselling How to Read Music and an encyclopaedia of musical instruments, Charlton’s composition books, GCSE and A-level revision guides have become standard texts in many British and international schools.
Charlton has an incredibly varied output of compositions. His orchestral works include a violin concerto, a concerto for two cellos and orchestra and the overture The Tide of Time. His vocal music includes Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, the cantata for children’s choir and small ensemble Heads off for Henry and the chamber opera The Golden Bough. Passionate about chamber music, he wrote varied works for piano trio, brass ensemble, guitar trio and wind trio. Significant works include his Sonata for Cello and Piano, his Sonata Canonica for violin and piano, his Mirror Canons for violin and cello, a Concertino for string ensemble and Danse Macabre for bassoon and piano.
The best known of Charlton’s chamber works is the critically acclaimed String Quartet No.1, commissioned by the Cat Quartet for the 1994 Harrogate International Festival, which has since been performed by The Lindsays, the Quince Quartet and the Mikkeli String Quartet of Finland, and selected for the 1995 Manchester Composers’ Platform. Quintetto was awarded the first prize in the National Power Composers’ Competition in 1995 and performed by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 1997. Étude for solo horn, commissioned by Jeremy Bushell of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, received an honorary mention in the 2003 International Horn Society composition competition and has been published by IHS Press. His Clarinet Quartet was chosen as ‘Clarinet Quartet of the Year 2005’ by the London Chamber Group; it was also performed at Bedford School by a talented group of schoolboys including cricketer Alastair Cook.
Charlton was a keen choral singer from an early age, singing treble solos at Christchurch, Ealing Broadway. He went on to sing in the choir of the Junior Royal Academy of Music, and later with Bristol University Singers. His first choral composition, Earth, Sweet Earth for mixed choir and strings was a winner of the Competition for Composers organised by the William Byrd Singers in 1998. In 2001 he obtained a second prize in the 4ème Concours Européen de Composition pour Choeurs et Maitrises de Cathédrales with his carol A Solis Ortus Cardine. He twice obtained the John Armitage Memorial Prize, in 2004 for Jubilate Deo and in 2007 for Bring us Good Ale.
Charlton’s most substantial choral work is the 30-minute cantata for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra Look and Bow Down, commissioned for the 450th anniversary of Christ’s Hospital School, and performed to a sell-out audience at the Barbican in March 2003. Classical Music magazine selected it as one of their ‘Premieres of the Year’, calling it ‘an outstanding work’. In 2009 he became a founding member of Ishirini, an innovative chamber choir rooted in Cambridge which explores and celebrates choral traditions from around the world. Ishirini commissioned several works from him, which he subsequently performed with them on trips to Tanzania (Moyo Wangu), Spain (Mirror Suite) and India (Two Cricket Canons). Charlton loved cricket from an early age, and wrote his Cricketers’ Canon as a round based on the names of the Indian cricket team, to sing with children in Kolkata. After moving to Brussels in 2013, Alan joined the tenor section of the Brussels Chamber Choir and became the choir’s Composer in Residence. Several of his works were performed by the choir, in Brussels and on tour in Italy in 2015.
Charlton’s musical style is highly lyrical, with an original, expressive harmonic language rooted in early twentieth century music. Early influences were Stravinsky’s rhythmic energy, the lyricism and harmonic language of Berg, Bartók’s contrapuntal mastery and the surging, obsessive ostinati of Janáček. A major element of Charlton’s compositional technique is the use of canons, whether strict, mirrored or inverted.
In 2010 he invented an entirely new harmonic language, which he dubbed Charltonality, in which he combined two scales at once to produce rich harmonies. The technique was devised in order to create new chords and chord progressions that would otherwise be physically unplayable and very difficult to imagine aurally.
His music was also inspired by lancscape, nature, and birdsong, which he regularly sought out at his parents’ home in Wensleydale and on birding trips in Ireland and wider Europe. Charlton’s music definitely affords technical and interpretative challenges to the performer, and it expects an attentive ear from the listener, but it has always been highly practical, whether written for professionals, amateurs or children.