Iain Ellis Hamilton,

composer; born June 6, 1922, died July 21, 2000

IAIN HAMILTON, like Thea Musgrave, had the misfortune to become a Scottish composer at a time - the 1950s - when composers found it hard to make their way in Scotland. The Scottish National Orchestra was in the hands of a succession of Austrians who held Scottish music in low esteem, and there were few other outlets for local talent.

The fact that Hamilton (again like Musgrave) was musically progressive, and a composer of rare intellectual rigour, proved a further setback. With Vaughan Williams still in position as Britain's leading symphonist, and William Walton still capable of provoking noisy walk-outs in mid-performance at the Usher Hall, what hope had Hamilton's Second Symphony (winner of a Koussevitsky Foundation Award) of being acclaimed in Scotland?

Accordingly, (once more like Musgrave) Hamilton got out, moving first to a teaching post at Morley College in London (where Tippett also taught) and later to America, as professor of music at Duke University, North Carolina, an appointment he held for 20 years. Composition, however, was always his priority, and what he composed was never merely professorial. His early Clarinet Concerto, with Frederick Thurston as soloist, received the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize. The Second Symphony was played at the Cheltenham Festival. Scotland, it was becoming apparent, could not cold-shoulder the Glasgow-born composer any longer.

So in 1958 there at last came

a major local commission. The Burns Federation, about to celebrate the bi-centenary of the poet's birth, was advised by Robert Ponsonby, director of the Edinburgh Festival, that a new work by Iain Hamilton might suitably mark the occasion in a performance by the SNO, which at last had a conductor, Alexander Gibson, sympathetic to

Scottish music.

What the Burns Federation wanted or hoped for was something endearingly couthy, which would set the Usher Hall audience tapping its collective feet and smiling its collective smile. What it got was Hamilton's Sinfonia for Two Orchestras, a work of the highest austerity, containing not one single catchy tune or rhythm. The outcome of a close study of Webern's astringent atonalism, the music, as Hamilton took pains to warn the audience in his programme-note, was a ''tribute to a great poet'' but there would be ''no relationship between it and the poet's work''.

The poet's supporters, feeling betrayed, erupted with fury. One listener declared that Hamilton should have been contracted to write something melodious, because ''Burns liked melodious music''. The statement by a London critic that Hamilton's sinfonia was, in fact, the most significant event in the entire Edinburgh Festival merely fanned the flames. Hamilton's fee - ''a good one'', the Federation's president balefully remarked - was likely to be reconsidered when the ''rotten and ghastly'' music came up for discussion at the annual conference in Ayr. Gibson's response to all this was to repeat the performance during the winter season and then to record it.

Gibson, indeed, always did Hamilton proud, recognising his creative gifts and international stature at a time when readers of an east-coast newspaper, to judge by some of their letters to the editor, still thought even Bartok a fraud. When Frederick Rimmer, professor of music at Glasgow University and one of Hamilton's most ardent champions, helped to found Musica Nova in conjunction with the SNO, one of the first new works Gibson conducted was Alastor, an elegiac tribute to Shelley (Hamilton was a composer soaked in English literature), filled with obscure, dreamlike references to Chopin, Schumann, and other composers. Rimmer, for his own part, gave a startling performance of Threnos - In Time Of War, Hamilton's violently abrasive work for organ, in Glasgow University's Bute Hall.

The SNO's first American tour in 1975 provided scope to perform more Hamilton, including in the composer's presence, the premiere at Carnegie Hall of Aurora, a combined nocturne and scherzo depicting the glowing emergence of dawn out of some of Hamilton's darkest orchestral textures. But the great development of that period was Hamilton's increasing appetite for opera, a form particularly suited to his literary enthusiasms. At the 1969 Edinburgh Festival, Pharsalia had shown his flair for taut fierce music drama. By 1974 Scottish Opera had commissioned The Catiline Conspiracy - another antique subject brought to powerful modern life - as the first of four operas by leading Scottish composers.

Throwing moderation to the winds, I hailed it after its Stirling premiere as a masterpiece - a belief to which I unrepentantly clung, even though the singers, not to mention the audience at the MacRobert Centre, claimed to have been daunted by its acerbic textures. Yet, inside Hamilton there was always a romantic composer struggling to get out. There were hints of this in The Royal Hunt of The Sun, based on Peter Shaffer's play which Hamilton began to write in 1966 but took nine years to complete (it was eventually staged by

English National Opera in London in 1977). And it finally exploded in Anna Karenina, a poignantly Mahlerian treatment of Tolstoy's novel, set to the composer's own libretto.

This, too, was presented by the ENO in 1981, with a further production two years later in Los Angeles. Hamilton's career by then was at its peak. What followed, alas, showed signs of decline. The sudden death of his long-term partner left him desolate, and his return to London, though it triggered plenty of music, failed to produce another Karenina. A vast St Mark Passion, sung at St John's Smith Square, sounded so sugary that Hamilton's imprint upon it was scarcely detectable.

Yet the music continued to flow - two more symphonies, an outdoor opera entitled Lancelot, a Tragedy of Macbeth, and, in 1995, The Transit of Jupiter, premiered by Jerzy Maksymiuk and the BBC SSO. How these works, and his recently-completed London Kaleidoscope for piano and orchestra, will fit into his output as a whole remains to be seen. But Hamilton, who was originally trained as an engineer, was a fine and fecund composer whose best works do not deserve the neglect into which they have recently fallen.