Composer and champion of music education

born May 26th 1941

died September 7th, 2017

The death of John Maxwell Geddes, at the age of 76 has deprived Scotland of one of its most distinguished and intriguing composers.

In the 1960s the mere idea of becoming a composer in Scotland verged on fantasy, but John was a pioneer and, nothing daunted, launched into a career which has given us a legacy of many fine works.

The courage required to pursue such a course was exemplified by John as a student. Standing amongst the basses at the back of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama chorus, a full symphony orchestra and soloist ranged below, an expectant audience beyond, the conductor just emerging onto the platform, John spread his arms in an expansive gesture and announced “These are the rocks that I chisel!” And indeed they were. A succession of major symphonic works, including three symphonies, and the profoundly atmospheric Voyager and Lacuna are striking evidence of his right to make such a claim.

He was born to Jack and Thomasina (Ina) Geddes, in 1941. Jack was a joiner by trade, but was stationed in Belgium as a firefighter during the Second World War.  They lived in Maryhill, Glasgow, and John attended  Woodside Secondary School

After graduating from the RSAMD with a Diploma of Musical Education (Dip Mus Ed), Geddes went on to the Royal Danish Conservatoire where he studied with Niels Viggo Bentzon. The studies were nothing if not eccentric and John recalled them with laconic gratitude for their liberating character.

Although schooled very much in the tradition and with a formidable array of skills, Geddes was eager to try new things. This involved the newly-emerging field of electronic music for which he lined a garden shed with egg cartons to create a sound-proof acoustic space; while, in the house, there was inspiration to be had even from the family cat, Leo, whose whiffling dreams of a life in the primeval forest were realized with superb wit and drama in Leo Dreaming for trombone and electronic tape.

But beyond the domestic lay not only the beauties of the Scottish land- and sea-scape, particularly on family visits to the Great Cumbrae, but the beauties and mysteries of space. Callanish IV for solo cello searches such mysteries through the symbolism of the stone circles, marrying it with the Gaelic psalm tune Stornoway but Voyager for orchestra takes such thoughts as far as can be imagined.

It has won deserved international acclaim, the more remarkable for the fact that this is an undemonstrative and thoughtful work with a subtle thread that links it both to the Voyager space probe and to Halley’s comet which was passing at the time of its composition.

John Maxwell Geddes’ work in education was widespread and innovative. His remarkable venture New Vistas involved children from three different areas of Scotland being mentored by professional musicians, the children being challenged to compose music for them; and Geddes also conducted and composed for manyamateur and schools orchestras. Postlude for Strings is an angry protest against cuts in music education, tellingly brought to the audience’s attention as, one by one, the musicians leave the stage. The conductor only remains, but nothing can be done. As Geddes said with brutal sincerity: “If you don’t support music education, this is what will happen. Nothing.”

Affirmation, however, grows out of this same music to conclude the third symphony. Composed in 1999 to a commission from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, this is a work of immense power, of which the second movement is particularly striking in its contrast of wild energies and poetic beauties. Both challenging and approachable, it proclaims its creator as a composer of stature, writing with the assurance of absolute mastery. This is a rock chiseled into magnificence.

John Maxwell Geddes received several honours, including a Fellowship of the RSAMD and a Creative Scotland Award. He was also a good friend and colleague, always probing, full of fun, ready to acknowledge the achievements of others, and quite unreasonably modest. At a personal level his loss is, well, personal.

John Geddes is survived by his wife Lily, herself a fine musician and teacher and John’s sure support from student days onwards, and their three children, Craig, Nicola and Erik as well as his his three grandchildren.

John Purser