Deryck Cooke

Born 14 September 1919. Died 27 October 1976
Deryck Cooke
Deryck Cooke

Deryck Cooke Biography (BBC)

Deryck Cooke was born in Leicester in 1919. His family were working class and poor; his father died when he was a child, but his mother was just able to afford piano lessons and Cooke acquired a brilliant technique, began to compose and won an organ scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge.

His undergraduate studies were interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served in the Royal Engineers and took part in the invasion of Italy. Towards the end of the war he became the pianist in an army dance band. Back in Cambridge, a number of his compositions were successfully performed, but he was insecure about their late-Romantic idiom and eventually destroyed most of his works. After graduating in 1947 he joined the BBC and worked for the Corporation for the remainder of his life, writing scripts for the music department and broadcasting for radio and television, where his thoughtful erudition and unaffected manner made him an ideal communicator.

In 1959 his first book, The Language of Music, brilliantly argued that music is essentially a language of the emotions, and showed that composers throughout history had tended to choose the same musical phrases to express similar feelings or dramatic situations. During the last years of his life he worked on a large scale study of Wagner’s Ring: only the first part, dealing with the text, was finished and published after his death as I Saw the World End. The loss of what would almost certainly have been the definitive study of the music of The Ring is deeply regrettable.

A collection of his essays was also published after his death as Vindications. His last years were marred by ill-health and the break-up of his marriage, and he died prematurely of a stroke in 1976, but was happy to have overseen the publication of his realisation of Mahler’s Tenth.

Profile © David Matthews

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