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A biography of Peter Tranchell by John Gwinnell

Peter Andrew Tranchell was born on 14 July 1922 in Cuddalore, India. The families of both his parents had a history of administrative and military service in India. His father, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry George Tranchell, formerly of the 2nd Queen Victoria’s Own Rajput Light Infantry, became British Consul to the French enclave of Pondicherry from 1920 to 1936.

Peter returned to England in 1927 to live in Eastbourne with his mother’s father and her sister, Celia Phillips, and to begin his primary school education at Knockmaroon School, Eastbourne, 1927-1929. He was subsequently educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, 1930-1936, and at Clifton College, Bristol, 1936-1941, which he entered with a Classics Scholarship worth £100; for his last term he was Head of House at Oakeley’s and Head of the School. He went up to King’s College, Cambridge in 1941 to read Classics with the Polack Classical Exhibition (restricted to candidates from Clifton) and gained a II(1) in the Preliminary Examination for the Classical Tripos in 1942. His university education was then interrupted by the war, and after initial training in the Queen’s Royal Regiment he was commissioned into 163rd Brigade, Malta Royal Signals in 1943. Having served on the island for two years, he was moved to Greece in May 1945 and joined 4th Indian Divisional Signals, ultimately based in Salonika [now Thessalonika]. Promoted Captain in July 1946, he was released from the Army in October. He returned to King’s College in 1946 to read Music; he was awarded the Stewart of Rannoch Scholarship in Sacred Music in 1947, a First in Part 1 of the Music Tripos in 1948, gaining the B.A. in the same year. Peter was awarded the Mus.B. in 1949, with reputedly the highest distinction ever given for the Practical part. 

Peter Tranchell then took up an appointment as Music Master at Eastbourne College, Eastbourne, but returned to Cambridge a year later in 1950 to take up the appointment of University Assistant Lecturer in Music. This appointment was followed in 1953 by that of University Lecturer. He was appointed Fellow and Director of Music at Gonville and Caius College in 1960, and Precentor [director of Chapel music] in 1962, positions he held until his retirement in 1989. Tranchell was also for a time Director of Studies in Music at Fitzwilliam House, 1952-1967.

Tranchell composed a large quantity of dramatic works. These include the operas: ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ (1951), ‘Zuleika’ (1954); music for the Greek plays: ‘Bacchae of Euripides’ (1956), ‘Troades of Seneca’ (1957), ‘Antigone of Sophocles’ (1959); the ballets: ‘Fate’s Revenge’ (1951), ‘Images of Love’ (1964); and the concert entertainments: ‘Daisy Simpkins’ (1954), ‘Murder at the Towers’ (1955), ‘Twice a Kiss’ (1955), ‘Aye, aye Lucian!’ (1960), ‘The Mating Season’ (1962), ‘His First Mayweek’ (1963), ‘The Robot Emperor’ (1965). For the students at Gonville and Caius College, he made a large number of arrangements and editions, mostly of choral music. He also wrote a great deal of church music, including settings of psalms.

Of all Tranchell’s works, it is probable that ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ and ‘Zuleika’ achieved the widest critical acclaim. Eric Blom of The Observer found ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ “an English stage work of exceptional quality”, and commented that “as a creative artist MrTranchell has decidedly leapt to fame at a single bound and almost recklessly high”. ‘Zuleika’, first presented in 1954 by the Cambridge University Musical Comedy Club, attracted the interest of impresarios outside of Cambridge, and later went on a short provincial tour in 1957, followed by a short run at the Saville Theatre, London, with sets by Osbert Lancaster and conducted by Charles Mackerras. However, neither work achieved the lasting success that some critics anticipated and that Peter had hoped for.

During the forty or so years in Cambridge, Tranchell was engaged in numerous and various pursuits, both within the University and outside. These included serving in an administrative and/or creative capacity for a number of organisations, most notably Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, Cambridge University Music Club, Cambridge University Opera Group, Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Composer’s Guild of Great Britain. Tranchell also served on several committees within Gonville & Caius College and was Domestic Bursar for a period in the 1960s. He was also twice Secretary of the Music Faculty. As a teacher of music, Tranchell was invited to participate in a wide range of educational activities outside of the University, foremost of which were several series of radio broadcasts for schools by the BBC. Finally, for a time, Tranchell was the music critic for a number of Cambridge journals and newspapers; he also reviewed books, of which his most controversial review was probably that of Benjamin Britten edited by Donald Mitchell and Hans Keller (Rockliff 1952) published as Britten and Brittenites in Music and Letters, April 1953. This forthright criticism (in the strict sense) of the extravagant Britten-olatry at the time made Tranchell a life-long enemy of the Britten clique, many of whom held positions of considerable influence in the musical and cultural establishment.