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Obituary of Peter Tranchell, Porter, The Independent, September 1993

Peter Tranchell, the composer, was for 40 years a key figure in the musical world of Cambridge University.

By the early 1950s Tranchell was supreme among Cambridge wits. Entering King’s College in 1941 to study music, he was allowed one year before army service, and returned to King’s after the war, taking a First in Part 1 of the music Tripos in 1948, and the Bachelor of Music degree, with distinction, in 1949. By then he had been for over two years the sprightly Musical Director of the University Footlights Club. The Footlights, inoperative during the war, were revived early in 1947, and Tranchell wrote words and music for the 1947 May Week revue, at the ADC theatre. He also played one of the two pianos: the other pianist was Richard Baker, of Peterhouse. Thereafter May Week revues were at the Arts Theatre, and Tranchell was the conductor, and among the composers and writers, of the 1948 and 1949 revues (the latter had a 13-piece orchestra, and was directed by its start, Simon Phipps, of Trinity, later Bishop of Lincoln).

Then for a short time Tranchell was director of music at Eastbourne College. He returned to Cambridge in 1950 as an Assistant Lecturer in the Music Faculty, and remained in the faculty until he retired in 1989.

In 1951 (Festival of Britain year) the Cambridge Arts Theatre Trust presented for seven performances at the Arts Tranchell’s three-act opera The Mayor of Casterbridge, with local singers, and an orchestra largely of students from the Royal College of Music. Eric Blom of the Observer found it “an English stage work of exceptional quality”: “As a creative artist My Tranchell has decidedly leapt to fame at a single bound and almost recklessly high. His second act is a near masterpiece, with music apt to situation, full of atmosphere and really personal and striking invention, often daringly harsh, but never sacrificing musical to ostentatious effect.” (Blom later wrote the Tranchell entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, finding his music as a whole “direct, eclectic and harmonically sophisticated”.) But the opera went no further than Cambridge.

Future operatic ideas (an opera about Captain Cook for instance) never got beyond tentative sketches for librettos. But in the operatic context Tranchell’s music for Greek plays at the Cambridge Arts Theatre should be called to mind, in particular the continuous (taped) choral and orchestral score for The Bacchae in 1956. Tranchell was well grounded in the Classics.

In lighter – Footlights – vein, he wrote “Concert Entertainments” for performance at College May Week concerts. Eventually there were six of these, beginning in 1954 with Daisy Simpkins, based on a Cambridge scandal of the 1890s, first performed at Corpus Christi College, revived in the 1960s at Selwyn, Homerton and Christ’s, and chosen in 1989 for the Caius College May Week concert marking Tranchell’s retirement.

Then there was Zuleika, presented for two weeks in 1954 by the Cambridge University Musical Comedy Club at the Arts Theatre: witty and catchy music by Tranchell, book (after Max Beerbohm) by James Ferman, sets by Malcolm Burgess, of Corpus. This splendid musical comedy played to full houses. Various impresarios and one film company expressed interest. There followed two years and more of dropped options, unresolved negotiations, frustration and bad luck. Eventually the work was presented by Donald Albery in 1957, in a musically pruned and simplified version, and sets by a “name” designer, Osbert Lancaster (drabber than the Cambridge ones). During the short provincial tour both the female star and the director walked out. But Zuleika opened in London, conducted by Charles Mackerras, at the Saville Theatre. The theatre was too large, there were no star names, no recording was made. The run was fairly short. Tranchell’s outlook was permanently shadowed by those frustrations.

Yet, so far as Cambridge was concerned, the 1950s were Tranchell’s most productive and fruitful years. He was a University Teaching Officer without a college fellowship. His house in Halifax Road was a resort for many varieties of talented folk, finding the host at his most generous and wickedly mischievous, with a delight in cookery, puzzles, exotic (and erotic) information, and “unconsidered trifles”, and a compulsive attention to detail.

In 1960 he was elected Fellow and Director of Studies in Music at Gonville and Caius College, in succession to Professor Patrick Hadley (who had been a great help with The Mayor of Casterbridge). Tranchell’s devotion to his new college could not be faulted. He wrote much music for the college choir, including settings of 17 psalms, helped to choose an impressive succession of organ and choral scholars, presided over the college Titus Oates Society, kept an eye on the college food and wine, and was once discovered making water-colour drawings of various possible arrangements of the college flower beds. For nearly 30 years his rooms in Gonville Court were open – sometimes literally a light in darkness – to students appreciative of his hospitality, or desirous of his counsel, always sensible and unsentimental.  If it is possible for rooms to be neatly cluttered, here was a model. All this in the best traditions of a bachelor don. But not, alas, maintained without effect on health.

Tranchell’s last visit to Cambridge was in September 1992, to a dinner in Caius arranged for two dozen or so old friends to celebrate his 70th birthday. He was in good humour, playing and singing his old songs. As a lyric writer he was, at his best, on the level of Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. His wittiest lyrics, however, could not possibly be printed or publicly performed.

He never lost his capacity to surprise. How odd to discover that he was born in India. He had been Head Boy of Clifton College. Not many people knew that. But it is one clue to his character.

Harry Porter

Peter Andrew Tranchell, composer and university teacher: born 14 July 1922; Assistant Lecturer and Lecturer in Music, Cambridge University 1950-89; Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1960-89; died 14 September 1993.