Lyell Cresswell. Born Wellington 1944, died Edinburgh 2022.
The Aotearoa New Zealand music community is in mourning for one of our most significant and most loved composers, Lyell Cresswell, who died in Edinburgh a few days ago. A recent Covid infection complicated existing liver cancer, and he passed away peacefully, holding the hand of his beloved wife Catherine. Lyell had lived in Scotland since the 80s, but always maintained a close relationship with the land of his birth, and visited often.
He was one of ours, and we held each other close.
A genial, often giggly man, his cheery demeanour concealed a steely determination, and mighty musical spirit which powered a remarkable depth of creative vision. His masterly orchestral canvases are among the greatest ever from a NZ composer. Work after brilliant work, including many concerti, came off his pen over decades. Many of us were first exposed to his music as composition students, and remember our visceral response to the coruscating Salm, O!, or Cello Concerto. When I actually met him, I devised a view that the nervy and intense scurrying semiquavers of much of his material, echoed his own quirky manner. But that would deny the intricate contrapuntal detail, the command of instrumentation and structure, and the exquisite control of tension and drama.
The large scale, however, was subverted by his many witty utterances via smaller pieces. Le sucre du Printemps, for 9 clarinets anyone? And who could have guessed that the man who created the potent Speak for Us, Great Sea, made Feet for trombone, hard soled shoes and tape, a chucklesome foray into stage perambulation? His crisply droll graphics, of which the score Ear Music, visual music, to be seen but not heard is the best known, and made into a SOUNZ tee shirt years ago, are the stuff of composerly legend.
His engrossing 2000 Massey University Composer Address, Tracing the Lightning Flashes reveals much of Lyell’s personality, and deep knowledge of the arts, especially literature, citing a panoply of influences, from Billie Holiday to Dante.
I have never forgotten one of Lyell’s descriptions of his own work, music “of bright colours and deep feeling — music that can move people.”
Farewell Lyell, you have enriched our very souls.
Eve de Castro-Robinson