Humphrey Searle in 1950–1955.[1]
Humphrey Searle in 1950–1955.[1]

Humphrey Searle (26 August 1915 – 12 May 1982) was an English composer and writer on music. His music combines aspects of late Romanticism and modernist serialism, particularly reminiscent of his primary influences, Franz Liszt, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, who was briefly his teacher.[2] As a writer on music, Searle published texts on numerous topics; he was an authority on the music of Franz Liszt, and created the initial cataloguing system for his works.[3]


Searle was the son of Humphrey and Charlotte Searle and, through his mother, a grandson of Sir William Schlich. He was born in Oxford where he was a classics scholar before studying—somewhat hesitantly—with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music in London, after which he went to Vienna on a six-month scholarship to become a private pupil of Anton Webern, which became decisive in his composition career.[3]

Searle was one of the foremost pioneers of serial music in the United Kingdom, and used his role as a producer at the BBC from 1946 to 1948 to promote it. He was General Secretary of the International Society for Contemporary Music from 1947 to 1949. He accepted this post with the encouragement of the new president, Edward Clark. For Clark, he composed the Quartet for Clarinet, Bassoon, Violin and Viola, Op. 12, a musical palindrome.[4]

Searle wrote his Piano Sonata, Op. 21 for a recital at the Wigmore Hall on 22 October 1951, given by the Australian pianist Gordon Watson to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt. (Watson also performed the complete Transcendental Études on that occasion.[5]) The Sonata was loosely based on Liszt's Sonata in B minor and has been described as "probably, both the finest and most original piano work ever produced by a British composer".[6]

Other works of note include a Poem for 22 Strings (1950), premiered at Darmstadt, a Gogol opera, The Diary of a Madman (1958, awarded the first prize at UNESCO's International Rostrum of Composers in 1960), and five symphonies (the first of which was commercially recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult).

He also composed film scores, including music for The Baby and the Battleship (1956), Beyond Mombasa (1956), Action of the Tiger (1957), The Abominable Snowman (1957), Law and Disorder (1958), Left Right and Centre (1959), October Moth (1960) and The Haunting (1963), as well the 1965 Doctor Who serial The Myth Makers.

Searle also contributed humorous compositions to some of the Hoffnung Music Festivals, including a setting of Young Lochinvar and a parody of serialism, Punkt Kontrapunkt.[7]

Searle taught throughout his life; his notable students included Hugh Davidson, Brian Elias, Michael Finnissy, Jonathan Elias, Nicola LeFanu, Alistair Hinton, Geoffrey King, and Graham Newcater and Wolfgang Rihm.[3] See: List of music students by teacher: R to S#Humphrey Searle.

Searle wrote the monographs Twentieth Century Counterpoint and The Music of Franz Liszt. He also developed the most authoritative catalogue of Liszt's works, which are frequently identified using Searle's numbering system, abbreviated as "S.".

Searle married Fiona Nicholson in 1960. He died in London in 1982, aged 66.[8]

List of works





Piano concertos[edit]


Chorus and instruments[edit]

Voice and orchestra[edit]

Unaccompanied chorus[edit]

Chamber music[edit]

Song cycle[edit]




Selected bibliography