John Wilfred Heaton


John Wilfred Heaton was a composer of refined sensibility and technical skill the true extent of whose creative gifts has only emerged since his death in May 2000. As his many admirers suspected the music currently in print represents just a small part of what he actually composed. Wilfred's life in music was underpinned by wide-ranging interests in the arts in philosophy and by his strong religious background and faith. Yet at times during his long life his creative impulse was often tested and questioned.

Born in Sheffield to Salvationist parents Wilfred Heaton's musical talents were first nurtured through the Salvation Army. He began piano lessons at the age of 8. Soon after that he was learning the cornet and writing music of his own.

His piano teacher Salvationist songster Mrs Bennett guided him to his first musical milestone an LRAM in piano awarded when he was just 18. He left school to become an apprentice in a small brass instrument manufacturer and repair business in Sheffield. Apart from  war service in the RAF he remained there for over 20 years composing whenever he could.

He noted on a manuscript page of his last work the autobiographical Variations "I got help initially from a crippled SA musician (George Marshall) who had a very sound harmonic instinct but who stressed contrapuntal studies above all then from a local music master who initiated me into the wider world of chamber and orchestral music and finally a lot later (the 1950's) Matyas Seiber whose instruction on Bach studies was invaluable. These are three with whom I had personal contact but along with other inspiring composers of the 18th century German giants and the 20th century masters". 

It was expected that Wilfred would dedicate his musical talents to the Salvation Army and in his own words he continued to "do a good job" for the Army throughout his life. The technical and musical complexities of his best work whilst placing him firmly in the European classical mainstream were often thought to be too radical for Salvation Army performance. Those pieces that were published like the March Praise and the Meditation Just as I am  have become firm Salvation Army favourites but several more were rejected. Others like Toccata eventually found their way into print many years later.

In his 20's and 30's Wilfred's musical ambitions extended beyond the brass band. There was a Suite for orchestra which later became a Piano Sonata and eventually the Partita for brass band. His Op.1 was a Rhapsody for oboe and strings - Op.2 was a suite of Three Pieces for piano. Both works received performances in London under the auspices of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. There was also a Little Suite for recorder (and flute) and piano composed in 1955 for the Sheffield based recorder virtuoso Philip Rogers. He also composed for chamber ensembles and voices.

In the late 1950's Wilfred's life began to take a different course. He had taken up the french horn and was working as a peripatetic brass teacher a move which in 1962 took the Heaton family to Harrogate. Wilfred played in a number of teachers' orchestras and ensembles. He was a founding conductor of the Dales Sinfonia. He formed and conducted the local schools orchestra. Between 1962 and 1969 he was Musical Director of the Leeds Symphony Orchestra and in 1970 he spent several months as Musical Director of the Black Dyke Mills Band.

However as his professional activities increased his own creativity went into decline. He continued to arrange music for the performing groups with which he was involved but he composed very little. Another note on the score of Variations offers the explanation "....all compositional ambitions were brought to a halt with my contact with Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophical Movement. Involvement in this seemed to dry me up at a tempo. I lost the impulse to compose. Such an activity seemed unimportant compared with the spiritual impulses provided by Steiner". Most of his spare time was now dedicated to a systematic exploration of the worlds of philosophy and of sprituality.

From time to time he was tempted out of his creative semi-retirement most notably in 1973 when he accepted a commission to write Contest Music only for  it to be rejected by the organisers as "too advanced". It was to be used to huge acclaim 9 years later as the test piece for the National Championships.

In his later years Wilfred was pleased but always appeared surprised at the appreciative reception his music was by then receiving. He never regained his old fluency but he was encouraged by family and close friends - notably the conductor Howard Snell - to take up his composing pen once again. After the death of his wife and his own retirement from teaching there was a welcome "Indian summer" - two substantial concertos two marches and his final Variations.

A few weeks before he died, Wilfred Heaton remarked that as a young man all he wanted to do was be a composer "..... and I suppose that urge never really leaves you" he added. He once said to a colleague there would be some surprises at what would emerge from his " unregarded corner ". He was quite right.