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Obituary: James Walker 1929-2002

The composer and pianist James Walker played an important part in the University’s music-making for forty years. As a founder member of the Archduke Trio, he gave his first concert at the University in October 1961 and his last in May 2002. His death on October 11, at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, marks the end of an era.

Although James was too ill to play at a scheduled concert two days before his death, clarinettist Catherine Spencer and pianist Sam Haywood - musicians introduced to me by James several years earlier - stood in, at short notice, and included in their programme James Walker’s Second Clarinet Sonatina, the recording of which was played to James two days later.

The Archduke Trio - Kenneth Page, violin (who died in January 1999); Oliver Brookes, cello; and James Walker - was appointed to the University in 1964. As well as performing most of the piano trio repertoire and a series of trios written especially for the ‘Archduke’ by composers associated with the University, James headed a team of piano instructors until the Music Department as an academic entity closed in 1991. He enjoyed teaching and was an inspiration to many, though, rightly, he was less than tolerant towards students who arrived unprepared! James Walker
James Walker

For James Walker’s earlier musical experiences and training, we must go back to the 1940s and his period of National Service in the Royal Artillery Band (where he played the clarinet) and Orchestra. Shortly after arriving as a youthful and already talented pianist, he was summoned: “Walker, go and pick up your other instrument!”  This turned out to be a harp, and a simple manual. Within a very short period “Walker” was a competent harpist. He was also instructed to have the Grieg Piano Concerto ready within a fortnight! During this period he rubbed shoulders with the horn player Alan Civil and guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream. James also accompanied James Galway for a while, though he did not always find Galway’s arrangements to his taste.

During the 1950s James could be heard playing the harp in the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, and at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (as it then was) in Stratford-upon-Avon. Not only was he proud of the fact that he was the first person to play the lute on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but that as a composer he wrote the incidental music for a number of Royal Shakespeare Company productions. 

Pieces from his music for Much Ado about Nothing, performed with panache by members of the current RSC Wind Ensemble at the Memorial Service for James, reminded us of his skill in orchestration and pastiche. James was Vice-Chairman of the Denne Gilkes Memorial Fund - a role he took very seriously. The Denne Gilkes Memorial Fund supports young musicians and actors, and is the chosen charity for donations in James' memory.

James was a fluent composer in styles that are often witty. Movements display clear thinking, and cogent constructions are achieved without fuss. His output includes a series of duos for piano and various instruments, as well as choral works.  In September 2002 a website, http://www.james-walker.info/, was set up listing all his available compositions. Astoundingly, there are almost 80! Two works of recent years stand out: his Serenade for Strings which was included in a Proteus Chamber Orchestra concert in November 2001, and a Grand Duo - an extended composition for piano duet - which was to have had its premiere on November 27, 2002, but will now be featured in a University concert in May 2003. 

One of the instructive delights of my job over the past decade was to act as James’s regular page-turner. I was struck not only by his amazing accuracy but also by his musicianship in works as diverse as the large-scale Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov trios and the more experimental work of my predecessor and one of James’s piano-duet partners in the 1970s and 80s, Andrew Wilson Dickson.

James also gave an annual solo piano recital, relishing the task of devising programmes that fitted into the musical ‘theme’ of the year. More recently, he became particularly inventive, often including works by neglected or unfashionable composers. From time to time, with due modesty, he would include a short item of his own. Outside the University, James was a long-standing BBC recitalist and a teacher of piano at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

After his retirement as an instructor in September 1991, he continued to play regularly in lunchtime concerts. His last solo recital at the University, in November 2001, was particularly memorable. In it he played, for the third time in his University career, one of his favourite works, Schubert’s last piano sonata, in B flat major. In earlier years, with the Proteus Chamber Orchestra, James was the soloist in several Mozart piano concertos, taking K.503 to Krefeld in 1990. A special feature of his playing of the Classical repertoire was his immaculate phrasing. He was a joy to work with. Never one to gloss over imprecise detail, he was a soloist who raised the level of the orchestral accompaniment.

James Walker was much admired and respected by audiences at concerts, and by colleagues at the University. His sensitivity, gentleness, kindness and his unobtrusive enthusiasm made him a friend of many. Since his official retirement James continued his close interest in the planning of programmes and always looked forward to working with the Archduke Trio or the Voces Intimae Quartet, as well as with talented soloists. By doing so he continued to uphold our tradition of fine music making. Shortly before his untimely death, James regarded his inability to take part as merely a postponement - such was his love of playing and his commitment. 

In 1975, in recognition of his services to music, he was awarded the honorary degree of Master of Music by the University of Leicester. 

James leaves behind his wife Jo and their son Tom, as well as his son and daughter, Simon and Jane, from his first marriage to Betty.

Plans have been made to celebrate James's long musical association with the University at a lunchtime concert to be held on January 22, 2003, at 12.45pm in the Music Room (10th floor, Charles Wilson Building). Philip Gallaway (violin), Russell Davis (cello) with Alan Schiller (piano) will play Haydn's Trio in G Major, 'Gypsy Rondo', and Beethoven's first published work, his Trio in E flat major, Op.1, No.1. A memorial event has also been arranged in Stratford-upon-Avon on January 5, 2003 at the Shakespeare Institute. 

Anthony Pither
November 2002

  • Anyone wishing to make a donation in James Walker’s memory should send it to the Denne Gilkes Memorial Fund, c/o Funeral Directors, A E Bennett, 34 Sheep Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 6EE.

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Last updated: 22 November 2002 17:00
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