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John Ritchie (1921-2014)

Sep 30th, 2014

The composer John Ritchie passed away yesterday on the morning of his 93rd birthday, the 29th of September 2014.

Ritchie was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1921. At the age of twelve, and parentless, John Ritchie had the good fortune to attend King Edward Technical College in Dunedin. Under the guiding hand of Vernon Griffiths, Ritchie showed promise both as a performer and composer. He furthered his studies in music at Otago University, completing his degree before travelling to the United Kingdom to serve as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War. On his return he was appointed lecturer in music (and later Professor) at the University of Canterbury, beginning an academic career which spanned forty years. Other of his appointments included a visiting professorship at Exeter University (1967-68), Secretary-General of the International Society for Music Education (1976-84), and President (1990-92) and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Canterbury 1977-83.

During this time Ritchie composed a substantial body of music, much of it written for particular performers and special occasions. The early years were dominated by vocal works (such as the Twelve Three-Part Songs (1955), published by Novello), reflecting his involvement as a conductor with community choirs at this time. However, Ritchie’s increasing interest in orchestras in the 1950s led to him composing works such as the Suite No.1 for Strings (1956) and Concertino for Clarinet and Strings (1957), which were performed by the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra of Wellington. He established the John Ritchie String Orchestra in 1958, and this group performed regularly over a period of several years. At the height of his conducting career Ritchie performed with the National Orchestra, directing works including Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Ritchie’s busy teaching and conducting career, plus his commitment to a family of five children, meant there was less time for composing in the 1960s and 70s. Despite this, there are significant works from this period such as the elegant Four Zhivago Songs (1977). Ritchie’s output increased in the 1980s as his university work wound down, with works including Aquarius: Suite No.2 for Strings (1982), Pisces: Partita Concertante for Violin and Orchestra (1984) and the Saxophone Concerto (1998).

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