R.O. Morris

Reginald Owen Morris (3 March 1886 – 15 December 1948), known professionally and by his friends by his initials, as R.O. Morris, was a British composer and teacher.

Morris was born in York, son of Army officer Reginald Frank Morris and Georgiana Susan (née Sherard).  He was educated at Harrow School, New College, Oxford and the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London. On the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, along with his friends George Butterworth and Geoffrey Toye. After a time writing for The Nation as music critic he re-joined the RCM as a professor of counterpoint and composition in 1920.  From 1926 for two years he taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia before returning to the RCM.

Morris became famous as an exceptional teacher of counterpoint and wrote several texts including Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 1922), Foundations of Practical Harmony and Counterpoint (London, 1925), Figured Harmony at the Keyboard (London, 1931), The Structure of Music (London, 1935) and Introduction to Counterpoint (London, 1944).  His students included the composers Gerald Finzi, Sir Michael Tippett, Constant Lambert, Robin Milford, Anthony Milner, Edmund Rubbra, Bernard Stevens and Jean Coulthard.

His compositions have been overshadowed by his formidable reputation as a teacher. However, Morris enjoyed a ten-year period of creativity as a composer roughly between 1922 and 1932, writing symphonic and chamber music, songs and choral works.  One of the first, the Fantasy String Quartet in A, won a Carnegie Trust Award and was published as part of the Carnegie Collection of British Music.

Gerald Finzi thought highly of his music, and in an obituary piece he chose four pieces representing Morris at his most approachable –Corrina’s Maying for chorus and orchestra, the Concerto Piccolo, the Suite for Chamber Orchestra and the six Canzoni Ricercati for string orchestra or string quartet – with the Toccata and Fugue for Orchestra at the other extreme and the Symphony in D (first performed on 1 January 1934 at the Queen’s Hall) somewhere in the middle.  According to Stephen Banfield, Finzi regarded the last of the Canzoni Ricercati as Morris’s “one genuine masterpiece” and described it as a “grave and lovely” work.

Much of his most powerful music is contrapuntally led, as in the final Chaconne of the Sinfonia in C, the intense fugal and canonic writing of the Canzoni Ricercati No 6 (using themes that maintain the flavor of mournful folk melodies), or the first movement of the Symphony in D, where the coda develops into a masterly canon.  But in the early 1930s Morris stopped composing and would never talk about his own compositions from that point onwards.  Today he is generally known for just one work, the hymn tune Hermitage, used as the melody for the carol Love Came Down at Christmas.

In February 1915 Morris married Emmie Fisher, thus becoming brother-in-law to Vaughan Williams, who had married her sister Adeline. For many years in the 1920s and 1930s Morris lived at 30, Glebe Place, very close to Vaughan Williams and Adeline.  He later moved to 2 Addison Gardens in Kensington, where he died very suddenly in December 1948, having been examining at the Royal College of Music the day before with no sign of anything wrong.