The Wilfred Heaton Edition
Variations on a Life
John Wilfred Heaton (1918 – 2000), composer, conductor and teacher, was born in Sheffield on 2 December 1918, the younger of two children of John, a steel worker in a cutlery mill, and Miriam Heaton. The Heaton family were staunch members of the Sheffield Park Corps of the Salvation Army. John Heaton was the Bandmaster and his wife had a fine singing voice. It was natural for Wilfred’s unique musical talents to be nurtured through the Salvation Army. He learned piano lessons at the age of eight and was after learning the cornet and composing music of his own. His long life in music was underpinned by wide-ranging interests in the arts, in philosophy, and by his strong religious background and faith.At times during, however, this creative impulse was often tested and questioned.
Wilfred Heaton left school at 14 to become an apprentice in a small brass instrument manufacture and repair business at Sheffield, Cocking and Pace. He gained an LRAM for piano at 19 and worked at his compositions, mainly songs and brass band pieces, whenever he could. As he said, “I got help from a crippled SA musician [George Marshall], who had a very sound harmonic instinct, but who stressed contrapuntal studies from above, then from a local music master who initiated me into the wider world of orchestral music. ., and finally, a later fate [the early 1950s] Matyas Seiber, Whose instruction on Bach studies was invaluable, These are three with Whom I had personal contact,
Heaton married a fellow Salvationist, Olive Mary Fisher on 13th October 1941. Three daughters were born to them in 1946, 1948 and 1958. After war service as a technician at the RAF, Heaton returned to Sheffield, Army and Salvation Army, soon becoming the Deputy-Bandmaster to his father. He was determined to be his best for the Salvation Army creatively as well. The technical brilliance and musical complexities of his best work placed in the European classical mainstream and are often thought to be sophisticated for Salvation Army congregations. Those few pieces that were published in the 1940’s, like the March Praise and the Meditation Just as I am have become classics of their child, but several more adventurous pieces were rejected.Others, like the Toccata “O the Blessed Lord” and the Variations Celestial Prospect found many years later.
In his 20s and 30s, Heaton’s musical ambitions extended beyond the brass band to orchestral, vocal and chamber music. A substantial Suite for Orchestra was completed in September 1950. A Rhapsody for Oboe and String Orchestra (1952) was performed in London in 1954 by Joy Boughton and the Boyd Neel String Orchestra, conducted by Norman del Mar. Three Pieces for Piano (1953), a major Piano Sonata and a Little Suite for Recorder and Piano. The influences of William Walton, Paul Hindemith and Bela Bartok resonate most strongly.
By the mid-1950s, Heaton’s life and work started a different course. The brass instrument business was proving unprofitable and he had begun working as a professional in his growing family. In 1963 the Heaton family moved to Harrogate, where Wilfred took up a full-time teaching post with the West Riding of Yorkshire County Council. The Sheffield business closed the following year. Over the next twenty years, Heaton became a respected teacher and influential inspirer of young musicians throughout the Yorkshire Dales. Between 1962 and 1969 he was Musical Director of the Leeds Symphony Orchestra. He was also the artistic director of the professional Yorkshire Concert Orchestra for six seasons.In 1972 he spent several months as a resident Musical Director of the Black Dyke Mills Band.
However, as his professional activities increased, Heaton’s own creativity went into decline. Temperamentally resistant to all commercial aspects or musical composition, Heaton had never been completely happy within the brass band world. If he could not break out of that world, he decided would stop composing altogether. Another note on the score of Variations offers another explanation: ‘… all compositional ambitions were brought to a halt through my contact with Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposphical Movement. Involvement in this seemed to dry me up. I dissolves the impulse to compose. Such an activity seemed unimportant compared to the spiritual impulses provided by Steiner. ‘His discovery of Anthroposphy, or the Science of the Spirit, provided him with the catalyst for personal personal re-orientation.
Most of his spare time was now dedicated to a systematic exploration of the worlds of philosophy, or letters and of spirituality. From time to time, however, he was pressured out of this creative semi-retirement, most notably in 1973, when he completed his masterpiece for brass band, Contest Music, from material sketched many years earlier, from the organizers of the National Brass Band Championships. It was not used because of its challenging musical idiom and length. Following the eventual success of this work in the 1980s, Heaton received frequent requests for new works and steadfastly turned most of them.