Although best known for his horror pastiche and the “pop cantata” Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo, Joseph Horovitz, who died at the age of 95, was a master craftsman in a range of musical genres, from chamber music to orchestral brass band and wind to opera and ballet. He also wrote at least 70 television and film scores during his career, including Rumpole of the Bailey.
Many of his more serious works also displayed a popular edge, but he consistently managed to write accessible music in a rewarding way, without superficiality or sentimentality.
He first gained critical acclaim in the 1950s for two comic operas, The Dumb Wife, to a libretto by Peter Shaffer after Rabelais, and Gentleman’s Island, and for a series of ballets (he wrote 16 in all) beginning with Les Femmes d’Alger (1952) and continuing with Alice in Wonderland (1953) and Concerto for Dancers (1958). The premieres were performed by the Intimate Opera Company, for which he acted as pianist-composer. In 1961 he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music, becoming a Fellow in 1981 and continuing to teach there until shortly before his death.
Horovitz once cited the British composers Peter Warlock, EJ Moeran and Frederick Delius, as well as the Anglo-Dutch Bernard van Dieren, as influences, but despite occasional echoes of Warlock, there are few significant traces of English pastoralism in his works. Rather, he developed an individual neoclassical idiom, relying on neo-tonal harmonies, enlivened by jazz, Latin American, and other popular elements.
The Trumpet Concerto (1963), written, according to Horovitz, to “demonstrate the agility and brilliance of the modern trumpet,” contrasts sharp, virtuosic material with indulgent, melodious writing. The final rondo – a favorite form of the composer – is spiced with Latin American rhythms that keep the soloist and the orchestra in suspense. With its colorful orchestration comprising tambourine, side drum and xylophone, it provides an engaging and challenging base element in the trumpet repertoire. Initially associated with Philip Jones, who gave the first performance under the composer’s direction, it was later recorded by a leading trumpeter of the next generation, James Watson. Horovitz also made similar contributions to the concerto repertoire of many other instruments, including violin, clarinet, bassoon, percussion, tuba, and euphonium.
His probably best-known work, Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo, written in 1968, was composed to text by Michael Flanders. Performed by the King’s Singers, it won the Novello Award for Best Children’s Work and was set as a GCSE text. It was also adapted into a television cartoon and re-orchestrated by the composer for a full-scale BBC performance in 2018, conducted by John Wilson, one of Horowitz’s many distinguished pupils.
The Horrortorio was almost as successful, first performed at the Hoffnung Astronautical Music Festival in 1961 at the Royal Festival Hall, and later performed worldwide. Featuring a witty libretto by Alistair Sampson, from a screenplay by Maurice Richardson who ridicules Hammer horror films of the era with its screenplay populated by Count Dracula, Frankenstein, Moriarty and Fu Manchu, the ‘Horrortorio is a seditious but cleverly crafted pastiche of the Handelian oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast by Gilbert and Sullivan and Walton.
Horovitz was born in Vienna to Béla Horovitz, publisher and co-founder of Phaidon Press, and his wife, Lotte (née Beller). Escaping from the city just days after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, he traveled alone to London with his siblings, later joined by their parents. They spent the war years in Bath and Oxford. Her older sister, Elly Miller, became a distinguished art editor, her younger sister, Hannah Horovitz, a classical music promoter.
After studying music and modern languages at Oxford, he studied with Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music and for a year with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
His first post as Music Director of the Bristol Old Vic brought him both valuable experience – he continued to conduct throughout his life – and an education in the popular styles that were to become an intrinsic part of his own idiom.
His Jazz Harpsichord Concerto (1965), using an amplified harpsichord concertino, drums and bass, was a curiously idiosyncratic work for an RCM professor to write in the mid-1960s, but its clever blend of classical and jazz procedures, and its un contagious and rowdy enthusiasm, give it an immense attraction for the public.
The last of his five string quartets, from 1969, one of his finest works, uses gravelly dissonance seemingly to recall the harsh experiences of his earlier life, with an angst powerfully invoked by insistent repetitions of motifs from Viennese waltz. Disquiet alternates with nostalgic passages, however, and the quartet comes to a peaceful resolution towards a final consonance.
He composed the score for The Search for the Nile (1971), a mini-series, for a BBC production of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1976), for Lillie, a television series about Lillie Langtry with Francesca Annis (1978 ), and for Rumpole from the Bailey (1978).
The Jubilee Toy Symphony (1977), featuring toy instruments, bird sounds and percussion, was another popular hit. Commissioned for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, it was premiered by a stellar line-up of soloists under the direction of Colin Davis at a musical evening in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund (now Help Musicians) at St James’s Palace, London. presence of the Queen Mother.
In the 1980s, he composed the music for the television series Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime and A Dorothy L Sayers Mystery.
A third opera, Ninotchka, based on the 1939 MGM film starring Greta Garbo, dates from 2006.
He is survived by his wife, Anna (née Landau), whom he married in 1956, and their two daughters, Isabel and Sally, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.