England’s Unsung Composers: Peter Cork
Peter Thorrington Cork is best remembered as the piano teacher of Dudley Moore, with whom he kept in touch right up until the latter’s untimely death through a debilitating illness. Cork, who never married, devoted his whole life to helping others in selfeffacing Christian service. Born at Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire in 1926, where his father was the Baptist minister, the family later moved to Ashford in Kent where his parents bought him an upright piano on which, with helpful tuition, he raced through the grades and scored the highest exam marks in the county.
While studying to be a music teacher at Goldsmiths College during the Second World War, he wrote a dissertation on film music and went on to study under Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music, both men loving traditional musical structure and good, sweeping tunes. Both Cork and his father (who was not supposed to go to cinemas but loved film music like his son), surreptitiously attended matinees of Korngold’s films, especially Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn as the hero with Basil Rathbone as the villainous Sir Guy of Gisbourne.
He met Dudley Moore while teaching at Dagenham County High School and helped his pupil win a music scholarship to Oxford. Dudley never forgot his encouragement and they later attended the Edinburgh Festival together. After he moved to Hollywood for his film career, Moore wrote regular letters back to his mentor, and in 2006 these were published posthumously in book form.
Cork later taught at Clapham in south London but in 1977 he gave up teaching and began working for the BBC on special commissions, as well as composing library music in which he used every possible style from Victorian pastiche to big band jazz. Custom-composed scores were not common on television at the time but his general works were used extensively, one number becoming the signature tune for the Channel 4 series, The Years Ahead. Unlike television, however, radio producers were allowed to commission original music and Cork worked with a number of people on Radios 3 and 4.
In 1994, he wrote the script and music for a much-praised dramatised documentary, The Road from Marriage Farm, telling the story of his grandparents. Throughout the 1990s, he also released a
series of well-reviewed CDS of his own music, including a chamber suite inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass which, together with a three-part orchestral suite, A Man of Kent (Romney Marsh, Alkham Valley, White Cliffs), was recorded by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Gavin Sutherland, and featured on Brian Kay’s Light Music Programme and also in the 2011 Light Fantastic season, both on Radio 3. Among his other major compositions were A Suite of Carols, two operettas The Bells of Craxminster and The White Bird plus Wartime Picnics, a gentle love affair conducted in Kent under the threat of invasion and aerial attacks. A Country Calendar evoked scenes from rural life during the Thirties and Forties, in both words and music.
Cork retained a close circle of friends and enjoyed long walks with them in the Kent countryside right up until his 80th birthday (he died in 2012). Like many tuneful composers of his time he was appreciated locally but never made the national stage. Even so, it is the creative genius of men and women like him who make up the backbone of our musical society and we should be grateful — unsung they may be but we are definitely in their debt.
Dudley Moore was certainly appreciative of his musical mentor and owed his glittering career, albeit cut short in tragic circumstances via a degenerative brain disease, to a dedicated teacher who expended much time and effort on his behalf, and on so many others in his long and productive life. Famous? No! Worthwhile? Yes!
Other major works by Peter Cork which it would be nice to see recorded:
London in the Thirties (suite for brass) Bowler Hats and City Pavements; Koffee at the Kardoma; Afternoon in Limehouse; Teatime Tango at the Ritz; First House at Hackney Empire; Westminster Bridge at Sunset; Morning on Horse Guards Parade.
Spirit of Christmas (cantata for mixed voices) Christmas Bells Will Ring; On the Ice before Christmas; Christmas Eve in City Churches; Do You Remember the Christmas of 1942?; Oldfashioned Christmas; Christmas is Over. Surrey Concerto Walking Out in Wapping
‘...it is the creative genius of men and women like him who make up the backbone of our musical society’