Robin Orr


Born in Brechin, Anugus on 2nd June, 1909, Robin Orr was a Scottish composer and teacher.

He attended Loretto School, Edinburgh, and learned the organ from an early age, for his father, an amateur organist, had built an instrument in his home. Organ studies continued when he went in 1926 to the RCM. In 1929, he was elected organ scholar of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

In 1933 Orr, was appointed director of music at Sidcot School, Somerset, and in 1936 he became assistant lecturer in music at Leeds University. He returned to Cambridge in 1938 to succeed Rootham as organist of St John’s College, where he taught for the next 18 years, apart from a period of war service as an intelligence officer in the RAF (1941–5). In 1947 he was appointed university lecturer in music; in 1948 he was elected Fellow of St John’s; and in 1951 he received the Cambridge MusD. He also taught at the RCM, and was, from 1953, a trustee of the Carl Rosa opera company. Orr left to become professor of music at Glasgow University in 1956, and was the founding chairman of Scottish Opera in 1962; but in 1965 he went back once more to Cambridge, to take the chair of music. There he was the force behind the construction of the new faculty building and concert hall. He was made a CBE in 1972 and received the honorary DMus of Glasgow University the same year. In 1976, the year he retired, Dundee University awarded him the honorary LLD. He was elected an honorary fellow of St John's College in 1987 and of Pembroke College in 1988. The ‘Robin Orr’ lectures at Cambridge were inaugurated in 1989.

Orr's music, outward-looking and cosmopolitan thanks to the influence of Dent and studies abroad, finds its sources in the interwar music of Stravinsky and Bartók, fusing lively and sometimes startling rhythms with shrewd transformation techniques and at times innovative harmony. He worked slowly and methodically, and was keenly responsive to the quality of text in both lyric poetry and drama. Orr was at his best in such compact, impulsive scores as the three symphonies, the Sinfonietta helvetica and his three operas. Of these last, the pithy, socially perceptive Full Circle (commissioned by Scottish Television) employs identical forces to Stravinsky's L′histoire du soldat; Hermiston is tense and powerful, lyrical and graphically bleak, with skilfully characterized libretto by Bill Bryden; the witty, artful comic opera On The Razzle, commissioned for the opening of the new Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama theatre in Glasgow, displays a flurry of ingenious personal vignettes. Equally noteworthy is Orr's vocal output, in particular his settings of Skelton and Rilke, and his useful and substantial contribution to Anglican church music.

Robin died on 9th April, 2006 in Cambridge.

[Biography adapted from Grove Music Online]