My friend, the composer Andrew Downes, who has died aged 72, was a pioneering and original voice in British music. As head of the school of composition and creative studies at the Birmingham School of Music (later the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) from 1975 until 2005, he was a mentor to generations of young musicians who relished his irreverent humour and inspired teaching.
Andrew’s career as a composer saw a steady stream of commissions and broadcasts, including an overture, In the Cotswolds, for the Three Choirs festival, the Centenary Firedances for the City of Birmingham’s centenary festival in 1989, anthems for the BBC Radio 4 Daily Service and song cycles for the singers Sarah Walker and John Mitchinson on Radio 3. In 1997 Andrew’s overture Towards a New Age was premiered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, and a long association with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra led to commissions and premieres in the Dvořák Hall and Rudolfinum, Prague, and a CD box set of Andrew’s symphonies.
His charismatic and subversive approach to his academic role made him a popular lecturer and a greatly loved if sometimes exasperating colleague. He thought nothing of challenging authority, and had a gift for unlocking sparks of artistic potential in students others had found wayward and unteachable. He encouraged his disciples to create opportunities, devise festivals, take music into the community and, above all, to be themselves.
Under his direction, the school of composition and creative studies became a leader among British conservatoires, pioneering gamelan ensembles, gospel choirs, klezmer bands, folk groups and African drumming, as well as nurturing budding symphonists. His own musical voice is distinctively personal and draws on an eclectic blend of influences, while owing much to the late romantic English tradition.
Born in Handsworth, Birmingham, to Iris (nee Fennell), a secretary, and Frank Downes, a horn player with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and BBC Midland Light Orchestra, Andrew was educated at Aldridge grammar school and read music at Cambridge University. He studied composition with Sir Lennox Berkeley and Herbert Howells, who described him as “one of the most effective composers coming to me these days. I have very considerable hopes for him.”
Andrew had suffered from ankylosing spondylitis since his youth, and an accident in 2009 resulted in permanent paraplegia. Despite his travelling being restricted thereafter, his creative zeal and joie de vivre remained undimmed, and he never stopped composing.
In 1975 Andrew married Cynthia Cooper, his lifelong companion and publisher, whom he had met as a teenager in the Staffordshire County Youth Orchestra. She survives him, along with their daughters, Anna and Paula, and their grandchildren, Oscar, Maxwell, Persephone and Emilia.