The story of Stephen’s life and work is published in a book called “Friendships in Constant Repair”. It is now available from UK booksellers and can be ordered from this website at a discount (see ‘News’ section).
We include here some basic background about a fascinating life of music, literature and friendship.
Stephen was born on 10th March, 1950 in Chester. He was the youngest child of Osborne and Hester Oliver. He had an elder sister, Ruth and an elder brother, James. This picture shows the family of the occasion of Osborne and Hester’s Golden Wedding anniversary in 1991, a year before Stephen (second from the right) died.
The family lived at Eastham on the Wirral peninsula. Osborne worked for the electricity board in Liverpool and Hester was a religious education teacher at Bebington Secondary School for girls. Music and theatre were an important part of family life. Osborne was involved in amateur theatre in Liverpool and Hester was a graduate of the Royal College of Music.
All the family played instruments and sang and they also made and performed on home-made instruments like bamboo pipes, bowed psalteries, choral dulcimers and the like.
Stephen’s gifts and talents were evident at a very early age. He taught himself to read before he went to school, he wrote stories, poems and even hymns as soon as he could write. It quickly became evident to his parents that he would require specialist educational opportunities and he was successful in obtaining a bursary to attend St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School – where his grandfather had been a chorister.
The St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School Years
From the age of eight, at the start of each term Stephen travelled alone on the train to his new school (with help across London from ‘Universal Aunts’). Given his choral duties at the cathedral, he was never home for Christmas or Easter and given the distance between the Wirral and London, he was rarely able to go home for half term holidays either.
The picture shows nine year old Stephen (centre with glasses) being introduced to the Queen Mother, patron of the Friends of St Pauls. His world centred on a school of some forty boys aged between eight and fourteen and his singing each day in the cathedral choir.
School reports indicated that he learnt quickly and showed particular ability in music, drama and literature. He stood out in school drama productions, had his many compositions commented upon by John Dykes Bower (Cathedral Organist) at the beginning of daily choir practices and wrote stories and poems for school magazines and anthologies.
The Ardingly Years
At the age of thirteen when his voice broke, Stephen won a scholarship to Ardingly College in Sussex. The husband of a great friend of Stephen’s Mother had been Headmaster of the school until 1961 and, amongst his many achievements at the school, he had built up the music and drama in particular. Ardingly proved a valuable environment for Stephen to create and perform; whether in the chapel choir, house music compositions or school plays.
The picture shows a production of Julius Caesar which was reviewed with the words, “Stephen Oliver gave a Caesar with the polished impression and impeccable precision that we have come to expect of him.” During his five years at the school, he wrote more than fifty works including numerous ensemble and choral works, a trumpet concerto, a film score, three major cantatas and three operas. He entered compositions in the Chester Music Festival composition class under a non de plume and won several years running often against adults with published work. At the point at which he gained his scholarship to Oxford, the Pernod company sponsored a whole concert of his music played by the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra at the Blue Coat concert hall in Liverpool.
The Oxford Years
In 1969, Stephen arrived at Worcester College, Oxford to study under Kenneth Leighton and Robert Sherlaw Johnson. He was already an established composer and used his university years to develop his work. He met up with contemporaries who would become life-long friends and colleagues.
Those at university with him remember him as a humorous and well read companion who was a delight in any gathering; be it an informal social occasion or a tutorial. He would typically be seen striding purposefully between locations in flowing gown and often black clothing, either reading a book or singing as he walked. Lessons were somewhat superfluous for him and he focused on his composition which was increasingly done to order for performance; including significant operas “All the Tea in China” in 1969, “The Duchess of Malfi” in 1971 and “The Dissolute Punished” in 1972. By the time he left Oxford, eight of his works had been published by Novello.
His Professional Life
The transition between ‘student’ and full time composer took place during one year in which Stephen was a lecturer at what was then Huddersfield Polytechnic. His Ardingly College Director of Music had become Director of Music at Huddersfield and Stephen spent a happy time enthusing his students and enlisting those around him to perform his constant flow of new work. But as more commissions came in, it was clear that he would need to move to London so in 1974, he moved south as a full-time composer.
The picture shows Stephen with Norman Bailey, Sir Charles Groves and Julian Lloyd Webber preparing for the Save the Children 70th Anniversary Concert in 1990.
His great friend, Adam Pollock’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (OUP) reads: “He regarded himself as a craftsman — someone in the line of eighteenth century composers who would undertake any commissioned work. He wrote fast with a facility for inventing the widest ranges of sounds from pastiche of any century’s characteristics to his personal contemporary ‘squeaky-gate’ music with anything from Messiaen-scale orchestration to miniatures for lute and viola da gamba, or simply a tray of wine glasses.
Oliver composed for every facet of entertainment: film (Lady Jane Grey), dance (La Bella Rosina), radio (incidental music for The Lord of the Rings), television (much of the BBC Shakespeare series) and straight theatre (some 90 plays, many for the Royal Shakespeare Company including scores for Nicholas Nickleby and Peter Pan).
Blondel, the musical he wrote with Tim Rice, though one number reached the charts, was not quite a success. The Thatcherite certainties of Rice’s lyrics did not blend happily with Oliver angst. It was in opera that this composer found his most rewarding outlet.
Though occasionally he devised his own storyline (Il Giardino 1977, Exposition of a Picture 1986, and his version of Mozart’s L’Oca del Cairo 1991), usually the texts Oliver wrote, and set to music, were drawn from his dauntingly deep knowledge of literature: Webster, Dickens (Perseverance 1974), Beckett (Past Tense 1974), Fielding (Tom Jones 1976), Yeats (The Dreaming of the Bones 1979), Schnitzler (A Man of Feeling 1980), Ostrovsky (Sasha, 1984), de Beaumont (La Bella e la Bestia 1984), Mann (Mario ed il Mago 1988) and Shakespeare (Timon of Athens 1991). The theatrical effectiveness of these operas is perfectly judged. They enjoy naturalistic wordsetting, melody in tonal but contemporary idiom, and audacious orchestration, frequently using the marimba and a battery of other percussion instruments. The smaller scale works are particularly successful, the clarity and delicacy of chamber music bringing out the best in Oliver. Many of them use an uneasy, tentative 3/4 time to suggest the malaise of the principal characters. Though at ease with his homosexuality and not seeing himself as an outsider, the composer’s own feelings of (quite unjustified) inadequacy are put to good use in some of the best roles he created: the Beast, Cipolla and Timon. The need for friendship is a theme that runs through his work and he was the first to see that the hero’s relationship with Smike should be at the core of Nicholas Nickleby.
Oliver was the acknowledged star of the South Bank Show on the making of that great Royal Shakespeare Company success. The television public met for the first time the brilliant conversationalist and (occasionally) caustic wit. This was followed by Understanding Opera, the slightly didactic series he wrote and presented for BBC 2. He had dexterity with words both written and spoken. Singing translations of other men’s operas included Euridice, Orlando, Le Coq d’Or and The King Goes Forth. He would review a concert for the BBC in rhyming couplets and frequently have his listeners in stitches on Stop the Week. He was also an excellent actor. But the dazzling exterior hid a serious public spirited man who served on many committees including the boards of E.N.O. where he brought commission fees up to date, and the Performing Rights Society where he led the campaign to give lyricists parity with composers.
His Final Years
Privately he led an almost (but not quite) monk-like existence preferring to live undisturbed and alone, spending little on himself and, instead, redirecting his earnings to small struggling opera companies and a variety of charities. He had, in the fullest measure, the gift of unassailable friendship and was always ready with advice, help and, often, hard cash where it was needed. A typical act of sacrifice, despite his need of privacy for composing, was to give final home to a close friend dying of AIDS.
In the last year of his life before he was stricken by the same virus, he achieved an astounding compositional tour de force which included an oratorio (The Vessel 1990), new recitatives for the Glyndebourne Clemenza di Tito and two operas (Timon of Athens for E.NO. and L’Oca del Cairo for the Batignano Festival), all in 1991. He bore his last illness with exemplary courage and optimism and died at home, 29 April 1992. His ashes were scattered at his request in the olive grove of the ex-monastery of S. Croce, Batignano, Italy (see picture) where four of his works were first staged. He left the bulk of his estate in trust to further new operas.”