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Peter Crossley-Holland

Professor of Ethnomusicology, Emeritus

Los Angeles



Peter Crossley-Holland, famous internationally as an ethnomusicologist, composer, and teacher, has died. On April 27, 2001, he was stricken with a heart attack while walking down a street in London on his way to a bookstore. Peter was 85 years of age. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Nicole Crossley-Holland and two adult children, Kevin and Zara.


I am writing these lines for my dear friend and teacher whom I have known for the past 35 years. Peter and I shared many interests. I think what drew us together from our first meeting was our interest in and affection for India. Problems with musical composition, too, were a frequent topic of our discussions.


In 1969, when Peter arrived at UCLA, I was already working on a doctorate with my focus on Hindu religious music. As I had already known Peter previously, this was a wonderful stroke of luck for me. I could not have wished for a more ideal teacher as a guide and inspiration. In his teaching as well as composing and scholarly writing, Peter was meticulously thorough. No seemingly insignificant detail escaped his scrutiny and thoughtful consideration, and each lecture was packed with inspiring ideas and authoritative information. Peter was born in London, England, on January 28, 1916. His mother sang in choral groups, and his father played organ. Peter began taking piano lessons at age 6. While studying piano, he also studied violin. At age 17, he seriously considered a career as a concert pianist. From 1934 to 1939, Peter studied piano at the Royal College of Music. In 1937, he began studying composition with John Ireland and eventually won a scholarship in the subject. Peter received the Bachelor of Music degree at Oxford with emphases in history, theory, and composition. After World War II, he became Music Programme Director for the BBC Third Programme. During his 15 years at the BBC, he broadcast non-Western music, especially Asian. It was during this period that he began researching Tibetan and Indian music. The 5th Edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954) contains Peter’s article on Tibetan music. He contributed 10 chapters on non-Western music in the Pelican History of Music (1960). In 1962, he made a research trip to India and Ladakh. In 1963, he left the BBC to accept a position in ethnomusicology at the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation in Berlin. After 3 years, Peter left Berlin and traveled to the U.S.A., where he taught as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois (Urbana) and the University of Hawaii. He taught at UCLA from 1969 until his retirement in 1983.


Peter began composing as a child. Robert Stevenson lists 92 performed compositions (some published) in UCLA's Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology, Volume IV: Essays in Honour of Peter Crossley-Holland on his Sixty-Fifth Birthday (1983). Stevenson arranged Peter's works chronologically into four groups: 1933-1937 (14 works), 1938-1943 (15), 1943-1947 (16), and 1948-1960 (49). Since the publication of this Festschrift in 1983, 16 works were completed and performed.


Nazir Jairazbhoy, in his introduction to the Festschrift, wrote of Peter's work in ethnomusicology as stemming from his creative work as a composer. Unlike some composers, however, he seems to have been motivated more by the spiritual content of the music he heard than by its sounds alone. I believe what drew him to Asian cultures, especially India, was his own reaching out to that which was mystical and spiritual – the most profound aspects of his interests in ethnomusicology. They also found expression in his own music. I think that is why his European research drew him to Celtic music and music of the Middle Ages.


I am familiar with some of Peter's compositions. I have always been impressed by his 20th century style of writing which, nonetheless, expresses an underlying mood that harkens back to an earlier time. "Ubi Caritas" (1995), an anthem for two sopranos, two altos, tenor, bass, and organ, is a modern treatment of the plainsong "Ubi Caritas" which he took from the Liber Usualis. Despite its modernity, the spirit of the plainsong and the period in which it was composed pervades the entire piece. The mood and spirit of the Middle Ages is expressed in many of Peter’s compositions. The Visions of Saint Godricö immediately comes to mind. I have not heard this piece in years, yet I am still haunted by the pervasive medieval religious mood which he sustains during the entire piece. Like Debussy and Bartok, Peter was involved with organizational procedures using the Fibonacci series. His Invocation at Midsummerö (1993) for solo recorder was written in its entirety using the Fibonacci series. It, too, expresses Peter’s profound religiosity. Indeed, a significant portion of his 253 printed writings about music focus on music in a religious context.


Over a period of some 60 years, Peter developed an important ethnomusicological archive. It includes books, journals, articles, extracts, and disc recordings of traditional musics of various cultures of the world. It reflects strong research interest in traditional forms of music among Celtic-speaking peoples and includes rare printed sources in this field. The catalogue of the archive consists of three volumes: I. (a) Folklore and Mythology, (b) Celtica; II. The World (other Celtica); and III. The World. The archive as it stands has considerable research potential, especially in the Celtic field.


In this writing, I have tried to give some idea of the length and breadth of Peter's important contributions to our world. His productivity as a scholar and writer and as a composer is remarkable for one man. I feel enriched by my association with him. I will always cherish those evenings we spent before the fire and the bottles of fine wine that accompanied the fabulous dinners prepared by his wife, Nicole.


Robert L. Simon