Darnton Christian

Christian Darnton


Christian Philip Christian Darnton was born near Leeds on 30th October 1905. The family had been ennobled to a Barony of the Holy Roman Empire in 1715 and were related to two families of peers: the Holdens and the Illingworths. Just before the First World War, his father, who had been born John Edward von Schunck, changed his name to Darnton. Although this certainly avoided anti-German sentiments, this was not the main reason as such, but rather more to simply comply with terms in John’s mother’s will.


The family was extremely well-off and Christian was educated at home by a governess until he was nine, when he began composing. Apparently he was not allowed to attend public school but spent four years at a minor prep school near Rottingdean, which he found fairly traumatic, his life up until that point having been particularly sheltered. The family travelled a great deal and the boy experienced the World Tour twice.


When he went to Gonville & Caius‘ College in 1924, his talent became obvious. An early interest in psychology, which was later to result in the translation of a volume by George Groddeck, may be seen in the titles of some of his compositions in the 1920s.


Darnton took no degree at Cambridge but in 1926 entered the Royal College of Music.

After a short while, he went abroad to Berlin, where he wrote several musical works, the most important of which was probably his first Violin Concerto. While in Baden-Baden, he met the painter Joan Bell, whom he was to marry the following year.


Returning from Berlin in January 1929, Darnton took a post at Stowe School as second music master, which he loathed, as it involved teaching children who had no interest or aptitude, as well as covering for his Head of Department who preferred to go out hunting. He left after only a term for a final visit to Berlin, where he found time to write.


During the 1930s, Darnton was especially active in trying to recruit fellow musicians for the Communist Party.  He seems to have been especially effective in this role, perhaps partly due to his attractive personality – Darnton has been described as `a blond giant’, characteristically noisy, extrovert and wealthy and, in his younger days, fashionably drove a Bugatti.


He was appointed Assistant Editor of ‘The Music Lover’ in 1932 and held the post for three years. He produced three Suites for piano, with his Piano Concerto being written in 1933. Then a Harp Concerto followed in 1934; although when it was first performed, the following year, it proved to be a disaster due to poorly prepared performances. 


He was secretary to the Hallis Concerts Society was founded in 1936 with the purpose of presenting an accessible series of concerts of little-known chamber music from all eras, but with a particular emphasis on contemporary works.


In November 1938, Darnton completed his Five Orchestral Pieces which along with his Five Pieces for String Quartet received their first and only performance in Warsaw on 14 April 1939.


Darnton’s music falls fairly easily into distinct periods, with his years of experiment and development running from about 1924-1940. During the Second War, Darnton busied himself writing music for documentary films but while serving in the Civil Defence he suffered an horrific fall, which resulted in partial paralysis and a considerable change of personality, since he was rarely free from pain thereafter. His Third Symphony was first performed at Glasgow in 1945.


For the next decade and a half or so, he was strongly influenced by his political adherence to Marxism-Leninism. He made the decision to write specifically for mass appeal. Principal works of this period include two cantatas Ballad of Freedom and Jet Pilot; the three-act opera Fantasy Fair with a Brechtian libretto by Randall Swingler; and a number of other socialist anthems, including a Stalingrad Overture, and an Epic for Orchestra on the death of Stalin. Yet Darnton’s style still more appealed to the intellect than to the emotions.


Darnton was the author of the handbook `You and Music’.                                                              


Darnton spent much of 1949 and 1950 engaged on Fantasy Fair which he was writing for the competition linked with the Festival of Britain in 1951. In the atmosphere of the cold war and opera that dealt with “the defeats and frustrations of life” did not attract popularity. Darnton was devastated and his output dwindled rapidly.


In 1956, after Krushev’s speech denouncing Stalin, Darnton now determined to reject Stalin’s ideals, yet he maintained to the end of his life that, nonetheless, the Soviet leader was a great man. His disillusionment left him unable to compose until he finally recovered his abilities in the 1970s.


He was to do little but travel the world during much of the 1960s and 1970s, during which period he wrote no music at all. His final musical work was completed at the age of 72 and was performed posthumously after Darnton died in 1981.





Sourced from:




· Fantasy Fair, a contemporary legend (opera, libretto: Randall Swingler), 1949-51. Unstaged, concert extracts only performed, London, 1953.


SONGS (voice & piano)

· The nun (Symons), 1924;

· The chosen people (Ewer), 1924;

· Les trois amis (C.Hallis), 1936, possibly perf. Sophie Wyss.



· Swansong (R.Nichols), 1935, five songs for soprano & orchestra; perf. May Blyth,

BBCSO cond. Lambert, London, 1938.

· Ballad of Freedom (cantata, R.Swingler), 1941-2, tenor, narrator, SATB, orchestra.

· Jet Pilot (cantata, R.Swingler), 1952; perf. Ian Glennie, Boyd Neel Orch., cond. E. Cundell, London, 1953.



· Concertino (piano, chamber orchestra), 1926; perf. Joseph Cooper, BBCSO, cond. A. Boult, London, 1927.

· Symphony No. 1: begun Murano Dec. 1929, completed London 1931; also arr. for piano duet, Dedicated “To my wife”.

· Viola concerto (viola, strings), 1933/5; perf. Bernard Shore, Lemare Orchestra cond. Iris Lemare, London, 1937.

· Piano concerto (piano, orchestra), 1933; perf. Adolph Hallis, BBCSO cond. Warwick Braithwaite, London, 1935.

· Harp concerto (harp, wind), 1934; perf. Maria Korchinska, cond. Ernest Ansermet, London, 1935.

· Suite concertante (violin, chamber orchestra), 1936; perf. Sascha Parnes, cond. Reginald Goodall, London, 1937.

· Five Orchestral Pieces, 1938; perf. Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. S. Chapple, Warsaw, 1939.

· Symphony No. 2 Anagram: c.1939-40, survives in three incomplete forms (piano, short score etc.). Judging by the score it would appear to have been performed at some time.

· Stalingrad (overture), 1943; perf. cond. Malcolm Sargent, London, 1943.

· Symphony No. 3 in D, 1944; perf. Scottish Symphony Orchestra cond. Warwick Braithwaite, Glasgow, 1945.

· Concerto for Orchestra, 1970-73; perf. BBCSO cond. Colin Davis, London, 1976.

· Symphony No. 4 (Twenty Minute Symphony, “Diabolus in musica“), 1975-78; perf. BBC Northern SO, cond. Edward Downes, Manchester, 1981.



· Sonata, 1925; perf. Adolph Hallis, London, 1927.

· Suite No. 1, 1930; perf. Helen Perkin, London, 1932.

· Duo concertante (2 pianos), 1933; perf. Adolph Hallis, Max Pirani, London, 1938.

· Sonata No. 2, 1944; poss. perf. Adolph Hallis.

· Capriccio, 1949; perf. Adolph Hallis, 1949.




· String Quartet no. 1, op.23: 1924-5; fp Kutcher Qt, Grotrian Hall, London, 30/3/27

· Octet (flute, clarinet, bassoon, cornet in A, violin, viola, cello, double bass), 1926-8 perf. members of the London Chamber Orchestra cond. Anthony Bernard, London,



· String Quartet no. 2, a.k.a. “String Quartet for Amateurs”: 1933.

· String Quartet no. 3, 1934; perf. String Quartet of Basel Chamber Orchestra, Basel,



· Five Pieces for String Quartet, 1938; perf. Warsaw (ISCM Festival), 1939 (?)

· Epic Suite (violin & piano), 1947; perf. London, 1948.


There is also music to a number of films (mostly documentary or propaganda) and some incidental music for Shakespeare plays for the Old Vic, Bristol.


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