History Hunt: Angela Morley

This week, we’re moving forward in the 20th century to meet a composer who not only wrote for numerous popular TV shows, but collaborated with some of the biggest names of the 20th and 21st centuries!

Angela Morley was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England on March 10, 1924. Her parents were both amateur musicians: her mother sang (her favourite song being “Big Lady Moon” by previously featured composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor) and her father played the banjo ukulele.

Morley loved music from the very beginning of her life. Before she could read, she learned to change the records on the family gramophone by recognising the colour of the label, and her earliest musical memory was sitting on the floor, surrounded by records.

When she was eight years old, her father bought a piano and her mother arranged for Morley to take piano lessons. However, after only three months, Morley had to stop her lessons when her father died suddenly and she and her mother moved away to live with Morley’s grandparents.

Over the next while, Morley tried out several different instruments. She spent a month learning to play the violin, but her grandfather disliked the instrument, and after he buttered her bow as a practical joke, Morley stopped playing. When she was eleven, she took accordion lessons and even won a few competitions with her performance. Unfortunately, a judge for one of these competitions told her mother there was “no future” in a career as an accordionist. (Morley)

Though the remark was both poorly chosen and untrue, Morley gave up the accordion and began clarinet lessons on a cheap clarinet that only partly worked. In spite of not being able to afford a better instrument, she was able to join the school orchestra. While in the orchestra, the mother of one of Morley’s fellow students bought her an alto sax–and that was where things changed.

Morley started playing with a semi-professional dance band; by the time she was fifteen, she had quit school and was earning her living playing the alto sax. It wasn’t much money, but at least she was doing what she loved.

Soon after, World War II began, and that turned out to be a blessing in a very large disguise for Morley. During this time, many musicians were being drafted to fight in the war. Morley, however, was too young for the draft and by this time was skilled enough to easily replace any holes in a band’s lineup. She played all over England until, when she was seventeen, she joined the extremely successful Oscar Rabin Band as their lead alto saxophonist. She also began earning money by arranging music.

Three years later, Morley went from one highly popular band to another: The Geraldo Band. It was here that Morley’s arranging skills blossomed. The Geraldo Band played in all sorts of styles for BBC Radio, which forced Morley to stretch herself to accommodate the demands of radio.

With such high expectations of her, Morley began studying composition with Mátyás Seiber, a Hungarian composer. She also studied conducting with Walter Goehr. After all, since she was working with live musicians, it made sense for her to learn to conduct them.

By the time she was twenty-six, Morley had decided to stop performing so she could better concentrate on her composing and arrangements. Unlike many new composers, Morley had work right from the start. Within two years, she started ghost-writing film music; a year after that she became the music director of Phillips Records’ new UK branch. She began writing film music under her own name, and worked on not one, but two of the most popular shows of the 1950s: The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour! When she was ask to compose Hancock’s Half Hour‘s theme, she made it match the personality of the host–without ever having met him! She also worked with many of the great artists of the 50s, including Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Bassey, Mel Tormé, and Dusty Springfield.

In 1960, Morley had decided against working any more with film music. While recording technology had advanced tremendously during this time, film music in England, at least, had yet to take advantage of it. The sound quality of the music produced was so bad that Morley couldn’t stand working with it!

She changed her mind later in the decade and did her best to break back into the film industry. It took her until 1969, but in the end, she succeeded, writing scores for classics such as The Little Prince and Watership Down, the first of which earned her an Academy Award nomination!

1972 was a very important year for Morley. When she was born, her parents had assumed she was a boy and had given her a male name. However, they had made a mistake. Now, with the support of her wife, Christine, Morley was able to correct this mistake with gender confirmation surgery–sometimes incorrectly called “sex change surgery.”

While life these days can be very difficult for trans people, in the 1970s, there was even more prejudice among the general public. When Morley returned to the music community after a hiatus, she received a wide variety of reactions. Some were positive: when she went to retire from her current conducting position because she assumed she would no longer be welcome, one of her fellow musicians, Johnny Franz, convinced her to stay. Morley’s wife also remained married to her for the rest of their lives.

Some reactions, however, were negative. Many people were extremely rude and prejudiced against Morley and chose to be cruel. But Morley outlasted their ignorance and resumed her career. She continued to compose and, after moving to California, went on to collaborate with other composers–such as John Williams on Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back!

For the rest of her life, Morley continued to compose for important TV shows and movies, conducted, and collaborated with other composers. She worked on E.T., Dallas, Wonder Woman, and Home Alone, to name a few of her credits. She also wrote arrangements for famous musicians such as Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman and gave lectures on writing music for movies at the University of Southern California. And, thankfully, shereceived recognition for her work: she was nominated for six Emmys for her compositions and two Academy Awards overall, and won three Emmys for her arrangements.

Below is Morley’s “Rotten Row,” named after the location in Hyde Park where people historically went horse-riding. It sounds like the perfect song to listen to while on horseback!

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To Learn More (Sources):
*Important note: Most of the sources discussing Morley involve misgendering, transphobia, or both. Exceptions are “A Profile of Angela Morley” and the autobiography on Morley’s site. Please tread carefully.

Angela Morley: Career Autobiography on Angela Morley’s official site
A Profile of Angela Morley, excerpt from a longer BBC programme on light music
Angela Morley at The Guardian
Angela Morley at The Telegraph
Angela Morley: Composer and arranger who worked with Scott Walker and scored ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ at The Independent
Angela Morley at AllMusic.com
Angela Morley at Wikipedia.org

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