John Simon grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. He trained as an economist and moved to the UK in 1965. He studied musical composition part-time for four years in London, where his composition teachers included James Patten (Trinity College of Music) and John Lambert (Royal College of Music). In order to earn a living he entered teaching, becoming Head of Music at the Bishop Ramsay Church of England School in Ruislip in the London Borough of Hillingdon, where he remained for four years. This was a prosperous period for music in English schools and he was able to build a successful school orchestra and ran two choirs. While working in Hillingdon, some of his early compositions received performances at school and borough concerts.
In 1979 he returned to South Africa at the height of grand apartheid and taught music on the Cape Flats, a predominantly ‘coloured’ area of Cape Town, while at the same time keeping up his creative work as a composer. His opposition to apartheid led him to write a number of radical pieces that responded to the events of the time, which made him many enemies both within and outside music. As a consequence his work was largely ignored, some of it banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to him in 1987 saying this was a backhand compliment of sorts, it strengthened his resolve to carry on composing. The first ‘struggle’ piece, Threnody 1 (subtitled ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’), written in 1980 and scored for string orchestra in thirteen parts, was his response to the fatal shooting of a fifteen-year-old boy from an unmarked police vehicle in Cape Town. It had to wait until 1992 to receive its first performance. Threnody 2 (originally subtitled ‘Steve Biko in Heaven’) for strings, clarinet and timpani, composed in 1981 and dedicated to the memory of Steve Biko, was under embargo at the SABC until 1993 (it was the first piece of serious music to use the national anthem to be ’Nkosi Sikele’ iAfrika as a theme). It has since been widely performed and broadcast, inter alia at the Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. His large-scale Requiem for Orchestra (originally entitled ‘Requiem of 1984’), a work in which the Latin words of the mass are ‘sung’ by instruments rather than by voices, received its BBC premiere and first performances under Edward Downes, the work having been commended by Simon Rattle (‘Not only is it extremely professionally and intelligently written, but also deeply felt. One hopes that the predictions of the music do not come true.’). It has since received many performances and broadcasts. Another work in this series of musical responses to apartheid was the pentagonal Violin Concerto, composed between 1981 and 1990, dedicated to the victims of Sharpeville and premiered by the BBC in 1992. A further ‘struggle’ piece was completed in 1989 -the symphonic suite Children of the Sun (Los Hijos del Sol), a musical depiction of the conquest of the Incan Empire by the Spanish. Here the dark colours of the earlier works give way to lighter shades and a wider variety of thematic ideas. All of these compositions make use of the opposing elements of serialism and tonality, which ensures their contemporary freshness.
John Simon has written two Piano Concertos. His Piano Concerto No 1 is a bravura piece using the dual elements of serialism and tonality. It evolved through four versions written between 1969 and 2003. The third draft was accepted by the BBC for a premiere in 1991, but the composer withheld it, rewriting it once more before it was finally performed in 2004. Although the structure and orchestration changed over the years, the original piano part underwent few changes. His Piano Concerto No 2, composed between 1977 and 1979, is a tonal piece in popular contemporary style and was written to appeal to a broad audience. It has received a number of performances and broadcasts.
The composer’s largest work, his Symphony of 1993-1997, has as its unifying theme the continent of Africa, with its all its vibrancy and rhythm. The work’s four movements have all been performed a number of times, although the work has never been played as a whole, perhaps because of the excessive demands it makes on players. It represented a return to full tonality and is unusual in that three of its four movements are in fast tempi.
John Simon until recently wrote poetry. A variety of his poems have been published in poetry magazines in South Africa and the UK. Not surprisingly, vocal music is important for him. His orchestral/ensemble song cycle for soprano, Portrait of Emily, settings of five of Emily Dickinson’s poems framed by an orchestral prologue and epilogue, has been broadcast frequently. Other vocal settings include poems by John Masefield, Wilfred Owen, Byron and Shelley. He has written three a cappella choral works, one a setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (composed 1983), the second a setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Justus quidem tu es, Domine (composed 2011 and premiered by the BBC Singers), and Venice the Beautiful (composed 2014), a setting of one of his own poems.
His chamber output consists largely of works for solo instruments with piano. Most of these pieces have received performances in the United Kingdom, the most significant being his Wind Quintet of 1973, frequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and his String Quartet of 2011.
His extensive output for solo piano includes five piano sonatas and a number of virtuoso concert solos.
After his work on the Cape Flats came to an end in 1996 he spent most of his time teaching and composing in the UK, visiting South Africa between 2003 and 2005 to take up the posts of Composer-in-Residence to the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (the first such appointment in South Africa) and lecturer in orchestration at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Music in Durban. He was charged with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra’s ‘New Music Initiative’ whose aim was to bring orchestral skills to KwaZulu-Natal-based composers and arrangers who came mainly from choral and vocal backgrounds.
In 2004 he was commissioned to orchestrate the Zulu cantata Zizi Lethu! (‘Our Hope!’), written by Phelelani Mnomiya, a leading South African composer of choral music. This orchestral realisation, which he completed with the help of the late Christopher James, was featured as the main work in the ‘Ten Years of Democracy’ concert at the Barbican in London in November 2004, performed by two major South African choirs with soloists and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth. The cantata was performed elsewhere in Europe, and led him to write an orchestral piece entitled Dance to Freedom, which uses some of the freedom songs as themes. This piece was premiered at the Cape Town International Festival in November 2007.
Other more recent orchestral works include the mystical A Peal of Bells for D.B.Cooper for strings, tubular bells and celesta (2006-2010), premiered by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra under Owain Arwel Hughes; a symphonic suite around the legend of Tristan and Isolde entitled Fanfares for Tristan (2010-2011), premiered by the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra; and an anti-war composition called A Cry from a World Aflame for strings, trumpets and percussion (2009-2010) premiered in 2015 by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds. This work depicts a world where conflict and war are ever-present factors and where there are many losers -combatants, civilians and children. Another recent orchestral work is the entertainment piece Seeing Stars (2015-16), premiered by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Bernhard Gueller.
In 2011 his Late Gothic Overture was the winning composition in a competition organised by the South African National Youth Orchestra (submission of works made on a strictly anonymous basis!).
In 2018 his Coquette for solo flute was chosen to represent South Africa at the ISCM’s World Music Days in Beijing.
His most recent orchestral work is a Fugal Fantasia for strings harp and tam-tam (2018-2022). It consists of a prelude, double fugue and postlude based on a familiar air by Purcell.