Obituary by Professor Alexander Goehr in The Independent, 28 November 1996
The formal analysis of music is a comparatively new discipline which certainly formed no part of the teaching syllabus of Oxford, where Puffett studied at New College and obtained First Class honours. His musical interests and loves were then and remained throughout his life the music of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, particularly Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Debussy, Ravel, Schrecker and Zemlinsky. His doctoral dissertation was on the work of the Swiss lieder composer Othmar Schoeck. While working as a college tutor in Oxford he wrote large numbers of reviews and articles for musical journals.
But it seems to have been only after 1984, when he was appointed to a University Lectureship at Cambridge and as Director of Studies at St John’s College that he found the inspiration and time to realise projects of his own. In his years in the Cambridge Faculty his main concern was to develop a coherent and comprehensive approach to the study of analytic method and its application to a wide repertoire. From this time on he produced a series of substantial studies on works of Schoenberg, Berg, Tippett, Stravinsky and Debussy as well as incomplete work on Wagner and Bruckner. He was a devoted and demanding teacher, often dissatisfied with his own and his students’ work, hard but fair. In fact he was just the calibre of teacher whose presence alone justifies the currently disputed special conditions accorded the ancient universities.
In all his work it is possible to discern a tension between the intellectual rigour and methodological clarity demanded by the discipline of formal analysis and the higher and more complex perceptions emanating from the actual experience of hearing (and loving) the music. The tension is exacerbated by the fact that the proliferating and entwining nature of the music he preferred is of itself not obviously suitable for formal investigation. I believe that we will come to see that a major contribution of both Puffett’s editorial and creative work lies in his struggle to push analytic method to cope with the vague and intractable in music. Crudely said, it will not do merely to appreciate music in words, nor to systematise it: the real problem is to combine the two approaches. This is hard to achieve and it is here that Puffett shows the way.
Puffett suffered from a form of severe muscular dystrophy which confined him to a chair all his life and made much of what musicians feed on, performing and concert- and opera-going, well nigh impossible. He disliked any mention of his disability and asked for no special consideration nor gave himself any. He was forced to give up his editorial work and teaching positions by the wasting nature of his illness. Typically he saw this as a last opportunity to do his own research and writing. As a scholar he improved up to the end; the depth and originality of his writing strengthened as his body weakened.
Obituary by Professor Anthony Pople in The Times,
11 December 1996
Puffett also edited the journal Music Analysis for eight years and organised one of the earliest and most successful conferences on the subject to be held in this country. Although at Cambridge his teaching built on the work of Alexander Goehr and others, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that in bringing his discipline to the two great universities Puffett was for much of the time working almost single-handed. This was a remarkable feat, given the opposition he met with from certain quarters, and reflected the determination in his character that was evident even at the very end of his life.
Born and raised in Oxford, Derrick Robert Puffett took a First in music at New College in 1968. His DPhil thesis on the song cycles of Othmar Schoeck made a significant impact in the composer’s native Switzerland and was published there in 1982. In Britain, Puffett’s reputation went before him and he was appointed to a lectureship at Cambridge in 1984, where he was a Fellow of St John’s.
Here he was able to supervise a succession of gifted research students and to become a focal point for his colleagues through his editorial activities. Visitors to his rooms were assured of a warm welcome, closely followed by a grilling about their own work, which rapidly turned into an exhilarating tutorial.
Puffett suffered from a form of muscular dystrophy and was confined to a wheelchair from childhood. But his marriage in 1989 brought him the pleasures and fulfilments of a cultured family life. Although his retirement from the university in 1994 through ill-health deprived him greatly of the human contacts he relished, his wife Kathryn’s constant support allowed him to devote time and energy to his own writings. It was in these final years and in the face of increasing physical obstacles that Puffett produced his finest work.
Puffett was never merely a specialist on the music of one composer, or the kind of musicologist whose work fails to draw on a breadth of knowledge from other fields such as European literature and philosophy. Together with his earlier books on Strauss, his last writings on Tippett, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Debussy and others capture insights which will in due course be seen as landmarks in the critical understanding of those composers and their works.
Although he had been among the first British scholars in the field of music analysis to recognise and adopt the methods of the international music theory community, Puffett never allowed his formidable intellect to be seduced by mere theoretical rigour. On the contrary, in his writings and no less in his conversation, theory and method were placed at the service of intense and sustained observation, motivated by nothing other than a love of the music itself. It was above all in showing how a truly extraordinary level of rigour could inform the empirical aspect of technical commentary on music that Puffett was a lasting inspiration to his students and colleagues alike.
Obituaries by Dr Daniel Chua and Dr Malcolm Schofield in The Eagle, an annual publication of St John’s College’, Cambridge
Derrick Puffett was a pioneer among British musicologists. He was among the first to adopt the formalist approach of the music theory centred at Yale University, developing it, along with colleagues at Kings College London, to establish music analysis as an essential discipline within the university curriculum in Britain. By the 1980s, music analysis was ‘all the talk’ (if not ‘the rave’) of musicology. This was quite an achievement, given the opposition that Derrick often witnessed, even in his own universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It is a credit to his commitment and charisma that he managed to raise the profile of the discipline in the two universities, almost single-handedly, inspiring many undergraduates and graduates to the subject. It was both his passion for music and the rigour of his analytical approach that attracted them to him.
Supervisions with Derrick were always incisive; his sharp wit and his keen eye for errors made them something of a challenge. He was both a goad and a guide. Sometimes the strength of his opinion was devastating, but it was never something that could not be made up over a meal or at one of his end of year champagne and ice cream parties. He simply wanted the best for his students ‒ which is why, I suppose, he fed us with Möet et Chandon and Häagen Dazs.
The strength of his opinions, however, was balanced by an open mindedness when it came to the editing of the internationally influential journal Music Analysis. He opened it up to new ideas, which he did not necessarily agree with; but which needed an airing, and Derrick wanted to maintain the impetus of the discipline. It is perhaps to his credit that the recent criticism of formalist analysis by the so-called ‘new musicology’ was already inherent in the journal. Of course, he was not going to let formalism lose hands down; his counter-offensive, in the editorial of the journal (Vol 13 No. 1), will probably be remembered as one of the most significant contributions to the debate. But it can never be said that he was narrow or hard-line in his approach ‒ his publications and translations attest to the diversity of his interests. His polemics were not simply directed at new-fangled ideas but at old-fashioned notions too; the task at hand was always to gain a critical and a musical understanding of composers and their music.
Derrick’s final period of illness was one of the most productive of his life, thanks not least to Kathryn’s constant care and support. The articles he completed during this time on Beethoven, Debussy, Berg, Webern and Stravinsky will undoubtedly not only be recognised as some of his finest work, but will establish him as one of the great writers on Western music of our time.
I became general Admissions Tutor for three years in 1985, and in this role was viewed with some suspicion by Derrick, as I attempted to thread my way between the often conflicting viewpoints of the Organist, the Tutors and the Director of Studies in Music on the occasion of the annual competition for Choral and Organ Students. I remember anticipating a particularly robust discussion with him the year that the famous boy treble Aled Jones applied (voice now broken) for a place in the tenor line-up. The candidate’s academic record was not of the strongest. But when I entered Derrick’s room I found his face wreathed in smiles. He said he had just enjoyed half an hour’s talk with about the most musical person he had ever met in his life – and to my utter astonishment said that despite the low grades he was prepared to take him if George wanted him. The irony was that George decided that the voice (Welsh or not) was not ready.
Derrick was always hugely proud of his Fellowship of the College, and regretful that he could not contribute more. He served a brief term on the College Council, which he regarded as an important duty. In his later years he was unable to lunch or dine with the fellows, and I no longer had Tutorial business to discuss with him. But if I saw him sitting at his desk in D2 Chapel Court I would sometimes drop in for a chat. The last time I ever spoke to him was one such occasion last summer. We talked for over half an hour, mostly about the future of music teaching in the College, for which he was deeply concerned. He would have been delighted to know that the Council has elected a newly appointed Lecturer in the Faculty to be Fellow and Director of Studies. Derrick was himself utterly unique and irreplaceable.
Obituary by Sir David Lumsden in the New College Record, Oxford, 1996
It is not often that anyone’s Entrance papers are remembered thirty years later, but I vividly recall his essay (in fact, a mini-analysis written from memory) of Britten’s War Requiem, which had at that time only recently been broadcast for the first time. Derrick’s phenomenal memory, his razor-sharp appraisal and balanced judgements, his clear-headed analysis combined with a fluent and telling prose made a lasting impression; he was one of those rare candidates who select themselves. He went on to take an effortless First in 1968, followed by a D Phil in 1977. A Research Fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford, was succeeded by a Lectureship in the Faculty of Music at Cambridge together with a Fellowship at St John’s. All these qualities he developed and honed to the highest possible level, enriching his own students and his readers, not least in the period of his editorship of the influential journal Music Analysis (1987‒95). He revelled in argument but always with tact, good humour and sensibility to the feelings and hang-ups of others, however much he might disagree with them. He had infinite time for his friends, many of whom testify to the strength of the relationship and the inestimable help and brilliant insights he could often offer in difficult situations.
Derrick Puffett’s physical state deteriorated to the point where he felt obliged to resign his university lectureship in 1994, but he remained a fellow of St John’s. His life was characterised by extremes ‒ of physical suffering, of musical passion, of loyalty and support from his family and friends, commitment to his art and to his students, of insight, of rigour and, above all, courage. As Robert Pascall has so sensitively written: ‘That he decided, carefully and courageously, it was now time to go, was, in an inalienably tragic and mysterious way, a triumph also.’
Obituary by Professor Robert Pascall for Memorial Service at St John’s College, Cambridge, 1 March 1997
He was born in Oxford; muscular dystrophy wrought its havoc early, and from the age of six on he spent his life in a wheelchair. He studied music at New College Oxford (First-class hons 1968, DPhil 1977), was Research Fellow at Wolfson College 1973‒84, Lecturer at Cambridge and Fellow of St John’s College from 1984, retiring most reluctantly from the lectureship in 1994 as his physical state deteriorated further, but retaining his fellowship until his death.
He took over the editorship of the young but already internationally influential journal Music Analysis in 1987, building on the pioneering work of its founder, consolidating its position at the cutting-edge of the subject, and broadening its scope. He was not given to editorials, but the warning shot he fired across the bows of New Musicology in Vol. 13 No. 1 is a spectacular example of his incisive and sure judgement in miniature: ‘Sometimes one suspects that the excitement generated by the “new” writing is no more than intoxication brought on by a heavy dose of adjectives and adverbs [...] there is no less need for precision, or exactitude, in analysis than there was before, for all the fancy new vocabulary.’ He relinquished the editorial reins in 1995 to concentrate on original writing. His own chief interests in this regard were the music of Wagner, Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Debussy, among others. His doctoral work had been an important study of the songs of the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, later published in Switzerland. He also translated from German (with his friend Alfred Clayton), particularly writings by Carl Dahlhaus, and Heinrich Schenker’s major text on Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony (from Das Meisterwerk in der Musik): this is yet to appear, but will undoubtedly have very considerable importance for English-speaking analysts.
He combined love of intellectual argument with acute sensibility for music, and his interest in analytical theory was characteristically harnessed to practical purposes. In this sense he overcame theory by applying and, where necessary, modifying it. The late articles, particularly those completed since retirement, on Beethoven, Debussy, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, show an extraordinary depth of analytical penetration and resultant insight, presented with a compelling sureness and lightness of touch. As these and his other writings become more widely known, he will surely be recognised as one of the greatest thinkers and writers on music of our time.
Derrick belonged to the first generation of teachers of music analysis convinced of the enrichment which continental methodologies could offer. At Oxford he formed a graduate analysis seminar, at Cambridge raised the profile of the subject in undergraduate and postgraduate studies; this was part of his mission that everyone should taste the joys of understanding music better. His teaching was incisive, challenging, and notably successful: a number of his pupils currently hold chairs of music in this country. And he was generous with his time in advising friends and colleagues; this advice was always clear, honest, helpful and insightful. One knew better what one had done when Derrick had given his reaction.
After his marriage to the musicologist Kathryn Bailey in 1989, he was able to enjoy entertaining his friends more often, and it was always a pleasure to spend a weekend in their loving home, Derrick exercising his incisive intellect on musical topics (the defining characteristics of expressionism, the necessity for learning harmony and counterpoint are two that stick in the mind), and letting loose his caustic wit on perceived follies. He triumphed over his extraordinarily incapacitating disabilities, attending conferences, operas, concerts, enjoying his circle of close friends. He was a lovely man, easy, exciting and deeply enriching to know. That he decided, carefully and courageously, that it was now time to go, was, in an inalienably tragic and mysterious way, a triumph also.
Excerpt from a book review by Mr Hugh Wood in The Times Literary Supplement, November 1997
Of much greater stature, however, is Puffett’s contribution to the Berg Companion [Cambridge University Press, 1997], a perceptive study of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces op 6, which is simply the best analytical article I have ever read. Instead of trying in any way to describe or paraphrase it, a quotation will bring back a much-missed tone of voice. This is actually a footnote:
The Praeludium is very hard to grasp aurally. For one thing, it is almost impossible to ‘hear’ the chords, apart from the odd triadic seventh-chord formation onto which the ear gratefully latches. Vertically, for the most part, I can’t hear it at all, and I doubt if Berg could. Playing through it note by note on the piano helps. The proliferation of motives/lines from around bar 34 to the climax is quite overwhelming. The ear can’t possibly take it all in ... I made a reduction of the score, to help. ...This passage ‒ diffident, practical, painfully honest ‒ brings the man himself vividly back. I recognize and salute a real musician; I mourn the death of a great man, and of a friend.